Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Post-SSHRC reflections

I just got in the mail the external evaluators' assessments of my SSHRC application. I didn't receive one, I found out a month ago. I wasn't surprised, knowing that the rate of success is about 34% overall, and it is about 22% for those in the "new scholars" category, like me. I was disappointed, though - knowing that I shouldn't be - because the four people who had read it had all been extremely enthusiastic about it, and two had said they felt certain that it would be funded. (Not to self: Don't say such things to people!)

The thing is - and I was aware of this, even as I let myself get my hopes about it - that none of these people who reviewed it have expertise in the field in which I was proposing my project. The proposal was sent to three external evaluators who are all, of course, expert in a field I was ostensibly treating. Some of their comments were pretty harsh, which doesn't surprise me - they picked up on what I knew were inconsistencies in my application, on issues I myself had identified. The thing was, I was under pressure to submit a grant application, and so I conjured up my project very quickly...I mean, I had the project going 'in name,' and had presented papers on tiny bits of it, but only wrote about it in detail for the first time, for the application. It was very newly formulated. It has matured a lot in the 8 months or so of additional research and some writing I've done since I first wrote that application (thankfully!).

But my problem is my positioning, and the researchers to whom the application was sent for review. To invoke the terms with which I have metaphorized my research before, they are haiku experts. I also work on chemical engineering and agricultural history - and in fact, my work is about the intersections between those latter two fields - I simply use haiku as a means of thinking about these other two fields. I don't consider myself first and foremost a haiku expert, though I certainly know my way around the field. In fact, I've even thought about having the first line of my book be, "This is not a book about haiku" (even though it is, on the surface - but really, what it is, is a book about agricultural history and chemical engineering, using haiku as a lens).

But the app was sent to thorough haiku experts, and it does not surprise me in the least that they don't love the project. In fact, the SSHRC committee - which would be composed of chemical engineering and agricultural history experts - was quite generous with me considering the lack of enthusiasms of the haiku-ists for the project; they wrote quite lovely comments and gave me points in disproportion to what the evaluators' comments warranted. They "get it," they get what I want to do, I suspect. I don't think haiku-ists ever will; they're never going to like what I'm trying to do, in part because it will be seen as much too abstract for their material field. It is very telling that they didn't even comment on what, to me, is the major theoretical point of the project!! They don't even "see" it. (This is not me being a snob, suggesting that people who work in more materially oriented ways don't understand theory...I mean simply that it's not what they're trained to look for or emphasize or evaluate when they're doing something like this.)

So when I re-submit in the fall, I'm going to be really challenged in terms of how I present the project. What I could do is rejig the project, addressing all of the haiku-ists' is really not hard to do. But I don't want to have a project that's like that. And yet, I will always be evaluated by haiku-ists, simply because the word haiku is in my work. But these aren't people, as I mention, who engage with the theoretical issues I'm dealing with, that I'm actually trying to bring new perspectives to.

At least I have a summer to think about it.

The other issue is, SSHRC places so much value on having "graduate student training" be part of the proposal. They don't distinguish between fields...graduate student training in psychology and some of the social sciences is very different from what it is in the Humanities, where we simply don't have the same kind of tradition of collaborative work between researchers and their grad students. So there's (to my mind) an over-emphasis, on the evaluators' assessment forms, of the question of how the proposed project will contribute to graduate student training. The assessors are really negative on this point, saying that my plans to have doctoral candidates do archival work and then literature reviews are totally unrewarding and no good. Well, that's all I ever did - or anyone I know ever did - when we were employed as research assistants. (Well, no, I drafted some translations and tracked down a whole bunch of quotations and dealt with permissions and the publisher, but that is of the same order of busy-work, that work). I'm not really sure what this excellent graduate student training is supposed to look like...I note that this is SSHRC rhetoric (i.e. government agency rhetoric) and it seemed to me that the actual committee of academics - the ones who were quite generous to me - didn't even factor it into their decisions to allocate points. This is good, because when I rejig the app for this year's competition, I may phase out most grad student training...simply because adding more and more of it is a nod in the haiku direction, but does nothing for the chemical engineering and agricultural history aspects of my work.


K said...

I'm sorry you didn't get it, and sympathize with you about the problem of evaluators not really understanding your approach to your work. It can be frustrating at best when your work is sent out to evaluators who are not quite right for your project. This has happened to me and I feel the same way about introducing the material: "This is not a haiku book!" Sometimes you have to oversimplify the first paragraph or so of the application or the abstract to make sure it gets funneled properly.

But keep trying! Your continued work on the project and obvious support from your colleagues will help a lot. Hang in there!

Pantagruelle said...

I'm sorry you didn't get funded, and I completely understand your frustrations with being evaluated by the wrong category of people (as someone who also straddles a few different fields and periods).

It's unfair that your application wasn't read by chemical engineering and agricultural history specialists. Is there nowhere on the SSHRC application where you can specify your preference next year for evaluators from those fields instead of haiku? Or do chemical engineering and haiku still fall under the same evaluation committees when they divide them into categories? Doesn't the standard grants application have a Keywords section the way the doctoral ones do? If there's no way to specify it on the application forms, then I think that perhaps bluntly stating "this is not a haiku project" in the first paragraph of your application would be a good idea after all.

