Money, Money, Money

September 29, 2008

Sometimes after hiking all day, you come upon a lake and, in your exhaustion, it looks like an ocean. The hills around it, actually mere stubs, look momentarily like mountains: From the top of one of them, you think you might be able to see all the way to the horizon when, really, you cannot.

That is the complex, overwrought image that leapt to mind when I suddenly realized on the last day of July that I needed to begin preparing for my research leave in the 2009-10 academic year. In one long cascading thought, I wondered, "How do I begin?" while allowing myself to fantasize about receiving a nationally recognized grant. I promptly suppressed those fantasies lest I jinx the whole process before it had even started.

I have been thinking about what I wanted to accomplish on that leave from the moment I was hired, two years ago, as an assistant professor of English at a small liberal-arts college. I had simply forgotten that this past summer was the summer I had planned to apply for grants and fellowships.

After months of intensive writing, I had been looking forward to a few weeks off before classes started again this fall. Instead, I realized I needed to begin revising my project statement for grants. I felt tired already. "My junior research leave is still a year away," I mumbled in petulant confusion. "Do I really need to do this now?"

I find that successful academics need to be highly organized and farsighted people, despite the enduring popular sentiment that academe is filled with absent-minded professors who could not survive in the "real" world. Whatever else it does, academe offers a fairly rigid career track with regular markers of successive progress that begin in graduate school — course work, qualifying exams, dissertation, job market — and carry over into faculty positions. For me, research leave seemed like yet another way station in this profession that required preparation well in advance of the thing itself.

At my college, as is the case at many others, I needed to make one of the most difficult decisions about research leave years before it happened: Should I accept a semester's leave at full pay or a yearlong leave at half pay?

I can remember my chair asking me that at one of my first department meetings. I stammered out a rationale about my need for an entire year away. It must have been coherent as she nodded in agreement. She needed to know, in part, because she was already thinking about our large humanities department's packed teaching schedule, the paucity of classroom and office space, and the hiring of visiting faculty members. That was three years before I would actually take the leave.

In many ways, however, choosing a year off was an easy decision to make. Time, we all know, is precious in higher education. When I was hired, one of my graduate-school professors warned me that at liberal-arts colleges, "the students pay for access, for access to you." I thought of the machine in Fritz Lang's film Metropolis whose hungry maw eats its workers alive. I promised myself that I would balance the demands of teaching and research. "No giant machine will feast on me," I vowed.

Now I know that the demands of liberal-arts colleges are not simply impositions since I often clarify my ideas in explaining them to students. But taking a year's leave was my way of staying in control of my career, devoting myself to research and writing, something that every junior professor at a liberal-arts college worries doesn't happen enough.

My senior colleagues universally supported my decision and the statement it seemed to make — that I, too, was a serious scholar who was not overwhelmed by the teaching portion of the job, letting my research agenda atrophy. My college "hires to tenure," but it is never assured, and more writing would make me a more compelling tenure candidate.

The doubts I had about my choice were sparked by money. Could I survive on so little income? I mulled that over in a phone conversation with my parents, neither of whom is an academic. They could not understand my choice: Why would someone want less, rather than more, money?

I explained again about the need to devote myself to my writing, how a completed book manuscript, the goal of my leave, could only be accomplished with more time. My father broke the silence: "Take a semester," he said definitively. I think he told me to get a part-time job, too, I don't exactly remember.

So this past summer, with money on my mind, I began preparing for my research leave. I pulled out a folder labeled "Fellowship and Grant Opts" that I had been compiling over the past two years. It included fliers from libraries, clippings from trade newspapers — any scrap of information I could find, many passed along by my colleagues. Each advertisement seemed like a possibility.

But the vastness of the task felt overwhelming, and my folder comparatively thin. At first I thought that applying for grants must be like applying for jobs, so I needed to increase my number of chances.

I spent hours searching for any grant that might seem relevant to my project; it was like undertaking a research project in preparation for my research project. The Web was bursting with fellowships, none of which seemed open to me. I was plagued with the feeling that there must be one more that I had overlooked. "This can't be all of them!" I exclaimed to friends who had gone through this process already and looked at me with sympathy.

Anxiety, it seems, leads to meticulousness. I set about organizing the applications and identifying deadlines, requirements, fellowship lengths, and award amounts. I created a table of all those figures and turned to it repeatedly as if the numbers might eventually reveal a secret code.

Code-breaking seemed all the more necessary because of the variety of grants and fellowships. They fell into three general categories: (1) small grants for travel to archives; (2) fellowships at institutes or universities organized around a theme or a center (many of which required participation in a weekly or biweekly seminar on a specific subject; some of which asked awardees to teach a class or two; and most of which required residency); (3) extremely competitive grants that offered large amounts of money and correspondingly large amounts of freedom.

The first two types of fellowships offered the possibility of new groups of readers, who might improve my work. How should I value the freedom that comes from simply writing at home with the benefits of being associated with a new group of thinkers? Did I want to leave my home base and go to another city or country? Was that a smart career choice?

When I consulted with colleagues, most of those who had spent their leaves at other places spoke adoringly of their time away. It made me wonder if being away from teaching was not enough for a research leave. Did you also need to leave your life as well?

I am an avid archival researcher, and I have always found my research trips to be helpful. Library fellowships and seminars seemed to offer more of those chances, but each grant required that I tailor my application to that library's specific collection or theme. And as one of my graduate-committee members cautioned, I needed to write my book, not add more to it.

But the new readers I might encounter at those places could be as valuable as the library collections or the seminar topics themselves. Being at a liberal-arts college has made me understand that broad intellectual communities are wonderful, especially after the narrow focus of graduate training, but rigorous specialization has its place as well.

Another issue: Did I want to teach during my leave?

I initially felt the point of a leave for a faculty member at a liberal-arts college was to be away from the time demands of teaching and committee work. That seemed best accomplished by finding a fellowship with few restrictions. ("Money for free!") Those prestigious grants are coveted. For young faculty members, they reinforce the sense of professional validation that began in graduate school. Getting one also seems to aid in more-difficult professional tasks, like securing a book contract. That was exactly what I hoped to accomplish on my leave.

Winning one of those fellowships felt like an important part of establishing my reputation. Still, their lack of restrictions confused me: Who was worth such a large lump sum and a pat on the back? Or was this like playing the lottery?

I examined what I could find about past recipients. This process was both an act of self-fashioning and of masochism. I looked at Web sites with project abstracts, photographs, and institutional affiliations. Was my project as interesting as these? I had learned over the past few years that one result of "being too close" to one's research was that it could seem stale, obvious, and boring even if it's not. Still, I wondered how I could distinguish my project from the hundreds of others vying for grant readers' attention. One of the most significant differences I noticed, too, was that few recipients came from small liberal-arts colleges. The gulf between small colleges and research universities seemed vast at those moments.

I've realized even at this early stage that my research leave is about more than reading and writing. It will also determine how I relate to my institution and my profession.

The first step in this process, applying for grant money, has ramifications beyond whether I get any or not, and will reveal much about how I imagine my future as a teacher, a scholar, and a specialist in academe.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. He will be writing a series of columns about the challenges of balancing research and teaching at a liberal-arts college.