“Getting That Grant,” UNL History Department Workshop Notes

These notes are from a workshop I attended yesterday on the subject of grant writing. It was a lot more informative than I expected it to be, with some of the best content coming from the Q & A session. I’ll definitely begin delving deeper into funding opportunities for my dissertation research. Apologies that the formatting is a bit clunky here. I’m looking into ways to make it more aesthetically appealing and readable.

Department Workshop on “Getting that Grant”


  • Friday, December 9th will be the last workshop on “Getting Hired”
    • will focus on the interview and new forms of interviewing being done now, in the changing market

Dr. Amy Burnett

  • very first paragraph in the grant is the most important → why your research is important enough to be funded
    • need to consider the audience here
  • grant is similar to writing an application for a job → reviewers are very busy, taking time out of their schedules to read your application
    • may be from your field but may not (often are not in your field)
    • already have an idea in their mind of what a strong proposal is → tailor your proposal to what they are looking for – enter the first paragraph
  • first paragraph– make your thesis clear immediately
    • explain what you are doing to someone outside your area
  • follow directions – mistakes are an easy way for them to eliminate you
    • instructions generally up on their website
    • make the reading of your grant as easy as possible – make it easy for them to find things with headings; don’t use jargon
  • if you are going to go through the time to write a grant proposal, apply for as many grants as possible (tailoring, of course, your proposal to each grant’s specifications)
    • ask advisor, friends, and colleagues for information on what grants are available to apply for
  • consider what kind of grant you are going to apply for
    • residential fellowships – spend a semester or two working someplace (beneficial in making connections to other scholars)
    • Fullbright grants – away from home, many different countries to apply to; should speak to people who have had Fullbrights in those countries
    • dissertation grants – UNL offers some as do other academic organizations
    • NEH summer seminars for research; grants-in-aid to work in a state historical society or a research library (lots of small grants out there that people don’t know about) (also a good stepping-stone on your c.v. for getting larger grants)
  • need to think about when to apply for grants
    • major versus small – many major grants are only for the last year of your studies
    • give yourself enough time to gather all of the information you need
    • see ACLS guidelines for writing grants (online)
    • a “good proposal should take a couple of months to write” → write several drafts, approach it as you would a paper (EXCEPT keep your audience in mind); give it to other people to review
    • line up letters of recommendation (says using conferences as a way to get to know senior scholars at conferences that can later potentially write a letter for you)
    • give the letter writers plenty of time (and be sure to give them a copy of your grant draft and c.v.)
  • don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get anything → in the humanities the odds are very low
    • always consider revising and re-submittting the next year AND submit to other grants

Kelly Buford (PhD candidate)

  • winner of the Fling Fellowship (through UNL), $20,000 to research and write her dissertation
  • google to find out what is out there
  • believe in yourself and take a chance to apply for something (everything that you can)
    • know “your own significance” → needs to be clear that you understand why your work is significant
  • look at your audience as scholars looking to invest in a person and a project that will give them big returns (e.g. at a research one university, she emphasized research and publishing)
    • tell them how, exactly, you will “pay them back” for their investment in you → recognizing your responsibility to your investors and being specific about what you will do in the future with their investment
  • agrees that the more fellowships you get, the more you will get in the future
  • How do you get stellar references for applications? → “be stellar yourself”
    • seize all of the opportunities that you can
    • ask which references will stand out the most

Q & A session:

