Celebrating Our Contributors #1

This March, we will publish a series of posts to showcase the work and celebrate the accomplishments of nine EHN contributors who graduated in the past year. This month marks one year since lockdowns started happening around the world, so it seems only fitting to mark that hard anniversary with a celebration of perseverance in the face of it. Every couple weeks we will feature three grads. So today, let’s toast Rachel Goldlust, Ximena Sevilla, and Alexandra Straub!

Dr. Rachel Goldlust

Graduated in July 2020,
PhD in History earned at La Trobe University.

Dissertation titled “Going Off Grid: A History of Power, Protest and the Environment, 1890-2016.”

Dr. Ximena Sevilla

Graduated in June 2020,
PhD in History earned at the University of Kansas.

Dissertation titled “On the Edge of the Wild: Representations of Peru’s Montaña Region and its Indigenous Peoples, an Enduring Frontier between the Andean and Amazonian Worlds.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your thesis/dissertation?
My dissertation explored the environmental history of the montaña region, one of the classic transition zones in modern history of Latin America located between the high Andes and lowland Amazonia. As an environment that stretches from Bolivia up to Venezuela, the montañanot only is the most biodiverse region in the world with a diversity of humans to match, but it also has a comparative transnational significance. I focused on Peru’s montañaregion, and the entangled relationships of Indigenous peoples and explorers with the region’s unique ecological conditions from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
Over the course of my research, it stood out the little attention by historians and social scientists about this montaña region. For at least four centuries, different kinds of sources extensively referred to this montaña; yet, there is not much written about the history of this region. I was able to find multiple views about the montaña by only touching the surface of the archives that I visited. Contrary to what I thought at the beginning of my project, the montaña was not ‘buried’ in the archives at all, it was rather too visible that it made me even more excited about my own project.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
My background in social sciences, my language training in quechua, and my experience doing fieldwork in this montaña were key components that helped me to frame my project by reflecting on my own experience as an outsider exploring this region. As a result, making sense of the sources illustrating Natives and non-Natives’ interactions with this environment became a less intimidating task because I was able to recognize and track down in the sources some of the places, rivers, and locales that I had already visited or at least heard of.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
This is a project that I felt it needed to be pursued by me, sure, but also by many other scholars. When it seemed almost impossible to finish this dissertation because the world was falling apart, I had to remind myself that my main motivation to study this region came from the afternoons that I spent talking (informally) with Indigenous leaders living in this montaña region who expressed their need to obtain legal proof of their ancestral and historical connections with the montaña. That has always been my drive to push through it, and of course it did not hurt that I had a job offer at the University of Rhode Island that I had also worked hard to get, and I was not going to let that opportunity go away. With a great support system of family, friends, and my mentors from the University of Kansas, I managed to set aside my fears and just get that dissertation done.

Dr. Alexandra Straub

Graduated in May 2020,
PhD in History earned at Temple University.

Dissertation titled “Making Pure Water: A History of Water Softening from Potash to Tide.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your thesis/dissertation?
My dissertation examines the history of hard water in America, and more specifically efforts aimed to remove hardness, or to soften water. Natural variation in the chemical makeup of water has been the bane of laundresses, homemakers, textile workers and mechanics alike interfering with any labor that relied on steam or soap. In the first part of the nineteenth century, water softening was largely the work of women who used simple techniques in the home. By the mid twentieth century, the requirements of industrial efficiency as well as new consumer technologies demanded fast, easy, and standard ways to soften water. This motivated manufactures to produce mechanical water softening systems and synthetic industrial chemicals which were eventually repackaged into household products. This transition meant the replacement of domestic technologies with industrial technologies; it transformed women from the producers of soft water to the consumers of commercial water-softening products; and the increasing intervention of industrial chemistry into water softening had significant environmental consequences. 

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
I was very surprised by the passionate hatred people in the past seemed to have towards hard water. Writing in 1880, a contributor to an agricultural periodical, The Ohio Farmer, said, “hard or broke water isn’t fit for a Christian woman to wash with anyway.” Another person wrote to the same magazine that “hard water is an abomination in the kitchen, laundry, or bath.” I found an advertisement for water analysis from the late 1880s that featured a giant red devil with horns, a beard, and flames around its head. The advertisement was a nod to the common rhetoric that called hard water evil in industrial settings. These were surprising to me because I have virtually no opinions about hard water, nor have I ever. But strong rhetoric like these examples really proved that hard water affected people greatly throughout history. I think these finds also stood out as I thought more and more about how people define water based on their personal interactions. Sources like these illuminated the notion that water is as much social as it is an environmental entity and this become a major theme in my dissertation. 

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
Since I was working on a topic that influenced a large group of different historical actors, I was able to incorporate many different and unique archives and sources into my work. To put together a complete picture of hard water, I relied on magazines and periodicals for women, personal diaries, industrial trade journals, magazine for mechanics and other industrial workers, corporate archives, personal papers, and government holdings. I was able to work with a lot of seemingly disparate archives and sources. At the same time, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the plethora of stories and potential avenues of which to use tell a story about water. Having such a rich selection of archival materials forced me to think a lot about how I was going to structure my narrative and this was at times a very difficult part of the process. I always had the feeling when I was writing that my topic was at once too narrow and too broad, so working through that was always a challenge.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
I had a strange experience of completing my degree, as I am sure many others did during this particular moment in history. I was set to defend my dissertation on March 16, 2020. A week before that, news of the spread of Covid-19 had put an in-person defense into question. A few days before, an in-person defense seemed impossible so I was set to defend on Zoom. And a few hours before my defense, the city of Philadelphia (where I lived) announced it would enact a strict two-week stay at home order. Going in to my defense (cut to me yelling “How do I start a Zoom meeting?”) I was a bit of a wreck. But I think seeing my committee, people who genuinely wanted to see me succeed and had supported me over the years, helped me to focus, put everything else out of my mind, and enable me to finish that final hurdle.

*Cover image: A feeling of hope. Artwork by EHN contributor Kate McNally.

[Cover image description: painting of a mountainous landscape in different shades of blue. Two trees leaning toward each other in the front, and a lake with mountains in the background.]