A friend of mine recently turned down the prestigious Fulbright grant because it became clear in the period between her initial application and the award of the grant that her family obligations in the United States would not allow her to fulfill Fulbright’s requirement that she spend the entirety of the one year term of the grant abroad. In part her receipt of a more flexible grant that would still allow her to undertake her dissertation research took some of the sting away from this wrenching decision, but it still raises the question of whether grants like the Fulbright should require such an extended period of residency. I do not deny that there are advantages to spending an long period of time in the country of one has chosen to research. Potential benefits include a deeper understanding of culture and perhaps language that comes only through time and the building of local relationships, which can be particularly crucial for oral history projects. However, the reality is that archival research no longer requires the kind of long term residence that it might have in the days before digital photography and online searchable catalogues.
Of course not all archives have this facility, but for an increasing number of historians it is possible to search the catalogue online before you travel and in some cases even order your documents before you arrive. Digital photography means that you can quickly and cheaply copy the relevant documents to sort through and read when you return home. This of course leaves aside the increasing number of sources that are entirely available online. (On digitization see History Compass posts by John Cunningham, Yaniv Fox, Kimberley Knight and Angela Sutton.) Even if digital photography is not allowed, the cost of copying can sometimes amount to less than the cost of an extended stay. In some ways several shorter research trips abroad interspersed by periods of writing can be more productive than spending a year researching before you start drafting your dissertation. As I recently discussed, the process of writing leads to new ideas and inevitably turns up holes in the research already collected. Writing as you research can also mean that it is possible to publish articles earlier and that you have polished chapters ready to submit for the job market, even if you haven’t completely finished your dissertation.
Aside from the changes in the ways that archival research can be conducted, grants that require a yearlong stay, even those like the Fulbright that provide an allowance for dependents are still very much based on the model of a one career relationship or family. The assumption is that a partner or children can easily relocate for a year. As this is not always possible, the reality that many scholars are faced with is the choice between declining the prestigious grant or a year away from their family or partner with all the attendant problems of maintaining a long distance relationship that Justin Bengry recently outlined. Some, such as the parents of special-needs children, who can neither leave their families behind for long periods nor bring them do not even have that choice. Barbara Weinstein’s 2007 essay “Historians and the Mobility Question” in Perspectives eloquently describes the pervasive silence in the historical profession on the issue of mobility during her own time in graduate school and concludes that this probably reflected “the enduring assumption, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that the typical academic was a head of household whose spouse and children would readily move to a new location whenever his or her (really “his”) career required it.” Although she notes many improvements in terms of flexiblitiy since her graduate school days, Weinstein’s article reveals the persistent disadvantages faced by faculty whose personal lives do not allow them to relocate for either research or year-long residential fellowships. This is equally true for graduate students and certainly more flexibility in funding would go some way towards solving the problem.