Saturday, April 12, 2008

thoughts from the grind

I recently received my “decline to fund” letter from BigHumanitiesFellowship; it was brief and to the point. It included the stock points: lots of applicants to chose from, tough decision, best of luck, etc. I am not disappointed by the outcome. It was a long shot and I got a lot out of the process of putting together a chapter and staking my future to the overall ‘contribution.’*

The only real disappointment was the letter itself. Considering how much time we all put into this I would have like more than unremarkable stock phrases. Left to my druthers, I wanted something like “your application made it to X round and we thought it needed to be stronger in [stating the contribution/identifying sources/explaining the methodology/relevance to our foundation’s mission].” Or even “we thought this was really promising and in a pinch we chose another project because we just liked it better.” I can sympathize with this position; sometimes these things just come down to personal preference.**

This line of thinking led me to consider the dark underbelly of these competitions. Where available, I’ve looked over the projects (and people) FellowshipFoundations have funded and I couldn’t help but notice that, well, they really love themselves an academic pedigree. A clear majority of FellowshipWinners get degrees from BigEasternSchools – IVs, even. There is generally a BigSouthern or BigWestern school in the mix. Overall, such prizes tend to stay in the already well-off “family.” I don’t imply that BigEasternSchools aren’t worthy of BigHumanitiesFellowships, but considering the interconnection between FellowshipFoundations, BigEasternSchools, and money, I can’t help but wonder if, in a pinch, the committees just turn to what they know – a familiar pedigree.*** Looking at the process from this angle (that of the dark underbelly), it has the grotesque scars of bias written all over it. This would be quite disappointing.

With these considerations in mind, I’ve decided to go with the first theory rather than the gloomy one. And to plug along at the quickest pace I can muster.

*This seems to have already paid off with a recommendation from someone I don’t know to participate in a conference I should go to.

**though how anyone could not prefer my project is inconceivable. :)

***this supposition was reinforce to me last week when one DissertatingBuddy said she was glad she was a historian (and working with BigNameAdvisor) because other disciplines – she has heard – generally evaluate prospective hires based on their university while historians look to who you worked with. (And, I would add, what you’ve done.)


kungfuramone said...

Last I checked, you *can* request an official explanation for why your application was turned down - they have to keep everything on record. You might want to do that, on the off chance it was a "fair" decision and you could use the feedback to improve your next application.

Cabiria said...

Feedback would be so helpful, I agree. And I agree about the pedigree biases as well, it sucks and I think it comes down to laziness. (Almost) every academic at (almost) every level has a fraud complex, so rather than have to make an original determination about the potential importance of a piece of work and risk being wrong or having an unpopular opinion, they trust to BigNameSchool admissions committee to have done it for them. Of course, BigNameSchool didn't want to do that to begin with, so they relied on a bunch of other variables (like FancyPrepSchool or ability to pay for test prep courses) to do it for them first.

I'm sure it comes as a shock for me to imply most of it seems to revolve around socioeconomic status (class and otherwise). :) Plus, I've recently come to the conclusion that those who get fellowships, then get more fellowships -- it's an unfair and fairly constant trajectory, I think. Fellowship committees, again being lazy, also trust each other to have done the work of assessing objective merit. I feel like at some point the pyramid scheme that most such committees/institutions aren't doing the initial screening work should collapse, but no. Anyway, that was my long way of saying, I'd pick your project. :) Not that I'll ever get to be on such a committee anyway!

Dolce Vita said...

Good advice KFR. Where not prohibited by the letter (I got one once that said, essentially, we got so many applications that we can't give you feedback, so don't ask), I do ask nicely. I have yet to receive any feedback. Generally, what I get is complete silence.

Thanks for the support, Cabiria! I can't wait for the day when you are on one of those committees. :) I also think you came up with the perfect way to encapsulate the dark underbelly - it is a pyramid scheme!

the rambler said...

Sorry to hear that, my advisor also encourages me to keep trying because part of the problem is that the committees are only as good as the people serving on them. On one of my grant evaluations, the reviewer of my grant didn't even seem like he/she had read my application or letters of weird!