Honest Fellowship Application

If it’s true, is it less persuasive?

I had a fellowship at this esteemed place once, for two lovely months. I said I needed three months there, and really, I know in retrospect (and even then I knew) I really needed six months or a full year, to be honest. I didn’t think anybody was going to give me even six, though, because I knew there were things in the library I should see, but I wasn’t in a position to know just many things, or what I’d even do with them when I got to see them, or how long it would take me to even just read them, or figure out what they even mean. And frankly, it was the correct decision I guess to ask for three, since the committee did not even award me three. I know that the decision to grant two months of funding had something to do with other worthy applications and did not necessarily mean they had determined I did not actually need three months of funding.

What two months instead of three months meant, however, is that my university did not agree to give me leave time with pay, for somewhat complicated and banal reasons I could not take the fellowship months in July and August, which my university believed I should do; one of them was that I received a one-month fellowship to use archives in another library across the country that I couldn’t take until July, so in July I was another state. I couldn’t do the two months of fellowship at the other library without cutting into a month of a semester with teaching. And so in order to take the two fellowship months, I took an unpaid leave. This meant not only losing my salary for three months (which, like most faculty, I take in deposits over 6 months); it also meant losing health care coverage for half the year.

I don’t know how much money I lost that semester, though I certainly could add things up. The three months of fellowships at two libraries amounted to $7500 before taxes. This was my income for the same six months that I’d pay over $800 each month for COBRA coverage, and of course, for three of those months, I’d pay rent (between $800 and $1100 per month) in the cities where the libraries were located as well as my share of the mortgage (then about $1225 per month).

Because I needed to teach an online course in the January term to help offset costs, some of the time I was on fellowship was spent designing that course and submitting forms to a committee to approve the course. So I was not teaching or working at my university or being paid by it, but I was also, well, working on teaching at my university.

None of this is relevant to somebody giving me a fellowship now. But it is what happened the last time I got fellowships, and it informs how I understand applying to them. There’s part of me that knows this is the only way to complete a major project that requires learning from archival materials. There’s part of me that knows that learning from archival materials may also not be enough to complete a major project. And that’s where it is difficult to make the case that one needs to see them, especially after one has already seen them and yet somehow didn’t manage to finish the project that one got a fellowship to finish five years ago.

The truth is that seeing those documents was essential for understanding the subject I wanted to write about. But these same documents are not ones that people who study literature typically look at; again to be honest, I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at, or what the document I was looking at actually meant. Or, to be even more honest, what it even said.

The x-factor in any archival project is how long it will take to read a given document. The writing may be inscrutable for even the most familiar reader of 16th century hands. Or, as was the case for me, it was simply difficult because I had no formal training in reading it. Yes, there are fellowships to get that training. It’s always useful to remember that you first need a fellowship to make another fellowship useful.

In any case, the last time I had a fellowship, I did get a lot better at reading those hands, and I dutifully transcribed the ones I could and also took hundreds of pictures of the ones I couldn’t read well enough. I went back to the pictures later and was dismayed to find that I still couldn’t read them with any real efficiency, no matter how much I zoomed in or shared small pieces with better-reading friends.

Being able to read a document in full is essential for knowing whether anything within it is citable evidence. I often found that what I’d looked at during those two months was useful to me for getting a big picture sense of my subject matter; I also found several documents that I knew I would be drawing on in my book chapters over and over. But in order to be sure I’d seen enough, I had to send those documents back to storage with incomplete transcriptions. There were several bracketed portions in my transcriptions: […] [?] [not sure here, three words], and for each one, a photograph somewhere, though once I’d engaged in this process over the course of a few weeks, I realized I had not done enough to identify my brackets and the corresponding pictures, and had only a muddled recollection of what I did in my notes to indicate things like “being pretty sure but not certain” about words.

Before you go to an archive, you need to have a system worked out for how you will deal with these unknowns so that later, you can revisit them under better conditions. Some archive veterans know this. With three total months of library fellowships under my belt in over a decade having aPhd, I am not an archive veteran. I know how to use a snake and use a call slip, and I know I need a system, but even now I know that I’d find something in a document that I wouldn’t have accounted for in my system. And it would then be something that later, I’d realize, I don’t know what to do with.

I’m realizing that for people who work on research like I do — in tiny pockets out of a year, and rarely over consecutive days — there’s no way to remember enough, even with a system, even with notes. I’m also realizing that a book project where you know there’s something there that’s worth discussing, but that you don’t start with enough knowledge to know what it is, is not one that two months in a library can fix. What I need, in fact, is a year without teaching and administrative responsibilities. I now work 12 months a year, and the salary that comes from it has helped me recoup what I lost in the year I took three months of fellowship for six months without pay or employer-subsidized insurance coverage. But that means I don’t even have two or three months during the summer to visit a library on my own dime, even though I have the dimes to do it.

