Research Trips

Some practical thoughts on short-term research fellowships

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I’m currently on a Short-Term Research Fellowship at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, and next month I’ll be on another at the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Austin, Texas. These are my fourth and fifth short-term fellowships/research trips sponsored by an institution, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some thoughts and advice about the process of applying for and undertaking these kinds of fellowships.

*n.b. lots of institutions also offer short-term fellowships for maker/creators, although the advice here will probably be most relevant to historians and scholars of english literature undertaking research fellowships in American collections.

Before you go

Although short-term fellowships have been amongst some of my favourite things I’ve done as a scholar, they’re often quite complicated, so plan early.

Applications

Like other kinds of research fellowships, often you apply for short-term fellowships for the following academic year, meaning that you need to think about the process as early as possible. Keep a running list of potential institutions, with the dates that their fellowship competition closes, handy. For example, I applied for my current Huntington Fellowship in November 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago (n.b. I could have taken up my fellowship anywhere from June 2017, although accommodation would have been harder to get and travel would have been more expensive at shorter notice).

Also bear in mind that applying for these things can be a relatively substantial undertaking. Most short-term fellowships require a CV, detailed research proposal, and a list of objects/texts/archival materials that you will need to consult during the fellowship. It’s vital, particularly in an age of the digital facsimile, to be able to tell the committee exactly why you need to see these objects in person, and furthermore, why they are essential sources for the completion of this project.

Thirdly, remember that if a short-term fellowship of a month or longer seems like a quite a time commitment, several institutions (such as Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library) also provide travel grants to go and use their collections for a shorter period, usually around two weeks.

Career Benefits

Short-term research fellowships are highly competitive, and are offered by prestigious institutions. As research proposals are reviewed by a committee and then awarded funds to complete them, successful applications demonstrate that you are undertaking internationally-recognised, fundable, dynamic research. You may have also heard that fellowships beget fellowships: this was certainly true for me – once I’d received a couple of short-term fellowships, I was awarded two more short-term fellowships, followed by two longer-term postdoctoral fellowships. For postgraduate and early career researchers building their CVs, this sort of progression is hugely important for making you competitive on the job/postdoc market. Perhaps most importantly, the short-term fellowships I received were also vital sources of encouragement and success when it felt like a time of overwhelming rejection, and really made me feel like a valid researcher when I had just finished my PhD.

Costs

Although such fellowships are always remunerated, the extent to which this is the case varies vastly. Some institutions provide extremely generous lump sums, some provide smaller bursaries, and some provide a less generous bursaries but will book travel and accommodation for you, or offer the latter free. Depending on which of these is the case for your chosen institution, the amount may not cover the costs of transportation, accommodation, visa fees, and living away for a month or more. Furthermore, payment often comes after the fact, once you’ve been at and maybe even left the institution, so be aware that you may have to pay upfront for things and wait to be reimbursed at a later date. Additionally, not every institution will reimburse for the hidden cost of getting a visa (although some will), and many fellowships are taxed quite viciously (some up to as much as 30%, although getting a Social Security Number will help to reduce this number significantly – many institutions will say you don’t need this, but for heavily-taxed fellowships, like the Huntington, this is well worth it).

On the topic of the visa, again, this can be quite a lengthy process, requiring multiple forms and an in-consulate interview, something that can be expensive if, like me, you don’t live near a visa-issuing consulate. I’d always recommend scheduling the interview in Belfast over London, as it has quicker wait times and accommodation in the city is cheaper. Interview slots are often booked-up a long time in advance, and visa processing can take around a fortnight, so leave plenty of time for this at the other end so you don’t have to worry about not having your visa and passport by the time of your flight!

