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February 27, 2006


I used to work as a reviewer for the NEH in history. Really? It's worth a shot.

One good plan is to have a very clearly defined segment of the project you can do in the time period and not make it sound like you're just doing a chapter of a larger work on their dollar (i.e., they usually want to see something that you'll punch out with clear credit to the NEH). It can still end up as part of a bigger project, but, say, an article first or the like.

I've applied for 2 NEH Summer Stipends - and didn't get either, so take whatever I say with a grain of salt! But I'd definitely say it's worth a shot. I know it's hard to think about the significance of the project before it's done, but I think that's a really important part of the process - everytime I write a proposal like this, I learn something valuable about what I'm trying to do and how to talk about it. I think one of the important things to remember is that whatever you write in a proposal, although it has to be convincing and reasonable, doesn't tie you to a future argument. You can still change your mind! So you're not really arriving at your thesis before you should be - you're just expressing your beliefs at that particular time.

I know that from what I've heard, letters are pretty important (though Ancarett can obviously speak to this more directly than I can). Depending on who you plan to ask for a letter, can you sit down and have a conversation with them (if only virtual) about your topic and what does make it different/significant/distinctive? Someone in a very different place in the profession may be able to give you a new perspective and help you think of a framework for how your work is important.

(My problem is not so much deciding why *I* think my work is important, as effectively explaining that to others! I remember, long ago, doing a Fulbright interview, and explaining what I thought was the significance of the project, and a sociologist leaning forward and saying earnestly, "Yes, but what makes this project important?" Damn social scientists!)

when I got my DAAD, it was via the Fulbright interview. I really focused on where the project fit into the field.

Funny that all the medievalists are answering. (Okay, not all of them.)

I've been trying to decide about whether to spend all that time applying too. I have guaranteed leave that year, but the feather in my cap will be considerably bigger if I get NEH funding.

But what are the chances they'll give an NEH to the likes of me? Fat and slim, from what I can tell.

I'd echo New Kid's point about the process being valuable whether you get one or not. Also, don't feel like you have to understand absolutely every element of the project and its significance (and then remain fully committed to that for the next several years). Projects change, as you know, and it's okay to let them; the proposal is just your best guess right now as to what it's going to contribute. (Write it with confidence, of course, but you don't have to feel all the confidence that you express. My guess is that nobody does.)

Yes, letters can matter but not so incredibly much as in "Oh, look at the big name" but more as to whether the reviewer really knows about your project and is behind it as an important contribution to the discipline. I've seen some big name reviewers just write a glowing, generic reference and those have generally fallen rather flat. So if you ask someone to support your application, make sure they see the entire proposal (or, better yet, a snappy summary!) and also make sure to follow up that they actually send in the letter. The number of applicants whose proposals languished for lack of supporting letters arriving in time? Scandalous!


(ha,ha--another medievalist chiming in...)

I'm just a foundering grad student, so whatever...maybe I shouldn't flaunt my ignorance, but for what's it worth:

Sometimes the process of doing something, even if the end goal isn't achieved (i.e. not getting the NEH grant), makes it worth doing. Perhaps the application process will help you personally find some clarity as a scholar at this particular point in yr life, and that will make it worth it no matter the outcome.

Though not nearly up there with NEH grants, I decided to apply for new PhD programs last fall, after ending last year with comps standing between me and ABD at my old school. But I wasn't happy with where I was (personally, not necessarily the school) at the moment and felt totally directionless, even though, by all accounts I was making progress, getting past appropriate milestones. And due to several factors changing in my life, decided to take the plunge, applying at two big league schools in the area. At the end of the application process, I realized that though I may end up $200 poorer in fees and with no PhD program in the fall, writing those applications was the best thing I did. I found clarity. I was able to define who I was and what I wanted to do, because I forced to with high stakes. So, maybe I've blathered on too much and it doesn't really bear on your question. I guess all I'm trying to say is that sometimes the process makes it worth it even if you don't get the grant in the end.


Boy, WhatNow?,

I don't know about you, but all these comments are quite inspiring to me. Maybe I'll take a look at the NEH grants. As much work as they are, I've found the process of writing up proposals quite rewarding, in that they help me focus and clarify my ideas. Forge on!

As ArticulateDad says, I do find this very inspiring! Dadgumit, I'm going to apply for an NEH grant! Watch me go!

Yesterday I asked my chair (who himself got an NEH grant at about the same stage of his career) if he'd write me a letter, and he encouraged me to apply and said he'd be happy to write a letter. So now I just need to decide if I should ask my dissertation director for the second letter; after all, she hasn't actually been involved in this particular project, and she's certainly a Big Name, but she's also a retired Big Name whose scholarly activity is slightly waning (and deservedly so; let the poor woman enjoy retirement already!).

Spring Break starts Friday afternoon (hurrah!), and I'm going to spend part of my break "leisure" to think about my project narrative. Exciting!

Go for it!
The advice from your virtual friends is superb -- perhaps a couple of these experienced academibloggers - esp. Ancarett - might be willing to take a quick editorial peek at the meat of your proposal.

When you ask for letters of recommendation, I think that a pithy summary of the project is best.

Absolutely it is worth it. I applied for and received a NEH Summer Stipend in 1998 and it was so worth it! I got the first sabbatical in our university's history so combined one quarter off of classes and the summer stipend and had 5.5 months to write my book. Had just 1 chapter to go by the time fall term came. But yes, you need to really think through their questions. For me, I applied the year before and didn't get it. But write for the comments -- they helped me to revise and the 2nd time, it was successful. And I was writing about talk shows, no less. But I took their questions/ideas seriously, grounded my chapters in history as well as sociology (my field). So absolutely, try. I haven't applied online, but just do it!

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Who is this What Now?

  • I'm an English teacher at Fabulous Girls' School (FGS). I'm a convert to Judaism. I am partner to D. We live in an adorable, messy little house in Adventure City. Two cats -- the Muse and the Contemplative -- live with us and keep life at home plenty adventurous.

    Email me at whatnowblogger at yahoo dot com.

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