  • How did you prepare your c.v. for the Fullbright?
    • a lot ask for a shorter c.v. → remove the excess and leave the most impressive (peer reviewed)
  • How to find grants?
    • find the best ones by talking to other people
    • reading the Graduate Newsletter UNL puts out; e-mails that are sent out; google searching (for “dissertation grants” – go figure); H-NET; look in the front and back of journals for yearly awards and dissertation fellowships
    • let your advisor know that you are looking – they often have access to resources you don’t (or that you aren’t aware of)
  • Dr. Will Thomas confesses to being a dissertation fellowship application reviewer and states that, at a national level, your audience generally IS within your field
    • true for NEH and ACLS
    • Dr. Thomas notes that, as a reviewer, he is also more alert to applications that come from different places (e.g. UNL as a public, research one university stands out from applications from Harvard, Yale, Princeton)
  • Kelly Buford notes that she included a schedule of research in her statement of purpose and emphasized the importance of interdisciplinarity in her research
    • states that each person needs to evaluate the tone of their application to be sure they are not overstating the significance of their research (another reason it’s good to get multiple people to review your application)
    • your c.v. is important to this process as well – will let the reviewers know your skills even before they get to your statement of purpose (be sure to bump most impressive achievements to the top of your c.v.)
  • PhD student notes that should also state in a statement of purpose why one needs the funding, agrees that should have multiple people, from multiple perspectives read your application
    • try to narrow down what your research is within one sentence, then can move on to articulating this within a paragraph → Dr. Tim Borstelmann calls this “telescoping” and thinks it is a good exercise to talk to others about what you do (especially non-academics)
    • Kelly Buford adds that one can try talking to oneself as a way to practice articulating what it is you do (good for comprehensive examinations as well)
  • Dr. Will Thomas returning to my question about how to find out about grants
    • visiting websites of foundations you are interested in and requesting regular e-mails about funding that they have available (something that was not possible even 10 years ago)
    • PhD student Mikal Brotnov recommends getting to know the archivists you work with; the archivists talk to one another on a regular basis; send thank you letters to archivists who help you
    • Dr. Jeannette Jones states that she always looked at the bulletin boards, doors of colleagues – can often find out about things you missed from H-NET or other listserv that you aren’t aware of → subscribe to the listserv of your particular discipline (what they send out is often mostly for graduate students); going to conferences and visiting booths of certain organizations (historical societies, academic societies) and sign up for their e-mail lists – same for librarians
    • Dr. Tim Borstelmann – think about who you would like to be most like (your colleagues, your advisor, your professors, large people in your field) and pay attention to their c.v.s to see how they started, what fellowships they received
    • Dr. Alex Vazansky says should also pay attention to opportunities outside of the U.S. EVEN if you do U.S. history – there are still many institutions and organizations that are interested in U.S. History (and many times they are less competitive)
    • Dr. Parks Coble notes that Perspectives on History and the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Review of Books (all available, per Dr. Thomas, for grad students to read in 607 Oldfather) → all have information about fellowships in them
  • Dr. Tim Borstelmann notes that an announcement about the Fling Fellowship will go out in January; the application is due in February
  • Dr. Jeannette Jones suggests looking at short-term fellowships now to see what you can apply for in the spring
    • Dr. Will Thomas notes that the endowments for historical societies and libraries are actually getting larger – some in the thousands of dollars now; not just hundreds of dollars (e.g. Virginia Historical Society)
  • Dr. Amy Burnett states that it is also a great idea to write to libraries and archives you know have resources you need and seeing if they have anything
    • Dr. Tim Borstelmann urges consideration of presidential libraries
    • Dr. Jeannette Jones brings up New York Public Library

So what are your cyber-needs?

Hierarchy of Cyber-Needs by Evgeny Morozov
Hierarchy of Cyber-Needs

This image comes from the TED talk “How the Net Aids Dictatorships” by Evgeny Morozov. Last week I read Morozov’s book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom for the seminar I am taking in Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. While I don’t agree with Morozov’s method of setting up one straw man techno-utopianist argument after another only to, of course, knock them down, he raises a lot of critical questions about the structures of the internet. And, repetitive arm gestures aside, his TED talk contains many useful points as well. Take this image for example. It strikes me as a particularly accurate portrayal of the way most people currently use the internet. Notice where “learn” is in this hierarchy. How accurate do you find this pyramid? What do you think digital humanists can do to expand utilization of the internet for learning?

Reflections on the challenges and opportunities of the digital medium

The digital medium presents unique opportunities and challenges for humanists. It offers new methods for research, analysis, and the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. At the same time, interaction with and utilization of the digital medium and emergent digital technologies compels humanists to reflect critically upon the ways these new methodologies alter, contribute to, or challenge humanist efforts to study and understand the human experience. Hypertextuality calls linear narrative into question while simultaneously proffering literary forms that are more interactive, immersive, and complex. Computing technologies enable the collection of immense data sets, yet require acceptance of and commitment to experimentation and collaboration in order for patterns to be represented in manners both meaningful and accurate. Digital visualizations open new avenues for examining information, structure, and theory but can pose serious problems when equated with interpretation and analysis. The challenges presented by the digital medium should not discourage humanists from actively engaging with the processes of creating and refining new forms of scholarly discovery and expression. A new medium requires the use of new methods and the adaptation of old ones. While the core goals of the humanities are unlikely to change as a result of interaction with the digital environment, methods of research, analysis, and communication should change if humanists are to take full advantage of the opportunities the digital medium offers.

Franco Moretti’s insight into the ways literary historians can utilize visual versions of theoretical structures to expand their focus beyond the interpretation of individual texts has many applications to the digital humanities more broadly. In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History Moretti does not specifically address the use of visualizations in the digital medium, but the ideas he sets forth are useful to any effort to examine a problem or question in a different light. In fact, most of his ideas are centered upon methodologies that produce new questions. He advocates “distant reading,” a manner of reading that encourages scholars to step back and take a broader view of their subject. Distant reading, Moretti argues, is deliberately reductive and abstract. It represents a “specific form of knowledge” that moves away from individual objects to reveal larger connections among collections of objects (Moretti, 1). Moretti advocates distant reading not as a replacement for the traditional, close reading of texts but rather as a supplement to literary historians’ current methodologies—one that can expand and enrich the discipline by shifting focus away from individual, extraordinary works of literature to “everyday,” ordinary works of literature and large masses of facts (Moretti, 3). He insists that although individual texts are the “real objects of literature…they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” because the close reading of individual texts tends to blind scholars to the historical processes and devices that shape literary form over time. Distant reading is therefore a useful way to move beyond the interpretation of individual texts and into analysis of the patterns and general structures that influence the evolution of literary form.