My final tip for things to do before you go, is to book accommodation as early as possible. If the institution offers accommodation, then it’s good to book this early as they’ll be scheduling multiple scholars into a single residence, and summer will always be oversubscribed due to term-time and teaching commitments. If you’re booking external accommodation, most institutions offer a list of recommended places, but once again the best/nearest places often fill up quickly. As a guide, I booked my accommodation for this trip in May 2017, over a year in advance, and the place I am staying was already nearly full for this Summer back then!

 

Whilst you’re there…

First few days: plan the trip 

Although fellowships seem long – two months away seems like ages – they go unbelievably quickly. As such, I’d recommend preparing for your research trip before you leave. However, this isn’t always practical, and I inevitably end up doing this the first few days after I arrive. For me this means re-reading my application, redoing my collections searches (this is particularly important as the kinds of objects I am interested in has expanded since I first wrote the application), and working out what extra-fellowship things I want to do and see (and eat!). Bear in mind that the first few days are often also taken up with orientations, having to visit the University’s international office, and other kinds of introductory events, so it can often take a full week to feel fully settled in. Finally, I’d recommend getting in touch with any scholars who live in the area who you’d like to meet – this is a great way for ECRs to make contacts internationally.

Writing retreat 

Short-term fellowships are also a great opportunity to get some serious writing done. I personally find I am the most intellectually generative during research trips, so I often feel inspired to write during fellowships. Although wonderful in other ways, fellowships can be lonely (particularly if the institution doesn’t offer shared accommodation) and the evenings and weekends can feel long and boring. At the same time, they’re also free from everyday work and home-life commitments, making them ripe to be treated as a kind of writing retreat. Depending on the length of the trip, I normally go away planning to make headway on one specific thing (usually a book-chapter or article length project for around two months of fellowship). Don’t be too ambitious with this though, as time always goes much more quickly than you anticipate.

Exploring 

Although it’s tempting to spend all of your time away working (see above), do spend some time exploring the area. I’m currently in California, having never visited before, so I’m currently enjoying weekends exploring Pasadena and LA. If you have twitter, make sure to ask your colleagues and followers for recommendations. Ultimately you won’t be able to do everything that is suggested, but it’s nice to have a plan for your downtime as much as it is your work time.

If you have any further questions, or would like to ask me more about any of the fellowships that I’ve been on, please do feel free to contact me via email or twitter! I’ll keep this post updated with any additional comments and suggestions as I get them.

*Addenda 

Dependents

Lots of people on twitter have asked about the practicalities and realities of taking short-term fellowships with dependents and care responsibilities. In short, short-term fellowships definitely privilege those who can drop anything and uproot for weeks and months at a time, meaning those with dependents and care responsibilities at home are inevitably less able to apply for them. Additionally, the costs of bringing over a whole family are higher, and if you’re on a visa, then you’ll also need to apply for dependents visas for your children. Some institutions, like the Folger Library, the Bard Graduate Center, and Yale Center for British Art, are actively aware of this, and offer family-sized apartments, and other kinds of support necessary, like organising education for visiting children at local schools. The best advice I can offer on this is to talk to each institution on an individual basis to discuss this, and see what they can offer. As a whole however, fellowship-offering institutions need to think about and address this head on, citing how they can provide for families visibly on their fellowship webpages. As noted above, fellowships can be great for career progression, and an individual’s home-life shouldn’t be something that prevents them from undertaking them.

Visa Issues 

As others have pointed out to me on twitter, the ease of being awarded a J1 visa can differ greatly depending on your race, ethnicity, and even your marital status, so this is definitely something to bear in mind. Be sure to talk to your fellowship-awarding institution about this, and see what advice their international office can give you regarding the process. Remember that often travel grants (eg. those of around two weeks or so) don’t require full visas, but ESTAs instead (if you’re from a country where the visa waver programme is an option), so this might be a way of getting around this.

