Erica Lee

Apprentice with Professor Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby (Art History)

Representation of Scale: What is it like to work closely with a faculty mentor on a book-in-progress project?

Let’s talk about the project you are currently working on.

Professor Grigsby is working on a book on representations of scale of four 19th century French structures: the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty. These colossal structures – the Eiffel Tower was the tallest tower, the Panama Canal was the deepest trench- symbolized Western feats of technological prowess. But immediately, and in the case of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty before the structures were finished, they were miniaturized in souvenirs. Many people know them through these souvenirs as opposed to the full-scale structures. During the construction of the Panama Canal and Suez Canal, the images of the work that circulated were not so much in hand-held miniatures or models, but in coins and stereoviews. Stereoviews are now obscure tools, but in the 19th century, they were an extremely popular form of entertainment; everyone had hand-held stereoviewers in their living rooms that would turn doubled photographic images (stereoviews) into three-dimensional projections. Some think of them as precursors to cinema. My research doesn’t necessarily go into all of that; I have been concentrating on theories of scale, and theories of model making. I previously studied architecture, so I have some background, a non-academic knowledge of these subjects.

So this perhaps helps you to narrow down where Professor Grigsby wants you to start your search?

Yes, I think it allowed me to structure my research on two very vast topics. Professor Grigsby is also analyzing structural drawings, architecturally technical drawings, and since I used to construct such drawings, I can read her analysis against my readings of the drawings.

What a great match!

Yes, it was. When we were speaking to the students at the CalSO tabling [Erica participated in an information tabling event for CalSO students], a lot of them asked me “How did you find a good project?” I told them that when I was looking at the list of projects, I didn’t look at my department first, I was just looking into the humanities and something that I would really want to work on. That is definitely one piece of advice that I would give to other students – you have to have a strong interest. I do think that this particular project would work poorly for someone who is not really interested in the topic. It is self-structured, and it requires you to have both an interest and a disciplined way of working. And if you do it right, it is so rewarding- if you find the right project, it doesn’t feel like work. I hope that Professor Grigsby was and is able to access some of my background knowledge, and at the same time, she has helped to bridge my previous professional architectural education with a more academic one. This project has offered an incredible education in research methods and the process of producing an idea, an argument, and ultimately a book.

I want us to talk a little bit about a typical day – what does your schedule look like?

At our first meeting Professor Grigsby outlined her materials, her arguments, and what she specifically wanted me to do. Now, at the end of each meeting, Professor Grigsby discusses what I am supposed to continue looking at. For instance, in our last meeting, it was images vs. models. She wanted to know how architects or engineers discuss the image of their work vs. the model of it. So that becomes my primary research trajectory for me. From that point, I go back to the big, big library, and I spend maybe half a day or so just looking for initial sources.

So you basically have the key terms, and you go to the library – it is that open.

Yes, and it’s been amazing, because I didn’t expect that. I have to say that looking back at my initial notes, I can see that I was much more conservative in the beginning in how I was reporting things to Professor Grigsby. I would quote directly more than anything, and try to screen my own ideas as to why it would be pertinent. I was really just trying to be a funnel from the library to her. And now I think she wants me to distill as much as possible, because it saves time for her, but also because I think she trusts that I have some understanding of what it is she is looking for or what is relevant. I didn’t expect to be able to contribute in that kind of way, so it’s been a real reward. After collecting and distilling the most pertinent articles, I usually send an email to Professor Grigsby with an annotated bibliography and some notes as to why think the sources might be interesting. At the next meeting, we usually go over the work that I did, and she decides the next route to take. Professor Grigsby is an incredible professor. She has made this project so accessible to me and, as much as she possibly can, collaborative, and it is really amazing. She has taught me so much about how to rigorously carry out this kind of research.

Is there anything else you would want students to know before they apply?

One thing that I find important is that students should be aware that they won’t communicate with the professor the same way they do in the classroom. You are no longer completing straightforward assignments for them. You have to learn to work without the immediate affirmation and out of your own motivation. And – this is not a task to do if you are already overextended.