Applying for a Fulbright: one reviewer’s POV

I definitely did not have time this September to read and evaluate sixty 25-40 page applications from mid-career and senior scholars and artists to the region of Australia/ New Zealand. I said yes anyway because I was grateful for my 2011 Fulbright to Wellington and felt obligated to pay that generosity forward. I also knew I’d gain insights that might be useful if I ever try for Round Two and certainly could help colleagues and friends trying for similar opportunities.

Insight #1: it’s a miracle I won one of these babies. Fulbright fellowships are amazing, transformative, and few and far between. The agency receives some half-baked applications, but it also sifts through piles of outstanding proposals for highly significant projects from unbelievably gifted and well-credentialed applicants in every field from film-making to chemical engineering, and there are only a few winners for each region. Clearly you have to write a great proposal, but you also have to be lucky, because there are more brilliant projects than can possibly be funded. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, although you should be philosophical about the odds and have a back-up plan.

The Basics on Applying for Grants—You Know This, Right?

You have already applied, successfully, to college and grad school, and probably with mixed success for scholarships and a million other opportunities. You know to seek the advice of acquaintances with related experience and start long before the deadline, because glitches happen (the referee falls ill, tech crashes). You should only apply for grants at the appropriate level (no, exceptions will not be made) and only if you genuinely want to attend that humanities seminar in Siberia—don’t waste time, effort, and referee goodwill if you’re not serious and don’t have an actual shot. Really read the instructions to make sure you know what the grantor is looking for and ask for help if you don’t. For individual fellowships to develop your research or your art, and possibly to fund a sabbatical if you’re an academic, you should also think hard about those referees. Ideally they know you well, admire your work, and hail from different institutions to show the breadth of your connections; they should also be able to testify to the skills you’ll exercise in this particular project (it’s alarming when all the referees for a teaching fellowship say “I’ve never seen her teach but she’s quite charming personally.”) It’s fine if they all know you from different contexts and can testify to different aspects of your career—just make sure the puzzle pieces will fit together into a meaningful whole.

Fulbright Specific Things.

In the region and at the levels I read for, you can apply for research or research/ teaching fellowships, but not just teaching. The deadline is August 1. Proposals are swiftly sent to disciplinary experts who write up short evaluations. If they’re good they help people in other disciplines sift through to the key elements: this journal is top-rate, the research is cutting-edge because x, the sample syllabi are outdated because y, referee no. 3 is a field leader. They’re mostly good. Occasionally, however, some mathematician will offer (probably feeling positively verbose because he’s using words instead of symbols): “A good proposal from a hard-working fellow with respectable qualifications. Should be funded.” Defend against such cryptic obliquity, if you can, by providing your own context for your accomplishments. Sometimes an essay prize or a citation index makes all clear, but remember you will have poet-readers who don’t know biopolymers from colloids, much less how prestigious that visiting lecture series is. Tell us clearly but non-arrogantly what it all means.

The next stage, by the way, involves 4 jurors from different fields who get the applications in mid-September and have to read and comment on them all before a meeting in D.C. in early October. We write up bullet-point comments in three areas: applicant credentials; the quality of the proposal; the significance/ likely outcomes of the proposal. Sixty long and diverse applications, three weeks, hellaciously busy point in the school year: absorb that math. We’re conscientious people, but skimmable applications that are unjargonishly clear about method, deliverables, and significance please us.

Your audience is professional.

Avoid overly general pitches beginning with platitudes such as “science is beautiful” that you might direct at sixth graders or politicians. We’re on board with the premise that research and artistic production are worthwhile for their own sake. Get right to the specifics.

Your audience, however, includes people from radically different disciplines.

What would you say if you were explaining this project to a smart acquaintance from an opposite field, who didn’t know thing one about standard ideas and practices in your subspecialty but who catches on to the basics pretty fast? Make sure that person, reading your proposal, knows why the research matters. The best proposals play out the work’s significance not only within a specialty but to other fields, and sometimes even to government policy, public health, cross-cultural understanding, and other aspects of, you know, life. In the world.

Sound like a Fulbrighter.

You should be eager to contribute generously to your host institution through advising students, giving workshops, and participating in seminar series, and perhaps to the larger community through general interest lectures. You have a lot to give. Know, however, that you will also be helped, possibly even radically changed, by this experience.

I don’t think it’s smart to wax lyrical in your application about the wonders of international immersion. If a past international experience has changed how you think, say so in a specific way that relates your research, and then get back to those project details. It’s worse, though, to sound like a jerk who knows that the poor folks in this remote backwater would be lucky to have you around for a few months.

Plan a project that really requires you to be on site for archival work, equipment use, collaboration, interviews, whatever. Conceive of it from the beginning as a two-way flow of open-minded goodwill and energetic mutual usefulness. Then, even though you’re talking about a hypothetical and faraway time and place, be as specific as you can about what you have to give and hope to learn.

And good luck. Winning altered the course of my professional life—my scholarship, poetry, reading, teaching, even my social connections are richer for the experience. My children now understand that they live not just in the US but in a huge, weird, fascinating world; they dwell in it with greater self-confidence. Trying for this long-shot lucky break was one of the most important and rewarding risks I’ve ever taken.

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.