Rethinking Research Fellowships

Are foundations offering appropriate assistance to 21st-century scholars for research and writing? Diana Thompson Vincelli explores the issue.

March 7, 2018

Imagine taking time off from the academic life for several months of focused research and writing. What would be your ideal scenario?

Every year in the 26 years that I worked at the University of Richmond as the director of grant support, faculty members, primarily those in the humanities and social sciences, came to me for help finding and applying for monetary support for the next year’s sabbatical. Their production of scholarly books, articles and other works is vitally important to the institution, the individual and their students, and it provides access to new knowledge, theories and discoveries.

Tenured or tenure-track faculty typically become eligible for sabbatical after a period of successful teaching, such as six years. Many institutions provide some portion of the annual salary for a semester or academic year off from teaching and other institutional service. Rarely does a college or university offer the extraordinary reward of a full year off at full pay, but one’s continuing expenses must be met. Those faculty members awarded time off to work on publishable projects must seek external funds to make up the missing salary. Foundations, governments or other institutions may provide sabbatical funding, but they often require a months-long residency away from home and office, providing access to a relevant archive as well as the special opportunity to interact with a community of scholars.

Yet what I heard most frequently from sabbatical-bound faculty members was a desire to find financial support for writing at home, most often because of family obligations.

To obtain external funding, faculty fellowship applicants must engage in an exacting process a year or more in advance of the research period, crafting flawless proposals selling the importance of the research along with their own abilities to get the work done. Applications are submitted according to an unforgiving schedule of review by panels of peers recruited for the distribution of a limited number of focused fellowships. Success is not guaranteed, and certainly, this is not a process to be undertaken lightly or at the last minute. With each announcement of a much-sought-after award, the fortunate recipients are overwhelmed with gratitude for the generosity of the donor -- and the knowledge that their success is the result of hard work on the project to date, a well-crafted application, a little bit of luck and great timing.

For highly desired, write-at-home funding, there are precious few offerings (those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowships and American Council of Learned Societies). These award programs generally have highly competitive application processes, and the funding rates are woefully low at 6 to 7 percent. The common understanding is that they reward more accomplished scholars -- those already published or with recognized creative work.

Several prestigious residential fellowships are available in the United States, offered by the National Humanities Center, Stanford Humanities Center and various libraries, including the Library of Congress. But if applicants receive an award to work away from home, they may end up incurring additional personal travel expenses from trekking back and forth to participate in family events and special occasions. Meanwhile, they are interrupting the flow of research and writing. Opportunities exist abroad, such as the American Academy in Rome, but present more complex challenges to the scholar who is also a spouse and/or parent.

Further, residential fellowships will rarely accommodate and financially support the scholar’s accompanying spouse or partner and/or children. The Fulbright Core U.S. Scholar Abroad program is a notable exception, yet parents still struggle with the prospect of taking their children out of school, lessons or athletic programs for as much as a year, and it is a stretch to think that the accompanying spouse or partner would be able to give up their employment for a semester or year abroad. In addition, the Fulbright-provided stipends can’t cover both the foreign residency and continuing expenses at home.

I surveyed several colleagues at the University of Richmond to find out what they think is the most effective sabbatical format, based on their experiences and observations. Eric Yellin, associate professor of history, spent a successful semester conducting research at the Library of Congress, followed by a semester at home writing a book. However, he commented that the 100-mile commute to the library was “exhausting and expensive.” His ideal sabbatical would be archive visits of no more than a week at a time followed by time for writing in his home office. “My spouse also works full-time [as a university professor] and our family situation requires that both of us share the load equally, so I cannot be away for an extended time.”

He is definitely not alone. Increasingly, scholars reject the prospect of being away from family for long periods. Many fellowship applicants are early- or midcareer scholars who are fully immersed in teaching and family life, along with working on important first or second books, articles, or other creative output. Twenty-first-century scholars are both male and female; no longer is the male partner the only breadwinner and the female partner the stay-at-home caregiver. Today it is common for both partners in male-female and same-gender couples to work full-time and for both partners to participate fully in raising their children. I have been told by faculty members that neither parent really wants to be away from their young children for extended periods of time, nor do parents of preteens or teenagers want to leave them undersupervised. Such challenges orchestrating residential fellowships are magnified for single parents.

“I think residential fellowships are especially hard for women with families,” said Laura Browder, a professor of American studies. “I have known many male faculty members who have commuted to a distant location for a semester or a year, leaving their wives or partners at home with the kids. I can’t think of any women who have been able to do the same.” She favors a funded fellowship period that entails an intense week of scholars together at the beginning and the end, with solitary writing time at home in between.

The gathering of scholars is an important component for most people, with Browder saying, “One of my favorite things about university life is the relationships I have with my colleagues … The world is full of interesting people, so why not meet a few more of them?” She adds, “I am still very close with a friend I met while we were fellows together 20 years ago at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities -- and I cherished the time we spent together there, visiting one another’s offices when we got stuck on our projects [and] taking walks together.” The camaraderie is so important that she rejects an idea of all-electronic sabbaticals with videoconference technology and electronic document sharing as substitutes for in-person discussions.

Kevin Cherry, associate professor of political science, points to the responsibility that comes with a process that includes sharing one’s work in person with other scholars. While acknowledging that many people need archives, fieldwork or laboratories to complete their research, he asserts, “Apart from the time to write, what is most valuable to me is getting feedback on my project from people in my field, as well as the responsibility that comes from having to present my work to colleagues.” He suggests research support that provides time for writing at home supplemented by occasional group meetings for review and feedback “at a location where there can be a group of people on sabbatical as well as nonsabbatical faculty members -- a larger pool of people to read and comment, so that the burden of doing so falls less on those faculty who are writing.”

New models of support for today’s scholars are needed to enable them to escape the academic routines and focus on the research and writing they need to accomplish in order to contribute knowledge as well as to make progress toward tenure and promotion -- without neglecting family commitments. While there are some very generous and therefore prestigious awards that support individual, full-time faculty research, a variety of formats would be beneficial. More fellowships with both brief scholar-gathering and write-at-home components toward the writing or completion of scholarly books and articles will have wide-ranging benefits for funders as well as for the scholars and their institutions, their students and their families.


Diana Thompson Vincelli recently retired as director of grant support at the University of Richmond.

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