Celebrating Our Contributors #2

Last year, we marked the first year of the pandemic by celebrating those members of the EHN community who, despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19, completed their degrees. As we near the end of yet another year of this global pandemic this March, we want to continue that tradition of celebrating our contributors’ brilliant work.

This month, 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 (see #1 here). Today, let’s toast to Carrie Alexander, Shelby Brewster, and Alice Would!

Dr. CARRIE ALEXANDER

Carrie Alexander

Graduated in June 2021,
PhD in History earned at

the University of California, Davis.

Dissertation titled:
“Buying Time: Negotiating
Boundaries of Delay in Property,
Taxation, and Crime in California,
1850-1860.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your thesis/dissertation?
My dissertation is called, “Buying Time”—a strategy we’re all familiar with, I’m sure. I studied how people manipulate a so-called virtue into a bargaining chip in order to survive, get ahead, or even commit violence and fraud with impunity. This story still holds true today. It starts out friendly enough. Someone asks you for a little more time to get their work done, or pay that $500 they owe you… they play on your compassion, they ask for a little grace. Do you give it to them? Maybe. But what if it’s the third time they’ve asked you, or they’ve been putting you off on repaying for the last month and a half, and now your own bills are due? When is it finally time to draw the line? Then imagine you’re living in a day and age when one of the key virtues for making it to the top was patience, so that if you said no and “rushed” the other person to pay you promptly, your social capital might actually go down instead of up. 

In the 1850s, Californians were faced with these sorts of gray-area, high-stakes judgment calls constantly, at scale, as tens of thousands of people from around the world converged and struggled to survive on the edge of a continent. In a time and place most known for its fast pace and rapid rise, the virtue of patience was used, misused, and renegotiated over and over again to “buy time” to gain legal or economic advantages. Californians wrestled with how far they would allow this virtue to be stretched, and what they would do when their patience finally snapped. If you are pondering current issues about how humans manipulate and negotiate creatively and sometimes desperately to get by, or if you are thinking about what societies do when their faith in government blows apart leading to moments like January 6th, this story offers an in-the-trenches, underbelly view of how, bit by bit, and then all at once, we decide who we are as a culture.

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?
The thing that changed the course of my dissertation and my career was when I discovered, by talking to a friend with a background in wildlife biology, that I could analyze the historical criminal records I had painstakingly pulled from 19th-century newspapers in the California State Library to track patterns statistically over time. From that point on, I was able to bring together everything I loved about slow, careful, nuanced historical research in archives, with new tools and skills for analyzing patterns using code to test and graph statistical correlations.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
Using statistics, and R, in a field not known for either, transformed my process. It opened up a language that allows me to “translate” my historical research into “languages”—numbers, statistics, coefficients—that scholars and people in science, economics, governance, and other fields can quickly read, understand, and integrate into policy. These methods are most powerful because they build bridges across disciplines, fields, and sectors so that my work becomes relevant in dozens of settings beyond what it could do if it were to remain locked in the field of history.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
Doing this degree I came to respect certain aspects of 19th-century American ideas about patience. The notion that you would need to endure through sometimes very difficult times, when everything is uncertain and no outcomes are guaranteed, or that results often don’t come quickly or easily, encouraged me to keep pushing, one day at a time. But it was my daughter who really kept me going. I do everything for her. 

Dr. SHELBY BREWSTER

Shelby Brewster

Graduated in May 2021,
PhD in History earned at

the University of Pittsburgh.

Dissertation titled:
“Planetary Praxes: Performing
Humanity under Ecological
Emergency.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your thesis/dissertation?
My dissertation theorizes new forms of human/nonhuman relationships developing in response to rapidly increasing disruptions of known and lived environmental norms. Through the interdisciplinary lens of performance, I examine a variety of practices—political protest, museum exhibitions, artistic production—which I argue have become sites for negotiating ecological relationships. I ask how these relationships form under the conditions of planetary emergency, including global warming, environmental racism, ocean acidification, the inequities of global capitalism, and biodiversity loss. These rapidly shifting ecological (and political) circumstances rework an extensive history of articulating humanity in relation (or in opposition) to nature. Ultimately, I argue that identifying and understanding these emerging ways of being, which I call planetary praxes, are imperative to forge a future of ecological justice.