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Design History Society Research Travel Grant Report – The British Library & Strawberry Hill

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Thanks to a 2016 Research Travel Grant from the Design History Society, I was able to conduct crucial primary research for the completion of my monograph, which is provisionally titled Home Ties: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion in British Domestic Space, 1750-1840. It is the first study to focus on the complex relationship between emotion, identity, and the material culture of the home during this period, exploring how the decoration of domestic space allowed contemporaries to express themselves, to show affection to their loved ones, and to construct the homes in which they lived.

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Specifically, a Design History Society Research Travel Grant enabled me to conduct research for three of the book’s chapters, which examine descriptions of interior design in the travel writing of Caroline Lybbe Powys, reputation management and the interiors of John Wilkes’s retirement cottage on the Isle of Wight, and Anne Seymour Damer’s inheritance of Horace Walpole’s Gothic revival home, Strawberry Hill, in turn. At the British Library, I consulted the papers, journals, and correspondence of Caroline Lybbe Powys, Anne Seymour Damer, and John Wilkes, whilst at the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Wellcome Library, I viewed the correspondence of Mary Berry, a close friend of Damer and Walpole. I discovered many exciting finds in archives, including a number of previously unknown portraits, as well as a recipe for shellwork cement shared between friends, highlighting the collaborative nature of such craft practices. I also read many letters describing key elements of the interiors of Walpole and Damer’s homes, which I will continue to think about during my forthcoming research trip to Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library, where I’ll also be investigating the relationship between the two figures.

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The Grant also allowed me to visit Strawberry Hill itself, which has been the subject of a sensitive restoration and was reopened to the public in 2010. Being able to walk through the spaces so lovingly described by its owners and viewers was immensely important and highly evocative, particularly for a project concerned with issues of emotion and experience. The visit also revealed that despite the importance of Damer and Walpole’s relationship, the narratives of queer inheritance and ownership that are at the heart of my book chapter are entirely absent from Strawberry Hill’s current public presentation.

I’m excited to utilise this archival research in my forthcoming monograph, and would like to thank the Design History Society, the British Library, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Wellcome Library for making this research possible.

N.B. A version of this post will also appear on the Design History Society blog.

Looking Forward to 2017

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Inspired by a number of reflective end-of-year blog posts (including this and this) I thought I’d map out my aims and activities for 2017. If you’d like to gain a sense of what I achieved in 2016, you can check out my series on being a year post-phd here, here, and here.

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Yale Center for British Art

As always seems to be the case, 2017 is shaping up to be a very busy year.

In January, I’m primarily working on editing my PhD thesis for publication: firstly, I’m editing the sample chapters of my book that will be submitted for review, and secondly, I’m revising an article on needlework and visual culture, which is currently at revise and resubmit stage with a peer-reviewed journal. As a broader research aim, I also want to develop a sustainable daily writing habit during this month.

January is also the month in which I return to teaching, and this term I’m teaching four courses, one of which is completely new to me. I’m excited (and slightly apprehensive) about the challenges of a heavier teaching load, and interested to find ways of balancing my time between teaching and research commitments. Indeed, while teaching and marking dominate the months of January, February and March, I’m also planning on revising another article, this time on the interior decoration of A la Ronde, during this time. In February, I’m working on hosting a public event on Queer Material Heritage to tie in with this year’s LGBT History Month theme.

In April, I’ll be finishing off some marking, but more excitingly I’m off to Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library for a two week-research trip. I’ll be researching an exciting mixture of things for both my monograph project, as well as my postdoctoral project on collage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Directly following on from this, I’m spending the month of May as a Visiting Scholar at Yale Center for British Art, during which time I’ll also conduct research for the collage project, this time on composite albums, botanical paper collages, and a number of mourning objects.

In June I’ll be travelling to Umeå, Sweden for the International Society for Cultural History 2017 Conference, which this year is on ‘Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn: Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History’. My presentation, ‘Lost Objects & Loss Objects: Intersections of Absence and Presence in Eighteenth-Century Material Culture’, will hopefully provide the perfect opportunity to tease out some of the key issues for the Introduction of my book.

