Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Knowing your audience

Yesterday, one of the things I did accomplish in working on my NEH grant proposal was writing to them with a couple questions. Here's the one that concerns me at the moment:
I have a PhD in [field 1], and am currently a Visiting Scholar in
[field 2]. My proposed project deals with establishing a common
language and methodology for the integrated study of these two fields. Is there any reason not to list the field as "Interdisciplinary"?
For clarification, the NEH classification that involves field 1 doesn't really describe the sort of work I do, it's a very traditional sort of description for [field 1/subfield 1] and doesn't begin to touch on [field 1/interdisciplinary subfield] which is much closer to my work. I could simply choose [field 2], but that didn't seem right, especially in light of the response:
Dear Dr. [YouKnowWho]:

Yes, there is a reason to refrain from using the "interdisciplinary" category. It doesn't help us to assign your application to a panel. We don't have any interdisciplinary panels. We do have panels in subject areas. There is always a [field1] panel. We usually do not have enough applications for a [field 2] panel, so [field 2] is grouped with [generic, only slightly related to field 2 discipline]. You should put down the field in which you would like to have your application evaluated. Probably [field 1] is the right choice, if you think that [field 1ers] would be sympathetic to your project.
Aye, so there's the rub. Indeed, I would like to think that field 1ers are sympathetic to my work. But, so far none of them this year have deigned so much as to shortlist me for a faculty post. Does this reply mean that the panels for reviewing NEH grant proposals are not interdisciplinary? That's unexpected. I've applied for numerous grants, and have received several. My understanding to this point is that the committees were all made up of a variety of disciplinarians.

Hearing that I must choose a single field for the panel's makeup puts a whole new spin on the enterprise. It reduces my confidence level a notch, since I've had little success lately in getting scholars in my own field to pay my work much heed. Oh no you haven't, you might say, isn't that BIG article of yours, your dissertation distillation about to be published? Well, yes, but it's going to appear in a new journal, focusing on a new sort of approach to the discipline, rather than a traditional old school journal.

Ah, but why should I assume that the [field 1] panel will be made up entirely of close-minded denizens of long-established traditionalism. Well, perhaps they won't. Unfortunately, this appears to be newish territory. Of the [field 1] projects that have been funded by the NEH, all of them appear (on the surface at least) to be much more traditional projects, than what I intend to propose. Let me be clear, it's not that I disrespect those traditionalists. There is nothing wrong with established discipline. It's just not my thing. And, more importantly (if a bit too defensively) there's nothing wrong with new methodologies and approaches either.

The first rule is always know your audience. Sometimes, I'm not so sure I know this one. So, it's a challenge. It's Physics for Surfers or Anthropology for Chemists. That's my immediate task. Now to have at it.

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