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?
In researching early US natural history museums, I read about the debut of one of the first Brontosaurus skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1905. As a sort of publicity stunt, Henry Osborn, head of the museum’s paleontology division, invited several hundred of the city’s elite to view the display before it went on public view. The wives of the important politicians and businessmen served tea underneath the Brontosaurus’s rib cage. That image really stuck with me. (I read about it in Lukas Rieppel’s “Bringing Dinosaurs Back to Life: Exhibiting Prehistory at the American Museum of Natural History,” Isis 103, no. 3 (September 2012): 460-90.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
Other than reading a ton, I was fortunate to take some research trips prior to the pandemic, including to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s new fossil exhibit, the Museum of Capitalism‘s exhibit at the New School, and the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Desert Research Station in California. These experiences were really formative for my research.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
All of my scholarly communities, including EHN, “Academic Twitter,” the Pitt Grad Union, and my PhD cohort, were so supportive in the last stages of my degree. I’m so thankful for the many amazing people that I’ve come to know through my academic work and the many, many ways they’ve encouraged and helped me all during graduate school.

Dr. ALICE WOULD

Graduated in September 2021,
PhD in History earned at
Bristol University.

Dissertation titled:
“Taxidermy Time: Fleshing out the
Animals of British Taxidermy in
the Long Nineteenth Century,
1820-1914.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your thesis/dissertation?
My thesis tracked the flow of animal skins that supplied taxidermy production in the long nineteenth century in Britain and the British Empire. It explored the embodied, material creation of taxidermy – the meeting of animal and human skin – and revealed how taxidermy was a dynamic process. Taxidermy was intended to keep an animal skin secured and preserved for the future, and contemporary scholarship has similarly associated taxidermy with timelessness and perpetuity. Instead, my thesis argued that taxidermy was never something that could be entirely stilled, just as it could never be said to be fully completed. It explored the temporalities bound to the slowing and quickening of the skin and mount, of preservation, decay, return and repetition, and conceptualised an idea of taxidermy time. Focussing on the period between 1820 and 1914, each chapter explored a place and a process in the taxidermy journey: skinning in the colonial hunting field, preservation and transportation, taxidermy as a hand craft, the influence of Victorian exhibitions on taxidermic technique, and museum display.

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?
Something that surprised me was how integral insects became to this project. I might have set out to explore animal agency and liveliness in relation to hunted animals, and their remains, but I didn’t expect this dynamism to centre on such tiny critters. I kept coming across charismatic insects such as ‘bacon’ beetles and voracious clothes moths in sources on hunting grounds, ships, and museum spaces. These creatures played a key role in the destruction of skins and thereby in influencing human thoughts, fears, and actions. Their presence undermined the illusion that taxidermy was living and drew attention to the violence behind its production. For me, these insects provided a useful reminder that, when writing an environmental history, it is important to let the unexpected actors (and the primary sources) lead the way. I tried to offer these insects space in my thesis – to consider the role that minibeasts play in producing history within overarching narratives of colonialism, power, and extraction, and in creating multiple temporalities within the Anthropocene.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
My source material was the writings of (generally male) hunters, taxidermists, and curators. However, I didn’t want to give these patriarchal and colonialist figures the limelight, so I tried to read against the grain to discover the other stories and actors within these texts. In addition to this, I went on a taxidermy course, to try to get to grips with the sensory and embodied experiences of taxidermy and to really get a feel for the technique. This was important for learning about the smells and the noises that are integral to taxidermy, and for appreciating the strange interplay between animal body and human craft that produces a specimen. I also did a placement with Pest Partners, a fantastic museum conservation organisation, to gain experience of protecting specimens in the context of museum closures and COVID-19.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
I was lucky enough to have a close-knit group of friends at Bristol who were also finishing their PhDs around the same time, so this was very useful for making it seem like there could be an end in sight! My partner was also very encouraging and supplied me with endless support and cups of tea. At times it felt really weird to be writing about the creatures of the past when the present was so turbulent and all-consuming. I found it was helpful to write about Covid in my conclusion, in relation to a wider discussion of the Anthropocene and entangled human and animal times, to help make sense of this.  


*Cover image: Artwork (October 2021) by EHN contributor Kay Sohini.

[Cover image description: a scenic comic image of snow-capped mountains with few fluffy clouds illustrated as a backdrop. At the top, a text box reads “with every recollection, I lose more and more details, except for this one unflickering image that has remained distinct through the years—” Below, four smaller images detail a cartoon scene. The first shows two figures from behind, one with short hair wrapping their arm around a smaller figure with shoulder length hair and a text box that reads “My grandfather marveling at how the days seemed to have gotten shorter,” above it, a small translucent image of a palace fades into the larger mountain scene. The next box shows two bowls of food sitting on a table. The next box, two figures face each other leaning against a door frame that opens to a mountain view. The final cartoon box reads, “In that moment, we attributed the speediness of time to our brief respite from the daily demands of life and the joy it brought us.”]