This post is part of a series where Rutgers grant and/or fellowship winners are invited to share their thoughts and experiences with the process of applying for funding in graduate school.
By Caro Pirri
Hello, I am Caro, and I have recently graduated with a Ph.D. in English. Dr. Emily Bartels was my advisor. I chose Rutgers for my graduate training because the level of funding was unmatched. Rutgers also had good professionalization and job market support.
Scholars of Renaissance literature are used to thinking of English drama as indebted to other dramatic traditions: for instance, Spanish or Italian drama. But when these same scholars talk about how American colonialism might have figured in drama, and the history of American imperialism, they generally talk about it only as a general theme rather than an aesthetic or formal debt. This has limited the number of dramatic texts that scholars interested in the history of colonialism and imperialism study. However, in my work, I read drama’s development as a medium as profoundly impacted by the history and textual legacy of England’s colonial conquests. Plays that don’t seem to be “about” colonialism can be recognized as colonial plays because they’re copying or borrowing from the rhetorical or narrative structure of colonial texts rather than explicitly citing them. This argument radically expands the archive of plays that we could call “colonial” or “New World plays.” And it means that British drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is also, in some sense, American drama.
Right now, I’m working on two articles. The first is based on a dissertation chapter and is about how the literature of early colonial catastrophe in the Americas was an influence on English drama. Ideas emerging from that context (about personhood, sovereignty, and governance) helped dramatists to address some of the pertinent political concerns of their moment. These ideas aren’t present on the surface of drama, as explicit references to New World people and places. Instead, they are visible as formal or aesthetic echoes of settlement texts themselves. I’m also starting research on a second article about the history of whiteness on the English Renaissance stage and precisely how dramatists staged whiteness and made it visible to audiences: in other words, the stagecraft of whiteness. English drama theorized whiteness as a racial identity at the very time that the idea of Britain as a unified nation was being articulated. Whiteness and nationalism are then interlinked in early modern representations.
I’ll be an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh starting in August. My experience in the job market is not representative. With the job market shrinking every year, postdocs, grants, and fellowships will be even more competitive.
My experiences with the world of funding
I’ve received the Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the Mellon SAS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, and the Mellon/Council for European Studies (CES) Dissertation Completion Fellowship (I declined the last two). I’ve also received grants in aid to work at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, and The Cornell School of Criticism and Theory. Additionally, I’ve received several internal grants from the English department and English department donors to fund research trips to the British Library and pay for conference travel funding.
The funding I received has given me a much wider academic audience for my writing than I would otherwise have had access to. This helped me immensely on the job market when I was already familiar with pitching my project and answering commonly asked questions.
My advice for other applicants
I begin research for my grant applications by tracking and reviewing other successful grant applications of the same type. You can often cold email people to ask them for their successful applications (I’ve been cold emailed in this way). Successful applicants are usually listed online for external grants and fellowships, or you might contact people within your department who have previously received the fellowship. You can begin to detect stylistic patterns when you have multiple examples.
For most grant applications, you’ll be speaking to both specialists and non-specialists. This requires carefully managing the scale of your writing. Your abstract argument claims should be specific enough that they fit into a disciplinary conversation. Your examples should be detail-rich enough to stand alone without needing a lot of explanatory scaffolding. Most of what you’ll be writing will be “middle distance” writing – that is, talking about the project rather than talking in it. Reading generalist journals in your field that are pitched to a range of perspectives and expertise can also help you manage the scale of your thinking and give the reader just enough information to allow them to make the correct inferences about your argument.
I would also suggest outlining early. Determining the story of the argument – that is, turning a complex and often non-linear argument into a clear narrative – is the best starting point for putting together an application in the humanities and may also apply to the humanistic social sciences. A single dissertation can tell many stories; there are many ways to narrativize a project, and there are many ways to start. What is the most effective way to communicate the significance and originality of the project to someone unfamiliar with the material and the period? This is the stage where you enlist friends and family members and try out different argumentative stories. You can get feedback early in the process this way and put together an outline. This outline will be the “abstract” of your application. For some applications, this abstract is just the first part. But I’m of the mind that every section of your application should have some relationship to the larger “story” that you’re telling. It should be clear what the stakes are – why your project matters – at every level of the application.
GradFund’s role during my application process
All of my external grant materials, including the grant-in-aid application for scholarly programs, were workshopped at GradFund.
I did all my fellowship and grant workshopping with Dr. Ben Arenger, whom I highly recommend. Ben really pushed me to clarify my ideas before explaining their written expression. We would move through each stage of the argument as a verbal presentation and find the most unambiguous narrative structure that could tell the best story for the reader. At that point, we would outline, and then we would try out different phrasings of each point that really captured the idea I was trying to communicate. This exercise was one that I duplicated then on my own going forward. A GradFund advisor can not only help you with your writing, but they can also help you determine which story to tell. A GradFund advisor will also help you to eliminate disciplinary jargon, articulate the stakes of your project clearly, and make sure that the examples you use are “complete” – in other words, are comprehensible to a reader who knows very little about the broader context. Your GradFund advisor should also help you balance background information, examples, and argumentative complexity: the ingredients of a competitive grant application.
The great thing about GradFund is that it gives you the ability to replicate the conditions under which your piece will be read. That is, your reader will be an academic with an advanced degree in a field adjacent to yours who has no background knowledge about your field of study and has little to no access to the disciplinary conventions and assumptions you usually rely on for clarity. I would advise anyone who uses GradFund to seek an advisor adjacent to their field rather than in their field. This is especially important for fellowships like the ACLS, which are open to the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. Your argument should be pitched to both a humanist and a social scientist if you’re applying to these fellowships. If you’re applying for the Mellon / CES, your argument should be pitched to a mix of historians and scholars working in all the major modern languages. Have a clear sense of what your fellowship review committee will look like before you bring your application draft into GradFund. You can generally access this information for external fellowships by looking at past winners. What departments are they in?
Workshopping at GradFund takes very little extra preparation and can be a great help. It also helps you set deadlines for your drafting process, which ensures you begin drafting for deadlines as early as possible.
To learn more about Caro’s research, you can see her profile on the American Council of Learned Societies’ page: