Voices of Experience: TU humanities faculty share insights about their successful fellowship proposals

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Trinity faculty Jenny Browne (English), Patrick Keating (Communication), Corinne Pache (Classical Studies) and Claudia Stokes (English) led a discussion today about applying for grants and fellowships in the Arts and Humanities.  The event was attended by faculty and staff from Classical Studies, Human Communication & Theater, Classical Studies, Religion, Sociology, Academic Affairs, the Center for Learning & Technology and the library.  Here’s a brief summary of the wisdom imparted:


  • Start early, at least two months before the deadline
  • Join a writing group and/or get feedback on your drafts
  • Whether or not you get the grant, request the reviewer reports.  These can be frustrating and contradictory, but sometimes they contain key insights there that can help improve your proposal for future submissions.
  • You never feel “ready’ to apply, but the process of applying is what makes you ready.  Proposal-writing is process for clarifying your ideas.  Even if you don’t get the grant, this process is valuable.


  • Proposal-writing is a genre to be mastered just like articles and manuscripts.
  • Often humanities research is diffuse and emerges as you go along, but the proposal-writing process can enhance productivity by forcing you to clarify your ideas.
  • When writing the proposal, make sure to emphasize that the funding is necessary to the project, that it could not happen without this support.  Demonstrate the stakes.
  • Be precise and explicit about your timeline, milestones and research process.
  • When you are in doubt about the project, it will show through in your proposal.  You have to really work on making the project concrete.
  • In your literature review, avoid disciplinary turf wars.  You never know who will be reviewing your proposal!
  • If possible, serve as a reviewer for funding agencies to get an inside look at the selection process.
  • There are a lot of opportunities in the Digital Humanities.  Think about how your project might connect to these initiatives.
  • Think well in advance about colleagues outside Trinity who might be able to write letters of reference.


  • Find ways of making yourself known to potential reviewers.  A few years ago I sent free copies of my previous book to important members of the field.  It turns out that one of those people ended up being on the Academy review committee that selected my proposal.  When I applied to the Ransom Center, I was confident about my chances because I had worked with people there before.


  • Let the administration know beforehand of your proposal plans, especially if your fellowship will involve a leave or course reduction.
  • Funders will want to point to the results of their investment, so think about ways of putting the work online.
  • When letters of reference are required, it can help to have them come from previous recipients of that fellowship.

Other advice:

  • Request copies of successful proposals from the program officers.  In some cases, we have such proposals on file in Academic Affairs.  Contact Claudia Scholz.
  • Take reviewer comments seriously, even if you disagree.  If you feel your proposal was misunderstood, perhaps you can examine your narrative for clarity.  Maintain a thick skin about reviewer comments.
  • Don’t forget about student fellowships.  Trinity’s Mellon and Murchison programs support student research assistants during the summer.
  • Request faculty development funds to build the groundwork for a grant proposal (e.g. to travel to an archive to assess its appropriateness, to visit a funding agency to learn about program priorities, etc.)

What Trinity can do to support faculty in applying for external funding:

  • Send more announcements about funding opportunities, especially targeting departments or individual faculty.
  • Maintain a list of fellowship and grant deadlines
  • Organize a writing/critique/support group around grant proposals.

Related Posts


Stokes awarded NEH summer stipend

Claudia Stokes has been awarded a summer stipend of $6,000 to support work on her book “TheAltar at Home: Sentimentalism and Religion in the American Nineteenth Century”.

The Altar at Home: Sentimentalism and Religion in the American Nineteenth Century examines the engagement of literary sentimentalism in American religious discourse and life of the nineteenth century. A widely popular literary movement of the mid-century, sentimentalism narrated for young female readers the benefits of devout Christian piety, and this book project examines the specific doctrinal contexts that underlay the religious ideals, practices, and beliefs advocated by sentimental writers.

Funding Opportunity: Hiett Prize in the Humanities (Deadline 5/12/10)

Sponsored by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture,

The Hiett Prize…is an annual award presented to a person whose work in the humanities shows extraordinary promise and has a significant public component related to contemporary culture. Its purpose is to encourage future leaders in the humanities by 1) recognizing their achievement and their potential and 2) assisting their work through a cash award of $50,000.

The application consists of a 4-page cv, a profile of previous work and a plan for future scholarship. A letter of nomination from a senior scholar is also required.

