There’s nothing new about the agency’s interest in the public sphere. NEH grants have long supported museums, libraries and radio and television broadcasts. For instance, Ken Burns’s popular documentary “The Civil War” received funding from the NEH. But the Public Scholar program is designed specifically to encourage individual books of serious scholarship that can reach a wide audience.
And this isn’t just cheerleading; it’s cash. The NEH is inviting independent scholars and scholars working for colleges and universities to apply for six to 12-month grants worth $4,200 a month.
The program is a priority for William D. Adams, who became chairman of the NEH in July. “The fundamental aspiration,” he says, “is to encourage, support and inspire humanities scholars to do a somewhat different kind of work than they have in the past . . . to make sure it meaningfully enters into the public realm where it can matter and have impact.”
That’s not always the direction of scholarly research, of course. Graduate students and professors are typically rewarded — with grants, promotions and tenure — without any regard for how accessible their work is. Sometimes, their insights filter down to the general public, but too often they remain essentially off-limits to lay readers. In fact, popular books can carry a whiff of unprofessionalism in some erudite circles. For every Niall Ferguson publishing a bestselling work of history, there are a thousand professors filing away monographs that only a few companion researchers will ever see.
Adams knows the world of academia and how sensitive this issue is. He was president of Colby College for 14 years before coming to the NEH. “Academic humanities have over the last couple of decades become more technical and more professional, so this is something of a new departure,” he says.
According to a statement from the NEH, the agency is looking for proposals for books that will “present a narrative history, tell the stories of important individuals, analyze significant texts, provide a synthesis of ideas, revive interest in a neglected subject, or examine the latest thinking on a topic.” Adams also mentions literary criticism, anthropology and philosophy as possible subjects that applicants might explore.
At the moment, the program has no firm budget. The NEH is waiting to see what kind of response it gets from qualified applicants.
Assessing those applications is the agency’s next challenge because old standards will need to be expanded. “It’s not the kind of work that traditionally very academic people would be able to assess,” Adams notes. “These kinds of proposals will have to be judged by people who have sympathy and knowledge about this kind of work. So we will need to recruit to our review panels people who can evaluate it.”
This sounds like good news for scholars — and the rest of us, too.
The deadline for applications is March 3, 2015.