In July, I’m off to another conference, this time in London. At Sibylline Leaves: Chaos and Compilation in the Romantic Period, I’ll be presenting my recent work on Romantic commonplace books, which has functioned as a sort of pilot study for my collage project.

Finally, in August, I’m spending a month as a research fellow at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. Other than providing a gorgeous setting for research, I’ll be using the Wintherthur’s library and museum collections to conduct research on a form of paper collage known as ‘scrapbook houses’. I’ll definitely be posting about all my research trips so stay tuned!

I’ll also be running Edinburgh’s Eighteenth-Century Research Seminars again this year (with the first session on Jan 25th) and Katie Faulkner  and I are hoping to develop a project from #WaysofSheing, which will look at the contribution of female art historians across history – watch this space.

From September onwards, things are a little more hazy, although I’m a hundred per cent sure that I’ll be working on publications as much as possible, having kept various articles and the book ticking over during the first 8 months of the year. So 2017, let’s do this.

BAVS Research Funding Award Report – Bronte Parsonage Museum

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Since beginning my research on the commonplace books of Ellen Warter, I – like their author – have been preoccupied with the Brontës. For Warter, the sisters were the objects of estimation, affection, and interest, and she obsessively documented them within her own literary productions. Made around 1880, and now housed in the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh, her commonplace books are quite unlike ‘conventional’ examples of the genre, which traditionally compile excerpted texts from a broad array of writers upon various topics. Instead, Warter devoted over 300 pages of her volumes to the lives and literature of the Brontës, rendering them more of a record of the family than anything else.

For Warter, commonplacing was an inherently familial practice. The granddaughter of the Romantic poet Robert Southey, she was part of a family whose own commonplacing and album-making spanned several generations. Warter’s grandfather, aunts, mother, and father all made, or contributed to the production of, such volumes, a literary inheritance that places Warter’s own productions within a longer history and set of material practices. Beyond this familial context, Warter’s specific interest in the Brontës locates her albums within another subdivision of nineteenth-century album making: the production of volumes dedicated to literary celebrities, specifically those celebrating and commemorating the Brontës, a number of which I examined during my research trip to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

The Museum holds numerous scrapbooks, albums, and collections of newspaper cuttings chronicling the Brontë family. With dates ranging between 1860 and 1980, the broad range of these holdings suggests the consistency of such practices well into the twentieth century. My research at the Museum focused on those albums produced after the Brontës’ heyday in the mid-nineteenth century until around 1914, in accordance with the chronological parameters of my broader project on ‘assemblage’ in the long nineteenth century. The albums I examined were characterized by the variety of their visual, material, and textual inclusions, which variously included photographs, written correspondence, printed images, dried flora, and newspaper cuttings. Such diversity highlights the variation inherent to nineteenth-century album production, and the dangers of adhering strictly to taxonomic classifications such as ‘scrapbook’ or ‘commonplace book’; ultimately reinforcing the importance of comparing and relating Warter’s own manuscripts to these albums. Further to these material observations, the analysis of around 40 examples of such volumes also revealed a number of emergent themes within their inclusions, with emphases upon: death, commemoration, and memorialization; portrayal and representation; locality; and social and familial relations; many of which are echoed within Warter’s own books. Going forward, the project will situate Warter’s treatment of the Brontës in relation to the albums studied on this visit, as well as the album production of the broader Warter and Southey families, made possible thanks to a travel grant award from the British Association for Romantic Studies.

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I would like to thank both the British Association for Victorian Studies and the Brontë Parsonage Museum for making this visit possible. The Museum’s Brontë collection is the largest in the world, and its holdings include original manuscripts, objects belonging to the family, and the records of the Brontë Society, established in 1893. The Museum also houses an extensive research library of primary and secondary sources, making it a crucial repository for the study of any aspect of the Brontë family.

N. B. this report will also appear in a future edition of the BAVS Newsletter.