The World was Falling Apart, and I Wrote a Grant Application


by Emine Büşra Ünlüönen


Typing instruments

I recently submitted my first grant application. The results haven’t been announced yet. I might get the grant, I might not. That matters greatly to me. But before being consumed by the results and before the results change my mind, I want to inhabit this uncertain space, and tell you that grant-writing in the middle of a pandemic was not altogether a bad experience: it was both excruciating and gratifying; it was another moment of discovering myself as a social being, whose potential to thrive very much depends on the presence and help of other people.

Grant-writing was the first time I could see myself as an apprentice anthropologist. Before, I was just a PhD student taking classes and adjuncting. Don’t get me wrong—I love classes, discussions, and readings. Writing a final paper, though… well, that was never my strong suit. I was already worn-out before finals period. And besides, finals was always the best time to catch up on all the TV shows I missed. I binge-watched six seasons of Downton Abbey in one of those finals periods, sympathized with the members of the aristocratic Crawley family and felt bad about my compassion for them. In another finals period, I couldn’t stop watching Ramy. I hated Ramy—the main character. He was indeed a more humanized version of “the Muslim other,” but that was mostly through being a deeply individualistic, if not flat-out selfish, young man. Though, I did fall in love with the other Ramy, the creator, who was capable of being so astute as to write such a witty and deceptively simple show.

During finals period, I became more of a “professor” than ever before. I never liked being called “professor”. But I understood that it was simpler to refer to me as “hey professor” than to pronounce my strange-sounding, foreign name. Finals made me more aware of the perceived authority attached to this title as the frequency of beseeching emails from my students increased. At these times, it didn’t matter to me; what could be the point of fighting over whether they could still make up the final exam that they missed? I didn’t even want to give them a final exam in the first place, but I dutifully took my time to respond to their every request.

(Anyway: the point is, writing has always been difficult for me. There were other things to keep me distracted.)

This last spring, I couldn’t afford not to write a grant application. My fellowship would end the following year. I needed grant funds to keep the possibility of imagining myself as a future scholar afloat (and eat). That was one of the reasons I reacted with such visceral outrage to the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s announcement that, because of COVID-19, they would not be accepting grant applications for their usual May deadline. I thought their decision represented a scholarly version of being paralyzed by the present moment. I became more inclined to accept the NSF Cultural Anthropology Program’s “what if nothing happened” approach towards their grant applications. But many things did happen, and I struggled to think about them in my grant proposal.

(Anyway: please don’t hate me, grant-offering institutions, I eagerly need your money for my beloved project, and better justifications are in my application.)

For the first time, because of lockdown, I had large chunks of uninterrupted time. Still, I was unable to focus on this proposal. I kept wondering what would happen the next day; will the world change, collapse—or worse—stay the same? I wanted to keep myself as detached as possible. I couldn’t—especially when the government issue a directive targeting international students that put our immigration status at risk if we enrolled exclusively in online classes. Once again, I realized how dispensable we were. Even if it seemed impossible to actually prevent new international students from entering the country, and to kick out all the old ones, it has long been tacitly acceptable by US universities to treat international students as both less valuable and more profitable than domestic students. I was heartened, though, with how my department and many others organized against the directive. I wished it could have become a moment to reflect on the normalized discrimination against international students. But I was exhausted and silent, others had more urgent issues, and the moment passed.

The time to focus on a proposal, let alone to get to fieldwork, never seemed to arrive. Not knowing how to start, I sheepishly asked Ana, a friend from the department, to send me her successful grant proposals. She wrote back an empathetic email saying she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if it weren’t for all the other people who helped her. I didn’t believe her. She was always modest. But through my own grant-writing process, I realized she was right. As solitary as both writing and the pandemic lockdown have sometimes felt (and especially writing in the pandemic lockdown), they have also reminded me just how inextricable we always are from our web of relations. 

I was consistently dependant on other people’s time, labor, and generosity to craft a proposal. I was lucky to have Christa as a wonderful advisor who took my rudimentary draft more seriously than I did. I’m still terrified to imagine what it would have been like to write this proposal without Agnes, a perceptive thinker, an eloquent writer, and the greatest of friends. Among many other things, she edited every single sentence that I wrote while there were more serious things going on in her life. Louise, the most generous professor, appeared as a real savior when I was on the edge of breakdown. Her enthusiasm and hour-long phone calls encouraged me to keep believing in what I was struggling to formulate. And there are countless others that I remain indebted to; not least, that strange stranger, who didn’t have a phone, but was kind enough to let me use their computer and sit with me for three hours in the middle of night, in the middle of a pandemic, so that I could contact my roommates when I locked myself out of my apartment when I thought I was just leaving to get some fresh air after a very long session of proposal writing.

(And yes, Ana, you were right. I couldn’t have kept going without your and many others’ help. I can’t reciprocate the kindness that all of you have shown me. The best I could come up with is to pass it along. That is why I felt an urge to write this—to tell those who are going through a similar process what it was like and to remind my future self to be as generous as you all have been to me.)