Moretti concentrates on graphs, maps, and trees as examples of visualizations that literary historians can use to examine theoretical structures. But he is careful to note that such visualizations are not models: they display data and can elicit new questions and problems but they are not interpretations of data. Interpretation and analysis must come from the scholar. This point should not be lost on digital humanists attempting to utilize visualizations in their work. The digital medium and digital technologies offer many unique opportunities to represent large amounts of information and examine patterns, and although visualizations can lead to insight they do not constitute insight in and of themselves. In Graphs, Maps, Trees Moretti consistently pairs the visualizations he uses with a written analysis explaining what the visualizations reveal and suggest. The use of visualizations in the digital medium ought to follow a similar pattern, particularly if digital scholarship is to gain recognition and validation. Whether print or digital, the use of visualizations is only justified when it adds something of value that cannot be expressed or represented with the written word. And in the digital medium, visualizations have great potential for offfering meaningful ways to engage reader-users in narrative and in the process of learning.

Moretti refers to graphs, maps, and trees as ways to “prepare a text for analysis,”(Moretti, 53) but visualizations can also open new pathways for individual reader-users to explore ideas, patterns, and arguments. This is particularly true in the digital medium, where visualizations can be made interactive and immersive. The futures of narrative and authorship in the digital are examined by Mereille Rosello in “The Screener’s Maps: Michel de Certeau’s ‘Wandersmänner’ and Paul Auster’s Hypertextual Detective,” Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Each author discusses the opportunities they see and the changes they believe will take place as scholars and other authors create and communicate in the digital environment. Visualizations are just one of many tools they mention that can aid narrative and the exposition of argument. Like Moretti, Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray deal primarily with literary theory, but their perspectives are useful for all humanists interested in working in the digital medium. They assert that a willingness to experiment with digital technologies and embrace changes to the form narrative takes is central to the future of the humanities.

Rosello and Murray are particularly insistent upon the need for greater academic willingness to consider the value of narrative in the digital. They dismiss the notion that e-narrative is somehow intrinsically inferior to print narrative, and argue that the form of narrative ought to change if the best possible use is to be made of the digital medium. Different mediums offer different ways of communicating, representing, and interacting with information. If narrative and argument are simply transplanted into the digital medium, with no critical thought given to the impact and potential of the medium for both the creator and the reader-user, no real engagement with the medium has taken place. And if this is the case, why utilize the medium at all? Rosello, Murray, and Aarseth each point to hypertextuality as one of the primary aspects of the Web that offers new opportunities for creativity and experimentation with narrative.

Hypertextuality, also called nonlinearity, enables a different type of interaction with narrative. Contrary to popular assumptions, nonlinearity is nothing new. One can already read a printed book nonlinearly by simply flipping through the pages or skimming through the text. And most books are actually designed to encourage nonlinear reading. They contain tables of contents, chapters, subsections, and indexes—all aimed at helping the reader more easily locate the information they are most interested in. Nonlinearity via hypertext streamlines this process. Digital narrative and argument can be engineered in such a way as to allow individual reader-users to follow aspects of ideas, themes, and evidence that are of particular interest to them. It can also call upon reader-users to be actively involved in the process of reading and learning. In the digital medium visualizations represent just one tool authors can utilize to make narrative and argument more interactive and immersive.

Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray each discuss the potential simulations, games, and multi-user domains (MUDs) hold for drawing reader-users into a story or a set of arguments in ways not possible with the written word alone. Aarseth’s definition of nonlinear literature expresses quite well the primary point behind using different forms of media—and the digital medium in particular—to convey ideas. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (Aarseth, 41). In this sense, the digital medium is just one of many different mediums available to authors for the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. And, as Moretti makes clear, visualizations in the digital present further opportunities for authors and scholars to examine, recognize, and represent patterns—both for their own research and for the interests and engagement of reader-users. The process of creating narrative and argument in the digital environment may be unfamiliar, but the lack of strictures, established conventions, and the freedom to experiment with form and medium has the potential to lead to a great deal of creativity, discovery, and innovation.

The digital medium is quickly changing the scholarly landscape. Humanists need to participate in the process of change and assume an active role in the digital space if they are to influence the outcome of the transformations taking place in the digital age. Interaction with the digital environment for the purposes of scholarship should be undertaken with a willingness to collaborate, experiment, and fail. Change can be jarring, but it need not be disruptive. The goals of the humanities disciplines will undoubtedly remain the same over time, although methods of research, analysis, and communication should change in order for authors and scholars to be able to fully engage with and take advantage of the digital medium. As new forms of narrative are created and new ways of examining information and visualizing patterns emerge, humanists must reflect upon the implications of these developments for the humanist endeavor. Narrative and argument in the digital should be subject to the same level of critical inquiry and academic rigor as all scholarship and scholarly methods, but it is unacceptable to reject new methods and forms simply on the basis of their newness. The challenges posed and opportunities offered by the digital medium must be confronted.

*This essay was written as a reading reflection for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.