A Song of Grants and Ire

[Author’s note: this is part 2 in “Raiders of the Lost Archive,” a Summer-long guide to first time archival work. Feel free to check out part 1. As always, comments are welcome, whether you think I’ve gotten something wrong, right, or missed entirely. This series is meant to help grad students and other first time archivists or traveling humanities researchers, so the more perspectives the better. Disclaimer: as the title implies, this will be a post of epic length. But unlike some Fantasy authors, I finish what I begin.]


So you’ve settled on a set of texts, documents, or objects that you’d like to spend some hands-on time with: congrats! You even know where these things are—great! But how to pay for getting and living there? In a moment, I’ll tell you my story, with all its frustrations and joys, but first, some thoughts. It’s worth considering the following: while the big shiny famous archives are considered large, refulgent, and renowned for good reason, you don’t necessarily have to go to another continent to find an outstanding archive. For instance, the Pierpont Morgan library in New York has some great medieval holdings, the Dumbarton Oaks library is the place to be for a Byzantinist, and, for reasons beyond my ken, Cornell has an amazing collection of Icelandic print books. The Newberry in Chicago is rightfully renowned, and the Ellesmere MS of Chaucer is in the Huntington in CA.

Lilly Library

[The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington]

Sometimes, you don’t even need to leave your state/region—for example, if you live in the Midwest, Indiana University’s Lilly Library is one of the region’s best kept secrets (right after Cincinnati-style chili and saying ‘sorry’ excessively). Home to nearly half a million rare print books (including 99/100 of the Grolier 100) and about 8.5 million pieces of manuscript, you can see everything from real life Oscars to the First Folio of Shakespeare, from miniature books to hundreds of medieval manuscripts, from the manuscripts and drafts of Kurt Vonnegut to those of Sylvia Plath and Orson Welles. And all you need is a photo ID! Okay, plug over (I work there and love it). You can check it out here if you’re interested. And even if you’re looking to do work elsewhere, keep in mind that your local rare book library might be a great place to practice handling rare books and hone your expertise.


No Poke

[Pictured: You, not catching ’em all, in part, because Pokemon Go! is kinda dated at this point.]

Okay,  back to funding. As the title of this post suggests, grants are elusive creatures, and vexing to obtain. Applications involve a lot of thoughtful essay writing, letter of rec obtaining, and paperwork. Try as you might, you will not catch ’em all. In fact, if my experience is representative, you probably won’t catch ’em most. Learning to be okay with that is key. In some ways, applying for grants means putting your future on hold. Will you be abroad in a year or should you look for housing in your city/town again? <<< Stuff like that can get frustrating as you apply to grants.

My grant funding story begins with the naive dreams inside a much younger Stephen’s much fuller head of hair (net trend seems to be ‘more knowledge = less hair’…). During my prospective campus visit to IU, I had an influential conversation with a senior faculty member, who urged me to strive for a Fulbright to Iceland. It sounded good to me, so I sailed merrily onward through my first couple of years in grad school assuming that this would just somehow happen. In case you don’t know, the Fulbright is a substantial grant from the US State Dept. intended for year-long study in another country, where you, bright and kind person that you are, represent your country abroad. (https://us.fulbrightonline.org/) As an added bonus, this sort of prestigious grant looks killer on one’s CV. So I figured ‘why not?’



[On left: what you think grant writing looks like. On right: what it feels like. Bottom: what it looks like to everyone else.]

Reality reared its horrid head a few years later, when I attended a Fulbright Info Session sponsored by IU’s Grad Grants Center (which I didn’t know was a thing). Tip #1: look for any office(s) on your campus that specialize in research funding and grant writing (many schools have them! And if yours doesn’t, many schools’ grant databases are searchable to outsiders). At the info session, I learned a thing you probably already know: Fulbrights are competitive. Like fiercely so. The Fulbright actually keeps tables of application info that you can look up here. Notice that England regularly has nearly a thousand applicants for about 50 grants! That’s a long shot. In Denmark and Iceland, your odds are better (about 1:4 or 1:5 on any given year lately). Maybe strategize accordingly? I spent much of my Ph.D. qual exam summer working on my Fulbright application every single night. The bad news is that this process of chronic overwork cost me several horcruces; the good news: constantly revising summaries of my project also helped me frame my dissertation’s argument in a way understandable to outsiders and made writing my prospectus much easier. So, grant money or no, the application was a very helpful, if hard, process.

Now, I cannot tell you how many hundreds of hours I spent doing preliminary research, much of it inefficiently. To spare you the same ordeal, here’s a faster approach:

1) Decide which country you are applying to. The Fulbright website’s main page has a page for every country under the heading ‘countries’. Most of these pages are super informative, telling you the basic info you need to apply for their grant(s). It can also help you decide if you’re torn between several.

2) Harness the power of Google to see whether your chosen country has its own Fulbright Website. Denmark happened to, and it was great about helping me navigate all the red tape that comes with long-term living abroad (http://wemakeithappen.dk/en/fulbright-commission/).

3) Harness Google harder to find Fulbright application samples. Remember a minute ago when I mentioned Grad Grant Centers on university campuses? Sometimes they post their samples/examples. These are worth their weight in gold to you (assuming you print them on paper. I’m not sure if this hyperbole holds if you print on denser non-traditional material). Don’t be afraid to model your first draft on someone else’s successful example. You’ll want to hone it and make it your own as you revise, but that first draft is a beast to write. The ‘Statement of Project’ is particularly hard (cram your whole research project, dissertation/project overview, specific plan while abroad, projected budget, and the phrase ‘mutual understanding’ into one single spaced page, front and back…). The Personal Statement can also be tricky– how personal is too personal? How to balance a colloquial tone with a scholarly one? You want your readers to see you as a person but also as person worth giving lots of money to. Look at several samples to see how others have pulled this off.