I made many mistakes during this process. I thought the grant application was, at best, a bureaucratic hassle in which one wrote whatever the grant-giving institution expected. I thought I could replicate earlier successful applications by inserting my ethnographic details and some perfunctory theoretical discussion into their readymade forms. After all, I thought, I would eventually figure out my way in the field. I was wrong. But not because I’ve already gone to my field site and discovered how naïve I was. Not yet. I’m still in New York trying to figure out my comprehensive exams, trying to reassure my parents that it’s actually okay to be in an epicenter of a pandemic, and trying not to worry about my students in an overcrowded class that I teach online.

Simply duplicating others’ successful proposals wasn’t simple at all. Such a tedious chore! Their well-designed forms became another constraint, making me lose my grip on content entirely. I wanted to give up, but then decided that if it wasn’t easier to imitate, I might as well try to figure out my own way before getting to the field. That’s how I decided to prioritize what I’m actually interested in. I’m not talking about empirically researchable questions that we have to state on the very first page of the application. I’m talking more about those more philosophical and personal interests. In proposalspeak, it was those things called intellectual merit and broader impacts

I went through all my final papers. It was painful to read them. I wrote about UFOs; I speculated about boredom; I tried to grasp what Foucault meant by “let die”; I critiqued Le Febvre’s alienation theory—how daring I was! I was all over the place. I pondered my place in academia. If I didn’t have a genuine, focused interest, maybe it wasn’t worthwhile trying to survive in the emotionally and financially fragile academic environment. Maybe the pandemic was a good opportunity to leave. I wouldn’t have to make an individualized explanation of these structural problems. The pandemic made them self-evident. Now I could fail in peace. But for better or worse, I managed to map out my intellectual concerns through my not-well-articulated statements, imprecise vocabulary, and grammatically incorrect sentences.

(Don’t expect me to state these concerns in a few sentences here. I’m one of those who gets too scared to pursue a conversation about her own research during academic “social events.” I couldn’t learn to give an elevator pitch. It was always easier to smile and leave.)

I realized that this future-oriented grant-proposal couldn’t be isolated from my earlier selves. The ups and downs of my travels across the geographical, political, and intellectual terrains of New York, Ankara, and Istanbul indeed molded into a proposal. All the things that I—tried, failed or—did were not only self-promotional claims proving I was capable of conducting research. I had to take all of these selves seriously and force that pandemic self to sit in front of my laptop, dismissing back pain and bloodshot eyes, in order to situate myself as a thinker alongside those I had been reading and studying all these years. This made the grant writing a great, excruciating yet rewarding process. I felt, in the middle of a pandemic, that I had hope for my future scholarly life—if shrinking university funding, over-competitiveness, and a rush to theorize everything would allow it. 

I was procrastinating on writing the budget justification—the part that I hated most. Why was I allowed to get only a “modest” laptop, which would probably be ruined in a year or two and end up in a landfill? I’m saying this not only because my poor old laptop struggles to function. But also because: wouldn’t it be more environmentally sound to fund less modest but more durable devices? I know, I know… grant-giving institutions have limited resources. But still, why is waste not a part of the budget discussion, especially for institutions that seem to prioritize studies on anthropogenic processes?

Exhausted by trying to figure out a decent laptop price, I was mindlessly scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed. It felt eerie coming across Lydia Davis’s Paris Review interview quote: “I find what happens in reality very interesting and I don’t find a great need to make up things.” Yes, a similar fascination with daily life motivated me to pursue ethnographic research. But still, I had always sought refuge in fiction when the sheer cruelty of reality and its inadequate expression in theoretical texts became overwhelming. Nevertheless, here was my latest favorite short story writer, circling back to reality. I didn’t know what to do with her statement; I only wished that I could approximate her lively style and succinct language.

I was the exact opposite of succinct. I wrote uneconomically and then was distressed with having to cut two pages. I didn’t want to remove my endless conjunctions; those meandering “ands” and “buts” were my favorite (!), and felt like the only tool for narrating the constant “more” of Covid-19. It felt like a betrayal when I had to cut sentences that Agnes spent so much time poring over with me. I felt upset when Louise told me I should delete the introductory remarks from my personal preparation section—including the sentence I loved most. But I said nothing. Instead, I went through the entire document to cut random words here and there just so I could have space for it. I was successful enough in completing this little balancing act, but not enough to keep the sentence. In the end, I cut it anyway.

…Proposal writing is indeed an emotionally loaded enterprise, even more so during a pandemic. Small slights like dismissive email responses (e.g., “that’s life”) had unusually devastating effects, especially at a time when “hope this finds you well” suddenly appeared as a radically inappropriate email greeting. It is a time of heightened (in)sensitivities. I was restored by the kindness and generosity I received. The space to cultivate these dispositions had strangely opened up while everything was seemingly shutting down. This space gave me courage to imagine a possible future—and propose a research project about it—when the world, once again, was about to fall apart.

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