Just Win?

May 21, 2009

When I was applying for fellowships this year, I couldn't help but think about the cold, stark assessment of human worth that sports metaphors seem to offer. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who will never be confused with Aristotle, has a simple if unrelenting philosophy of life: "Just win, baby."

Is there anything valuable in not winning? How would I feel if I didn't get any grants this year? I've been writing for The Chronicle about the challenges of seeking research grants as a faculty member at a liberal-arts college, but what would I write about here if I had no success?

When I presented those questions to my colleagues, they unanimously concluded that applying for fellowships and grants was a useful exercise whatever the outcome. Considering that academe is often presented as the domain of socially dormant and cynical people, their optimism surprised me. Even if I didn't win, they said, my arguments would become clearer and my writing sharper, just by virtue of having gone through the process.

When I began last August, I knew the general contours of my research, but many details felt fuzzy. Each time I thought I had a solid description of my work, I found I needed to change it again. For a while there, I thought I would be writing my fellowship applications eternally, never able to move on to the project that I was trying to have financed.

On reflection, the seemingly endless revisions were desperately necessary. Some resulted from the idiosyncrasies of each application. But sometimes they were motivated by the comments of new readers. I shared my application with anyone I could find who would read it. They always had some useful suggestion.

Rejections seemed to arrive exactly as I received new advice, so that the revisions felt all the more pressing. By January—only half way through the application cycle—I was tired and depressed about my chances. My personality combines a healthy sense of second-guessing with a well-developed talent for prophylactic worry. I verbalize concerns about failure to stave it off; I believe that worrying about something ensures it will not happen.

That response to garden-variety anxiety has not made me a joy to be around this year. And it was intensified by the ferocity of the international economic collapse. This year has been financially difficult for fellowships and grants, as with many parts of higher education. An article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy ("Tightening Their Belts," April 9, 2009) reports that assets among philanthropic foundations declined by 28 percent last year. Many foundations indicated they would be giving less in the future.

I saw the effects of their constrained finances first hand. One rejection letter graciously included a note telling me that money was "tight" this year. Another, from an Ivy League institution, notified me that it had discontinued the fellowship for which I had applied. And all of them—from small library grants to large prestigious awards—announced more applicants than in recent years.

In some ways, the recession was a relief. If I didn't win a grant, I could convince myself it was not my fault. That grim path to good cheer held up until March, when the rejections began to arrive in bundles, each envelope too thin and light to bring happy news.

The letters shared in my sadness, each protesting disappointment that I couldn't be offered an award. Rejection may be part of life, but those letters implored me not to take it as a reflection on my academic skills. Even though I recognized the pleasantries as obligatory, I still appreciated their neighborly generosity.

By the time baseball season began, I had swung from frustration to lack of confidence to violent apathy. My emotions changed entirely, however, when the first acceptance arrived. It came not as a letter, but in an e-mail message from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation, which supports the research of professors who are engaged in pedagogical innovation. It was going to support my travel to Edinburgh, where I would expand my collection of materials on Scottish oral culture and 18th-century poetry.

The following week brought more good news. I learned that I had been offered a fellowship in poetics at the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. It is an amazing opportunity and an almost impossibly lengthy job title, both of which are thrilling. I smiled the whole time as I learned about the award on the phone.

The rapid turnaround in my fortunes made me wonder what had changed. After being rejected for months, I now had two awards within a week. Had my applications improved from my accumulating experience with grant writing? Did the long revision process that had left me so frustrated actually pay off?

Yes. And yes.

Looking back, my last round of applications (which included the ones to the Fox center at Emory and the Whiting foundation) seem much more sophisticated than my first round. Where my earlier applications seem tentative, the later ones are confident.

In my initial applications, I focused on showing that my argument was interesting and correct. In my final applications, however, I tried to show not just that I was right but that I had a research plan worked out. I mapped out how I was going to complete the project. I described what I would do, instead of just arguing for the significance of what I had already done. I created a mock-up of my table of contents, which I included even though it wasn't requested. My project had been evolving, and my materials reflected that.

I also tried to make a case for why I needed the grants and how they could help me. I did aggressive research on each place I applied to, and sought out ways to demonstrate how well I fit its desires.

I suspect that those changes in the attitude and makeup of my applications helped convince grant-makers that I was prepared to use my time and their money effectively. In my early applications, I had focused so much on the argument of my book that I forgot I was applying for money, not pitching a book proposal. Figuring out the difference between those two things is enormously difficult, especially for newer faculty members.

I realize, in retrospect, that it took me nearly a year to learn how to write a competitive grant application. Even though I vowed at the beginning not to be consumed by proposal writing, devoting that time proved worthwhile not just for the intellectual clarity or the professional experience or—let's be honest—because of the money I won.

The most important result of applying for fellowships is the confidence that comes with success.

Early on, I made my fellowship applications a referendum on my intellectual project. Close friends warned me not to do that. They rightly saw that it raised the stakes too high, making each rejection seem like a repudiation of my thinking. They realized that academe is about perpetual failure punctuated by some successes. Few of us are lucky or smart enough to win everything all the time.

Still, the confidence I feel right now is significant. And this feeling is important at liberal-arts colleges for junior faculty members who must manage the demands of teaching and collegiate service while keeping up with the profession.

Whether it's fair or not, opportunities for scholarly success feel more infrequent, and so more vital, at liberal-arts colleges. For me, winning a grant and a yearlong fellowship at an institution like Emory seems like an affirmation that I can compete with my peers. It reaffirms my identity as a scholar and the balance I have worked hard to maintain between teaching and research.

That's why I think it is especially important for those of us at liberal-arts colleges to apply for, and win, grants and fellowships. The enthusiastic reactions of my colleagues made it clear that my success was their success, and the success of the college. It is telling that they seem genuinely thrilled for me, and not secretly jealous. I am naïve, perhaps, but it makes my institution seem like a community in more than just the rhetoric we all use.

No doubt I would feel differently if I hadn't succeeded. But right now I'm recharged. It's easy at a moment like this to feel greedy for possibility—for a future of new ideas, and of old ideas made concrete and turned public. And it's easy to think of academics like me as people who live too long with a single dream. Despite that caution, I hurry now into summer with the warm carelessness of a late-night party guest. A part of me is convinced that I'm just walking on down the road like before, but another part feels like I'm floating for the first time.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.