The honest application for that year would have to say an unfortunate truth: I don’t know exactly what you have that will help me anymore, even if I once had a list when I applied. I don’t know how long it will take me to read the things that would help. I don’t know what I will make of them, because I haven’t seen them or read them. I may not even know the most important things exist.

Just as honestly, it would have to say that the library is not just its holdings, though the holdings are crucial for historicist scholars who don’t have access to databases of state papers and transcribed early modern books that are essential to the study of the period. Just as importantly, the library is a place to learn and think amongst those resources, a place with other scholars, a place to not be beholden to email or meetings. And in that regard, how would my application say anything that wasn’t also true for everyone else?

I am sure that reasonable advisors would say that yes, this is the burden we all have: we must make the case for our work’s importance and root it in what the library owns. And of course, we all can do so with equal chances of success.

For me, an honest application would have to say that it’s taken me so long to learn things with this project that I’ve forgotten half of it already; that I don’t know in advance that this project will change the field, revolutionize what we know about x or y, and more unfortunately, that I don’t even know if the drama I started with is even that central to the subject. Because I haven’t had enough time to sit and just read the drama, which, not unlike the 16th century letters of commission and statutes I’d spent time reading, can be understudied or require much more outside reading — because it is itself sometimes quite difficult to understand.

I want to say that this, more than anything, is why I need a year of fellowship. Not because of what I know, but because there’s too much I don’t know. But the successful case must be made in a manner that will express confidence in the outcome. After not making good on the projections I made in my last fellowship applications, I have only a forlorn sense of my own failings, occasionally punctuated by a sense of being wronged by my institution and circumstances that were not anyone’s fault.

Coupled with that sense is one that acknowledges the worthiness of other people’s projects and my own privilege relative to those who do not have full time employment or have not had it for quite so long as I have had it. It is, of course, profoundly offensive to proclaim that having a tenure track job has been a blessing and curse: even if it has not been a “blessing,” it has meant a steady income––in fact, one so steady that I could take six whole months without pay at one point.

This is where I realize I am my own worst enemy, or that I need to step down from my current position and at least reclaim the 9 month appointment I used to have. Or both. Three months of summer (albeit one of which is one long Sunday) is probably as good as three months of library fellowships. But, I’m not sure if I can make that move anytime soon, however; accepting a role like the one I have comes with responsibilities that I would be dumping onto others at a time when those people have a lot going on. And as with making a case for a fellowship, the case I would make for returning would be rooted in a lot of uncertainty: I need to return so I can learn more about a subject that is fascinating to me, but also one that might not be something that a lengthy literary argument will require or even support. After ten years of admittedly diminishing memory, how would I even know? And of course, it would sound selfish. I want to know. Simply for the sake of knowing something edifying to me. Maybe to others too. But again, I’m not in a position to feel those convictions on behalf of a field and the longer it takes me, the less I even know what convictions like that feel like.

And so right now, that’s how I’d have to apply for a fellowship.

I made a very different case when I applied for one last year; then, I’d held out hope that I could present a three-month deal to my boss, promising that in 3 months, I’d return to the office able to continue as before, but in a much better emotional state about, and with greater progress on, the research I’d left behind when I took up the position.

I had found new materials in the library that seemed promising. I noted breezily that I needed to briefly revisit the materials that I had seen in my previous two months, glossing over the fact that my lack of experience before had meant that I’d done an earnest but bad job at using the archive. I also noted that what I found there had radically changed my understanding of my project, though I did not mention all the reasons that I have still not quite figured out how to present all the new things I learned. With the good advice from a friend, I also omitted any whiff of ambivalence about having recently chosen a role with a higher salary and significantly less (no) research time, knowing that my choices shouldn’t be a rationale for other people’s generosity.

Trying to root my needs in an objective account of the necessary resources didn’t work, though, and again, though I know the recipients who did get the awards were deserving, I don’t know, as time passes, if I will ever be able to present myself in that way.

I don’t pretend that an honest application would be persuasive; it doesn’t really even warrant sympathy let alone actual funding. It has been somewhat helpful for me to write this out, though almost immediately as I type this, I think to myself: “How many papers could I have graded during this time?”

And so that’s where I will leave this…I have three papers remaining, and I do know that unlike the things I haven’t finished, I do feel relief and accomplishment when I have returned work to students with some feedback. I know, too, that my comments may make some of them feel as badly as I felt when I did not receive a fellowship, or a fellowship for as many months as I had asked for. I give myself the same pep-talk that I give them: this feedback is hard, but it’s also how we get better at what we do, when what we do is learning, thinking, and writing. I also tell them that some of the problem is that they haven’t yet spent enough time doing the first two before sitting down to do the third. I know that’s my own problem too.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.