BY AARON BARLOW
A decade or so ago, I applied for a travel grant to examine papers of Carlos Salzedo, a twentieth-century French/American harpist. The request was turned down, the result of a scathing evaluation by someone who was incensed that I had not mentioned the other important French/American harpist of the time, Marcel Grandjany.
Thing is, I hadn’t set out to study Grandjany nor to look at harpists in general. I am no musicologist but a student of popular culture. I knew of Salzedo through my mother, who had studied with him over several summers and who had further studied with one of his students, Alice Chalifoux, at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music before starting her own career as a harpist. I had seen pictures of the rows of young harpists at the summer institutes in Camden, Maine and had heard, of course, my mother’s stories. I had become quite interested in the subculture that had grown around Salzedo and wanted to pursue it in light of broader American cultural changes. Certainly, nothing similar exists now. My question was, Why?
I didn’t feel I could lay all that out in the grant proposal: My real agenda remained hidden. As, I am sure, was the agenda of the person who got me turned down. That person obviously (from the comments) did not feel Salzedo worthy of study, not compared to Grandjany, and, I suspect, did not think that an English professor should be writing on classical musicians.
I had not claimed to know more about the harp and harpists than most other non-harpists, but I do. I grew up with them. Harpists were often around, and I can even care for harps, string them and tune them, know the various makes and models and have carried more of them more often than I can possibly remember. But that, again, is not something I felt I could write about in a grant proposal—though it is important to the culture that once grew around the instrument (and that still exists, though in quite a different incarnation).
The rejection of my application led me to realize two things: First, to be successful in applying for a grant, one has to work carefully within much narrower prescriptions than even application guidelines provide. That is, one has to successfully guess what the predilections of the judges are and tailor the application to them. And, second, one cannot expect to follow one’s own interests unless they have an established academic pedigree.
The only grant that I know of that is completely outside of these strictures is the MacArthur “genius” grant—and one can’t apply for that.
In my scholarship, I don’t want to have to follow where the dollar trails lead. Fortunately, as a tenured professor, I don’t have to—as long as I’m willing to give up the recognition that gaining grants accords… which, in itself, is something I’ve often found strange: Receiving a grant is lauded in institutional publications as much as, if not more, than actual production of scholarship.
No… I guess it is not strange. Grants are money or can translate into it; scholarship isn’t—not always. Not often.
Grants, by their very nature, restrict study to paths prescribed by the grantors. They always say that the scholar can make a case for something else, but those arguments are rarely heard. The judges base their decisions on their own biases—as did the Grandjany admirer—and on a narrow range of qualifications on the part of the applicant.
Instead of furthering original scholarship, our contemporary system of grants (for the most part—again, the MacArthur Foundation is an example of a countering trend) tends to valorize proposals that color inside the lines. The following of the latest academic fads is encouraged, as is devotion to the established figures within one’s field. The taking of chances is discouraged not only by the process but by the fact that the judges tend to be those with vested interests in particular approaches to whatever question is under consideration.
That’s not going to change, certainly not while the dollar-driven corporate model of higher education and scholarship remains in place.