I'm wondering if it's worth my while to try applying for an NEH Fellowship. After all the work of an application, what would the odds even be of my winning a fellowship? I'd assume that the odds would be very, very slim. On the other hand, I kind of think that the odds of the St. Martyr's president allowing me a sabbatical in 2007-08 are also not 100%. So I need to be thinking about various ways of getting research time if I want to write this book.
NEH estimates the time to complete an online application is 15 hours, but I don't know whether that includes the time it would take to write a three-page single-spaced description of my project. And that project narrative is, of course, the only part of the application that would be difficult to write; the rest sounds pretty easy. Here are some of the things that the narrative is supposed to include:
"The narrative should convey the ideas, objectives, and methods of the project. It should also communicate the project's substance and potential contribution to the humanities.... What are the basic ideas, problems, or questions examined by the study? Explain the planned approach or line of thought. If the area is a new area of research, explain the reasons for working in it.... How will the project complement, challenge, or expand relevant studies in the field? Explain what makes the study distinctive.What contribution will the project make to the humanities?"
These are all really good questions ... and I don't really know what the answers are for my project! I know that these are the sorts of things that one should really think about before starting a book project, but honestly I just thought, "I'm totally interested in this topic, and I bet other folks would be also." So perhaps I've put the cart way before the horse, but I don't think I have the kind of mind that can decide what's important about a project before I've actually done the project. And I'm not sure that I can decide what's "distinctive" and "making a contribution" even once I've finished; I may have a little inferiority process when it comes to my research. Or maybe I'm just lazy and am unwilling to do the hard thinking that these questions require. Or maybe both.
And that, right there, may be part of the explanation for my troubles on the job market a few years ago! I don't think I could ever make a compelling argument about what was so darned important about my dissertation as compared to anyone else's. But if I'm (1) wanting to write this current book and am hoping to, you know, actually get it published, and (2) thinking about going on the job market in the next year or so, I'm going to need to suck it up and do some hard thinking. So is this spring perhaps the time for that kind of thinking? Or would my time be better spent in continuing to write my analyses of primary texts, which might in turn help me do that thinking at the higher level. I always worry about arriving at my thesis too soon, before I have all the data. On the other hand, I also worry that I sometimes just wind up collecting lots and lots of data and never quite arriving at an argument.
The deadline is May 1. But of course I'd need to ask for the two letters of rec right away. And I'd have to decide whom to ask for letters; plus those letter-writers could very reasonably ask for my project narrative as part of their preparation to write the letter.
What to do, what to do? I'd certainly appreciate any feedback from anyone who's applied for an NEH grant before. And I think that playing around with such a project narrative will be my spring break project (week after this -- hurrah!); even if I don't end up applying this year, a week of playing around with these ideas can't hurt.
In the meantime, I went ahead and set up an account with NEH so that, when the applications go online on Wednesday, I could at least take a look at it; I guess further information never hurt anyone.