Book: “How Professors Think”

The book “How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment” by Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont offers a peek inside panel review sessions of grant-making agencies in the humanities and social sciences, including:

One of the stated goals of the book is to “open the black box of peer review and make the process of evaluation more transparent, especially for younger academics looking in from the outside”  (p. 12).  However, the book is not written as a “how-to” manual.  It is an ethnography of the world of these closed evaluative sessions, drawing on sociological theories of knowledge and of group dynamics.  The conclusions are based on observations of panel discussions as well as interviews with many of the panelists.

Alex Golub, of the anthropology blog Savage Minds, thinks that chapter 5 should be required reading for new scholars, particularly those looking for funding for their dissertation research.  This chapter details how panelists arrive at definitions of quality or “excellence” and the extent to which these criteria vary by discipline.

There is nothing terribly new here.  For example, Lamont finds that panelists favor proposals that are clearly written and polished, and that use theory and methods appropriately.  These insights don’t add much to the conventional wisdom about proposal evaluation.

One area that I did find somewhat novel was Lamont’s discussion of panelists’ propensity to divine the “morality” of the proposer when reading submitted text.  “Panelists” she writes, “privilege determination and hard work, humility, authenticity, and audacity”(p. 195).  Of course, applicants have only limited control over how well their proposal and letters of support communicate their worthiness according to this criterion.

The section I found most useful is the discussion in chapter 6 of how reviewers view interdisciplinarity.  One of the panelists tells Lamont “There is a… way of doing things in which you use your knowledge of… the things outside your discipline, more as a rhetorical strategy than as something in which you really steep yourself” (p. 208).  Interdisciplinary proposals are risky.  Authors must demonstrate competencies in multiple areas while not seeming too ambitious.  The potential to impact multiple disciplines is nearly as important as the ability to use them.

Chapter 1 of the book is titled “Opening the Black Box of Peer Review”.  However, the book opens the black box only to reveal a multitude of differing attitudes and approaches that might be overwhelming to inexperienced proposal writers.  Lamont devises useful typologies to classify and analyze divergent approaches to significance, originality, diversity and other key ideas.  Faculty hoping to use the book to guide their preparation of proposals will need to dedicate considerable time and thought to figuring out how to apply this analysis to their own work.

Related Links

Lamont summarizes the book on Huffington Post (April 30, 2009)
Review from InsideHigherEd
(March 4, 2009)
NSF Interview with Michèle Lamont

Funding Opportunity: APS Sabbatical Fellowships (Deadline 10/15)

The American Philosophical Society offers stipends of stipend of $30,000 to $40,000 to mid-career faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences who have been granted a sabbatical/research leave, but for whom financial support from the home institution is available for only part of the year.  This year marks the last time this fellowship will be offered by APS.

Opportunity for student publishing in the humanities

The Valley Humanities Review is currently seeking essays in the humanities for publication in its Spring 2010 Issue. We seek essays of high quality, intellectual rigor and originality that challenge or contribute substantially to ongoing conversations in the humanities. Topics may include but are not limited to: literature, history, religion, philosophy, art, art history and foreign languages. VHR is committed to undergraduate research and scholarship in the field; therefore, we only accept submissions by current or recently graduated undergraduate students. Our reading period runs from September 1 to December 1 of each year. All submissions received outside of these dates will be returned unread. All submissions should adhere to the Chicago style in formatting, footnoting and bibliography. Essays should be between 3,000 and 6,000 words in length, be free of errors and have an original title. Submissions may be sent to submissions-vhr@lvc.edu

Opportunity: NEH Teaching Development Fellowships (deadline 10/1/2009)

Faculty interested in applying for this National Endowment for the Humanities opportunity should note the October 1, 2009 deadline.  Applications must be submitted through Grants.gov and interested individuals are encouraged to allow a few days for delays and other technical difficulties associated with that system.

Teaching Development Fellowships (TDF) support college and university teachers pursuing research aimed specifically at improving their undergraduate teaching. The program has three broad goals: 1) to improve the quality of humanities education in the United States; 2) to strengthen the link between research and teaching in the humanities; and 3) to foster excellence in undergraduate instruction… Teaching Development Fellowships cover periods lasting from three to five months and carry stipends of $4,200 per month. Thus the maximum stipend is $21,000 for a five-month award period… Recipients may begin their award as early as June 1, 2010, and as late as March 1, 2011.