Success in Grant Writing Series Editor’s Note: Welcome to the next installment of our Success in Grant Writing series, which will feature guest blog posts written by Rutgers graduate student winners of prestigious fellowships and grants. If you would like to share your experience with successful grant writing, please contact us through our website, gradfund.rutgers.edu
Following the example set by Liz, I shall begin by introducing myself. I am in my seventh year of the Classics PhD program, and my focus is on Athenian history from the 6th through the 4th centuries BCE. During the 2014/2015 academic year, funded by a Fulbright Student Research Grant from the IIE (Institute of International Education), I had the opportunity to live and pursue my scholarly interests at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (the American archaeological institute in Greece). The support of GradFund was instrumental in my Fulbright application, and Fulbright’s support in turn permitted me to ground my textual research in the sites and material objects of Greece.
Today I’ll start with a little bit about my research in Greece, then talk about how GradFund helped me get there. Since the Spring semester of 2010 I have worked on the ‘Athenian tribute lists’, a group of fragmentary inscriptions from 5th-century BCE Athens. During the operation of the tribute system, the members of the Delian League (a group of more or less willing allies of Athens) would send annual payments of tribute (called phoros in contemporary texts) to Athens, ostensibly to offset the cost of military operations etc. for the League. After 454 BCE this money was stored in the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, and a 1/60th share (called the ‘aparkhe’) from the annual phoros was dedicated to the cult of the goddess Athena. The Athenians displayed in public massive lists, carved into stone, of the amounts of aparkhe given by each member-group of the League. These tribute lists provide a unique window on the economic, financial, and power structure of the ancient Delian League akin to what current tax documents would provide a researcher in 4513 CE seeking to understand the economy of the United States in 2013 CE.
Prior to my year in Greece, I had worked only with the published transcriptions of the tribute lists. I had no exposure to the stone fragments themselves, and little appreciation for just how much information is inevitably lost in the movement from stone to text. To begin, as monumental as the published accounts of the Athenian tribute lists are (their first comprehensive publication, the Athenian Tribute Lists, takes up four 10”x14” books, weighing a total of well over 10 pounds), the original stelae (stone slabs) on which the lists were inscribed were truly immense. The lapis primus, the stone on which the lists for 454 – 440 BCE appear, was three and a half feet wide, over one foot thick, and at least twelve feet tall; the lapis secundus and the tribute assessment decree of 425 BCE are not much smaller. In the picture below, you can see me at work transcribing a large fragment of a tribute list in front of these three stelae. It is impossible to truly grasp the physical impact of the tribute lists without visiting them in the Epigraphical Museum in Athens.
Physicality is only the beginning of the information gap, however. I have alluded several times to the fragmentary status of these inscriptions: the lists have survived two thousand five hundred years relatively well, which is to say, something has survived at all. Unfortunately, this still means that each of the many fragments associated with the tribute lists have letters that are difficult to read either because the stone has become worn or broken. An epigrapher (a practitioner of epigraphy, the study of inscriptions) attempting to publish the text of a fragment is thus left with a quandary. It is almost always more difficult to read a photograph of an inscription than the stone itself, so the epigrapher must use their best judgment about whether a letter appears in a given location and what that letter might be. There is never the room to go into a full discussion of what exactly is visible for each letter, and why a particular letter would be expected in that place. However, even great epigraphers are human, and simply relying on their interpretation will never be a match for testing that interpretation against the stone itself with your own eyes.
A large portion of my time in Athens was spent training myself to be an epigrapher. That meant spending three or four hours a day, four days a week at the Epigraphical Museum (the staff there became like a second family) looking at inscriptions, transcribing them, and comparing them to published texts. In the images here you can see how my transcription technique improved over time, evolving from simply copying down what I saw in a notebook to actually measuring each letter of the inscription and drawing it as accurately as possible on millimeter block paper.
Frustrated by the ‘information gap’ between stone and text that I have spent so much time describing here, I also delved into 3D imaging techniques. After some consideration, I settled on RTI: reflectance transformation imaging. This method, in which a stationary camera takes multiple pictures of the same subject while the light source is moved, is low-cost both in time and money: it can be performed with fairly common digital camera equipment, supplemented by a kit from Cultural Heritage Imaging (the organization who developed the process), and photo-capture and RTI development take about an hour per set once the operator is practiced. I truly believe that RTI files represent the future for publishing inscriptions, and that they will significantly decrease the ‘information gap’.
However, none of this would have been possible without support, and so let’s turn back the clock to the Fulbright application process and the help provided by GradFund.
The Fulbright Student Research Grant application process is long and involved. There are two types of applications: through a US institution or ‘At-Large’. Anyone enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program at a US college or university must apply through that institution, even if not resident there. Although applicants fill out the same online application (including supplemental materials) for both processes, there is a campus application deadline several weeks earlier than the open application deadline: this campus deadline is set by the Fulbright Program Adviser on each campus, and so varies from institution to institution. At the campus deadline, your institution reviews your application. As part of this review you have a campus interview conducted by a panel of faculty, and then you will be given feedback and an opportunity to revise your application before submission at the open application deadline. The application itself is comprehensive, including not only biographical data (basic and résumé) and transcripts but two large essays (one a statement of grant purpose and the other a personal statement), an affiliation letter from the applicant’s host institution in the foreign country (for me the American School), and three letters of reference.
Help from knowledgeable, experienced advisers in navigating this thicket of deadlines and materials would have been enough to make GradFund worth its weight in gold, to use a complex and unwieldy metaphor. In point of fact, however, the most important part of having good essays and references and all the other materials available is giving yourself enough time. Very few of us, I think, when confronted with a deadline of ‘late September’ would begin working on an application in April or May. Two pages on your project and one page on yourself? Easy!
Of course, it turns out that less is usually more difficult than more, especially if you’re trying to pack a lot of quality into that very small space. Many of us are also uncomfortable selling ourselves in the way that a grant purpose or personal statement requires. GradFund’s Graduate Funding Mentoring Program was firm about the information expected for a successful essay, and it started early enough that I had the time to get over my discomfort. It also provided both adviser and peer feedback on exercises designed to improve grant proposal writing as well as on our proposals themselves, so that when the time came in August and September to put everything together (and start a new semester of work!) we were no longer sweating over our essays. And in New Jersey in August and September, finding fewer things to sweat over is always a good thing.