4) Don’t forget to be flexible. Here’s why: I spent that exam summer in more despair than needed. The more Old Norse texts from my reading list that I read, the more I gradually discovered a law: ‘if Stephen is interested in a text, then it is housed in Denmark’s Arnamagnaean Institute, not Iceland’s.’ (pace Family Sagas and Laxness) By mid-summer, I was panicking– in a moment of uttermost angst, I cried out to my wife, “if all the texts I need to see are Denmark, then why even bother with a stupid Fulbright to Iceland?!?” She coolly responded: ‘then why not apply for a Fulbright to Denmark?’ Often, I think she deserves a Ph.D. more than I do (but I’ll save impostor syndrome for another post).


The upshot of all this is that I applied two years in a row: the first time was the Fall of 2015. Fulbright applications tend to be due in mid-October and from there, you wait. The Fulbright selection is a two-part process; during the first stage, the main office in NYC decides which applications to recommend to the host countries (in their lingo, they elect ‘finalists’). The second is the part where host countries select who actually gets a grant offer. I got an email in late January of 2016 letting me know that I was a finalist for Denmark. I was overjoyed– all that hard work looked like it was about to pay off! After two more months of agony/waiting, I was notified that I was officially an ‘alternate’. That’s Fulbrightese for purgatory. Basically, it means that I both did and didn’t get it: if there were 8 grants, I was #9 in line. So if one of Denmark’s first choices declined their offer, then their grant would go to me. In theory, this meant that I still had a very slim chance of going… all. summer. long. I was miserable and optimistic the whole time.

But it never happened. I was told that repeat applicants usually fare better on later attempts, so I tried the whole thing again in the Fall of 2016. And it still didn’t happen. Thankfully, this time, I was working alongside my campus’ Grad Grants center. They encouraged me to apply to other smaller grants in the Fall of 2016 because (1) they know how random this process can be, (2) supplemental funding can be helpful while living abroad, and (3) small grants can be like backup for your project. (special thanks to Elise Anderson, Alyssa Meyer, and Dr. Dan Knudsen for their invaluable guidance last fall). I applied for a grant from the American Scandinavian Foundation [http://www.amscan.org/]… that I promptly forgot about because I was fixated on the Fulbright, especially once I was rejected in January. Yet to my delight, on April 1st 2017, I found an award offer from them in my mailbox! Several months later, I’m heading out to Denmark for a summer of archival magic, bracing myself for the high octane glamour that’s just part of the paleographic package.


So what are we to make of all this mess? First, remember that submitting grant applications is like submitting for publications: the longest, slowest roller coaster you can imagine. Seasons will come and go, moons will wax and wane, and you still won’t have heard back. Reconcile yourself to living for a half year at a time with zero closure, and you’re one step closer to sanity. I’m impatient and hate waiting, so this is excruciating to me. I wish I could say I’m getting better at it, but… Second, remember– you are, in all likelihood, a good candidate. You will still probably get rejected multiple times. Just keep trying: like water wearing down stone, just keep dripping if you really want through. Third: focus helps. Once I shifted my attention to Copenhagen rather than Reykjavik, things started snapping into focus. Fourth: Breadth helps. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you’ve gone through the trouble of filling out a Fulbright, a lot of that writing is easily transferable to other supplemental grant apps. The more you apply to, the better your odds of funding your project one way or another. Fifth: Help helps. In academia, we’re obsessed with this image of the mythical super scholar who, through sheer virtue of erudition and organization, single-handedly tames entropy and realigns the universe. This is a garbage myth. It’s simply not true. All greats got there by help– if healthy, they are backed by a loving army of helpful colleagues, friends, and family whom they support and credit (if not… they probably exploit a lot of people and don’t give credit. Aim for the former, please!). So, by all means, take advantage of grant writing centers– they are geniuses at this sort of thing. And ask for help from colleagues and advisers who have won grants before.

Oh gentle reader, you may see that the moral of my funding story is epitomized by this pithy pseudo-maxim:

‘If outside funding you would get,

fling abroad your widest net,

if fate decrees that you should fail,

weeping is of no avail’ (Pseudo-M.R. James)

failure is ubiquitous, but sometimes you get lucky. It’s like getting into grad school—you gotta play the ‘law of large numbers’ game and not get discouraged. Rejection here is not personal; it’s more a reflection of our culture’s bad priorities: we have tons of brilliant, promising people… and we don’t bother funding them. While I could rail against this savage cruelty, I will leave that to others who can do it better. Instead, I want to help humanities scholars who already find themselves entangled in this arachnid state. I stabbed Shelob, you can too!

Lastly, remember: grant writing is its own art form. Learning to write grants well means learning to speak about your research well to non-experts. It is its own reward in some ways. Besides getting funding out of it, writing stupid-short summaries of my own sprawling dissertation project has been extremely helpful in helping me streamline just what exactly I’m actually writing about.

I hope this yarn helps you as you wander your way through your own labyrinthine process, and that by it, you can avoid the bull that stalked me. Okay, that’s enough overwrought references for one post.  Remember: your project is worth funding and you are smart enough to get it funded— you just need to be willing to do it again and again. And maybe one more time. Good luck out there!


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