Why Are So Many Fellowships Residential?

Why Are So Many Fellowships Residential?

Melissa E. Blair

It’s fellowship application season for academics. A time when we all beat the bushes of the internet, trying to find as many opportunities as possible to get time away from teaching to research or write. We pursue these opportunities diligently every year. We do so because we know our chances of actually receiving a fellowship are miniscule – not because of the quality of our work, but because of the insanely high level of competition. Everyone applies for a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship. Everyone applies for a Carnegie Foundation fellowship. Everyone applies for an ACLS fellowship (except this year, as the ACLS is restricted to non-tenure-track scholars). And that’s it. That’s all we can do, leaving hundreds of us competing for the same pool of money that will be given to only a couple dozen scholars.

Yet there is another pool of money out there: residential fellowships. These are among the most prestigious awards in our profession, offering exceptional opportunities for historians to advance their research.There are far more of them (roughly three times as many, before taking into account individual archival research awards). The National Humanities Center nicely sums up the value of residential fellowships, noting that, “during their time in residence, Fellows are given the freedom to work on projects while benefiting from the exceptional services of the center.” While in residence, they have the “freedom to read, work, and think independent of the usual pressure of academic life,” something one former Fellow describes as “immensely important for scholarship.” In addition to working on their individual projects, scholars at the Center often form writing groups, hold seminars, and regularly “enjoy informal conversations during meals.” Ultimately, in the words of another former Fellow, a year’s residence at the center offers “the right mixture of stillness and sociality.” Who wouldn’t want such an opportunity?

The reality, however, is that such opportunities are outside the realm of possibility for a large swathe of scholars, not because their research isn’t equally valuable, but because they have other responsibilities unrelated to “the pressures of academic life” that make it unrealistic – if not impossible – to contemplate moving to a site like the National Humanities Center for a year. They have spouses who also have careers. They are parents, and don’t wish to uproot their school-age children, or risk losing a spot at daycare, by pulling their child out for a year. They are responsible for caring for aging parents or family members with health conditions. Residential fellowships are a vestige of a time when academic families lived on a single income, when life revolved around the career of this breadwinner, and when scholars were overwhelmingly men with stay-at-home wives. The founders of the National Humanities Center, for example, were all representatives of this earlier generation of academics. Yet, the profession looks rather different now than it did when these men began their careers in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Such fellowships are no longer responsive to the needs of a vast majority of historians or other scholars working in the humanities today.

It is one thing to ask one’s family to move overseas, where the opportunity of living in another culture and geography offers some compensation for the inconvenience of moving away from home for a year. It is another to ask them to put their own lives on pause and move from Alabama to North Carolina, so you can have a year of quiet writing and academic fellowship. The alternative, of course, is to live apart from one’s family for a year. Yet, for some scholars – single parents, or caregivers, for example – this isn’t an option. For scholars for whom it is an option, it means choosing one’s career over one’s family. For those who share parenting responsibilities, this means leaving your partner to carry the heavy burden alone, while you are away advancing your career. It likewise means missing a significant portion of a child’s development, because children, as a host of clichés remind us, change very quickly.

The exclusively residential fellowship program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study offers a similar, but perhaps more troubling case in point, given that program’s specific history. Organized in 1961 by Mary Bunting, then the president of Radcliffe College, the purpose of the Radcliffe fellowships was to counter what Bunting saw as forces pushing female scholars out of academia and provide resources to keep them in their careers. The institute states that it is “animated by an institutional legacy of promoting inclusion and opportunity.” The fellowship is now open to men and states that it pays close attention to funding “those who have historically been underrepresented in academia.” However, its insistence on residency runs counter to this history. That the fellowship has not been rethought to be meaningfully opened to parents, other caregivers, or any scholar who wants to balance their family and work lives by not moving for ten months strikes us as exactly the opposite of what the program was founded to do. Rather than enabling academic careers for those facing structural barriers to such careers, it maintains barriers to prestige and career advancement by only funding residential fellows.

When we have complained to other colleagues or administrators about the existing imbalance between residential and non-site specific fellowships, one answer we have received on multiple occasions goes something like this: “No one makes you have children. This is a choice you made. It is also your choice to advance your career or not. Other scholars choose to make these sacrifices to advance their research, and if you aren’t willing to do the same, why should you deserve an equal amount of recognition or success?” But do they all make these same sacrifices? Is it a coincidence that over twenty percent of the fellows at the National Humanities Center between 2015 and 2019 came from universities in North Carolina? Perhaps. The “Triangle” does host some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the United States, after all. However, might it be just as likely that such a large proportion of fellows hail from the state because their institutional affiliations mean that they can take advantage of all the benefits of a year in residence at the Center without having to contemplate any of the financial or emotional costs of either moving or living apart from their families for a year in order to finish their next book?

We are not advocating that residential fellowships be eliminated. We recognize that these centers are physical places and therefore have a different mission than other organizations that provide fellowships. But perhaps the well-heeled institutions that fund the largest residential programs – the Wilson Center, the National Humanities Center, the Radcliffe Institute, and others – could consider shrinking their residential cohorts and providing alternate programs for those of us who cannot uproot our lives for ten months. During this year in particular it seems unrealistic to expect people to undertake such substantial but temporary moves, given the global pandemic. While some institutes like the Wilson Center have begun to establish some non-residential programs, this is not what the National Humanities Center and Radcliffe Institute and smaller institutes such as the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study have done. These centers and others have solicited applications in the past few months for residential programs to begin in the fall of 2021.

What if, instead, the COVID crisis was perceived by these institutions as an opportunity to rethink their funding models? Arguably the major perk of these fellowships – the chance to talk through works in progress regularly with other scholars – we now know can be done remotely with ease. We all can envision running writing groups and regular, larger talks on works-in-progress through Zoom. Shifting these fellowships in ways that are responsive to the realities of the pandemic, in turn, suggests ways that they might be shifted permanently to better align with the non-academic lives of most historians. Creating such opportunities would do a tremendous amount to democratize advancement opportunities in the field. It would spread the money out more evenly, and eliminate what is effectively a penalty for the majority of academics whose family situations do not permit them to move for ten months. It would make our knowledge of the past richer by helping more scholars get their scholarship published more quickly. It is a shift that is long overdue.

Featured image caption: Radcliffe Yard. (John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons)

Melissa E. Blair is an Associate Professor of History at Auburn University, where she teaches class on U.S women's and gender history. Her first book, Revolutionizing Expectations: Women's Organizations, Feminism, and American Politics 1965-80, was published in 2014. She is currently working on a book examining the work of the DNC and RNC Women's Divisions in the middle decades of the 20th century. Part of that research was recently published in Suffrage at 100: American Women in Politics since 1920.

3 thoughts on “Why Are So Many Fellowships Residential?

    • Author gravatar

      Thank you. This is so true. I’d add that there are more men among historians who still have the old conventional academic family and can take everyone because they handily have a non wage earning wife who does what faculty wives of earlier eras did.
      If fellows were non-residential, they could still come in for several days one, two or more times in a year to present work and meet.

    • Author gravatar

      Perfect description of the baked-in bias in fellowship opportunities.

    • Author gravatar

      And why I only applied for ones that let me stay home in Cambridge. But had I lived elsewhere….

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