Psychgrad said...

I'm still mystified by the SSHRC evaluation process. It seems that success in obtaining funding is more about knowing how to play the game than about the quality of your project.

As an research assistant, I would be ok with archival/literature reviews. But, as a graduate student, I would want to be more central to a project. Mind you, archival work and literature reviews may encompass more of a project in your area than mine.

Hilaire said...

K - Thanks for the sympathy! It's always nice to hear there are others who are also frustrated by the process.

Pan - There is a way to specify or recommend external evaluators. This doesn't guarantee that they'll be used, though. One of mine was - she gives herself away inadvertently, though this is supposed to be anonymous - but I really thought she was more of a haiku-chemical engineering hybrid than she is. I will be VERY careful when choosing folks for next year. She wasn't too bad, actually - she liked the project idea a lot, just didn't like my methods. I may keep her on the list if I can rejig the app to address her concerns. The others I suggest will be non-haiku specialists, that's for sure. I was wrong in assuming there were some hybrids out there - I guess we're rarer than I thought! There is also a space to write in keywords. Only one of my keywords was haiku-related. In terms of stating up front, "this is not a haiku project," I would be a little nervous about doing that for fear of appearing negative. But I will be much more explicit in spelling out what is IS - with hopes of implying what it is not!

Psychgrad - I've come to see SSHRC as less monolithic, now that I understand more about how it works. That is, you're being evaluated by colleagues, not "SSHRC." That said, those colleagues are subject to the whims of the government that funds them, to some extent - so, subject to budget cuts, to the increased emphasis on grad student training, to demands to make work socially relevant, etc. It's interesting to consider how much those things have an impact on what actually happens in the committees of colleagues that are evaluating the work.

As for the question of grad student training, yes, I need to figure out other ways to have grad students involved...I need to get some ideas from other colleagues close to my fields, perhaps. I just can't see it right now. I am, though, thinking I'm going to *reduce* the level of involvement in my next round - because doing so will remove some of the more contentious parts of the research and focus it more.

dbm/gaa said...

I had a conversation about just this with someone who didn't receive a SSHRC postdoc this round. People in our field go 'round and 'round about whether to put ourselves in Huma or SS, and then choosing the subcategory is another nightmare. Almost wherever we place ourselves we get reviewed by someone who is a haiku specialist in relation to our work; there are so few reviewers in our field that it is almost impossible to be assigned one, and we are so interdisciplinary that virtually everyone else is some kind of haiku person. It is incredibly, extremely frustrating to try and shoe-horn one's work into SSHRC's categories and then on top of that have someone from, say, geography, review my work. I'm writing about technology and ethics, and they are wondering where the maps are - not a productive set of circumstances!

PossiblyFutureDrGirl said...

All I have to say is: "Ugh. SSHRC."

(This isn't at ALL helpful to you. But, like the people above, I sympathize!)

plam said...

Sorry to hear about the grant. It's always a hassle to get the "wrong" reviewers. (Mind you, my NSERC grant did not get any reviewers at all, which was bizarre).

But it's a grant, right, and you don't exactly have to do what you said you'd do...

medieval woman said...

Hey M'dear - I too am sorry you didn't get one and sorry that you're frustrated about the evaluations. I knwo that you are in a very interesting position with your work (which is extremely awesome, btw!) and I can imagine that it would be even harder to have evaluators not "get" it in many ways.

I actually just read your post to TD - he didn't get his SSHRC either and he got 2 even, constructive reports and one horrible, nasty, spiteful one that questioned his general productivity and really made him feel blue for quite a while. He feels better knowing that you're all in this together (I think he felt like the only kid on the block who didn't get one).

epicentre said...

What kills me is SSHRC's rejection letter: We hope you find an alternate way to fund your project..." - and: here, we rated you 16.5/30...??? Don't they understand that NOT having funding keeps people from actually being able to enter the privileged realm of PhD studies, let alone tenured academia? It is peer rejection. I am glad no smug academics have come to SSHRC's esteemed defense in comments on my girl Hilaire's lamentations on this subj.

Hilaire said...

DBM/GAA - Yes, interdisciplinary work is HARD to pitch, isn't it? I think this was, in a certain way, the death of me.

plam - I don't think I can stomach telling them I'm going to approach/frame a project one way, when I know I'm not going to do it. I'd feel so guilty. I think maybe the best bet is just to reframe it entirely - that's what I'm leaning toward now. It would also be more aligned with "where I'm at."

MW - Condolences to TD! He most certainly is NOT the only one not to get it. i hope he feels better knowing the stats. As you told me last summer when I was fretting about the app, next year, next year!! I'm always hearing that the *third* time's the charm, actually. Good grief.

Epicentre - Yes! I've been contemplating writing a post about's been brewing. The way getting funding ensures fuure funding - and it's this vicious circle that disadvantages so many people!!

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