By Peggy Lee, Doctoral Candidate in American Culture
My last day at the NEH in August 2017 was the same day the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) collectively walked out of their jobs. I myself was counting down the hours until I could leave the NEH, feeling only accountable at that point to the project directors, many of whom had invested a lot of time travelling to D.C. for a one-day convening, my last day.
Project directors are the point people in NEH-funded projects; they are the folks who facilitated the collaboration, had a hand in the grant writing, and cultivated relationships with various communities. Throughout the summer, I corresponded with them about the meeting and learned more about their projects; these were projects I grew to really care about, doing meaningful work in communities about which I had much to learn, from miner labor organizing and local cultural customs in the Appalachia region to First Nations educational initiatives.
At the meeting’s first break, one of the project directors came up to me and asked, “Peggy, did you see it yet? It’s nuts, it’s right across the hall from us.” Our meeting was on the first floor of the fancy Constitution Center where both NEH and NEA are housed and we both stared at the adjacent room, its dark glass door labeled PCAH. During a presentation by a council member on the importance of healthy organizational boards, ironic in light of what was happening, I read the letter and felt solidarity with PCAH’s decision to immediately resign. Charlottesville, only a 2.5-hour drive from D.C., hung in the air: ugly, heavy, and painful.
Comedian and former committee member, Kal Penn shares in an interview on the resignation, “We [PCAH] did not want to be complicit in any way, shape, or form [with the Trump administration].” Complicity was something I thought a lot about this summer at the NEH, with the series of resignations in my office, the lay-offs and fear of more, and conversations I had with officers in bigger divisions, administrative, and service staff. I appreciated the frank conversations I was able to have with them, understanding the complex balancing act between precarity and complicity. At the end of the day, I was just a passing intern paid by Mellon, and many of my NEH colleagues, I came to find, feared of losing their jobs. In this light, complicity needs to be understood next to divisions of labor, striated at the NEH among administrative/service and “intellectual”/program officer/director. Kal Penn had been appointed during the Obama administration and could afford to leave with his values intact. Many in administrative/service cannot.
However tiny it was, the committee’s decision to create an acronym from the first letter of each paragraph spelling out RESIST was gratifying. My first time working in federal government at a humanities agency, I learned that a lot of the work is “tiny.” Tiny conversations correlated with tiny reports (which I wrote many) that are thrown into a river of review processes usually dammed by beavers of various PhD’s (i.e., a “humanities ecosystem”). I learned the most from program officers who truly understood their tiny role in this bureaucratic process, because the flipside is ingratiating, self-congratulatory show-boating that I observed can also be an intimate part of government work culture. However, money pushing vis–à–vis these tiny conversations are a place of meaningful intervention that we, in the academy, can elbow ourselves into. Let me translate what I learned about this aspect at the NEH in a demystified numbered list:
HOW TO POTENTIALLY BECOME A PANELIST AT THE NEH:
- Once you get your PhD, you are qualified as an EXPERT in SOMETHING. This something can be advertised to program officers in any granting division as a CONTRIBUTION/SERVICE in the role of a PANELIST in a PANEL REVIEW.
- PANELS are made up of folks, many holding Masters and PhDs, from across the US who ascertain the value and integrity of a grant proposal before considering it for council review.
- There is no formula in how panel review committees are formed, it is quite arbitrary from what I observed and depends on who the program officer knows, trusts, and have had involved in past panels. That said, if you were to cold contact a program officer to be involved in a panel (and send your brilliant credentials via a website or CV) that would probably work.
- I think there’s a notion that being on a panel for these kinds of illustrious grants is some kind of divine, “being tapped,” kind of thing, which yes, being asked to serve is something that definitely happens, BUT sometimes seriously, program officers struggle with getting a full panel going.
- Serving on a panel will get you a $200 Stipend.
- Be prepared to read A LOT. If you come unprepared, it’ll be really clear, and actually you’d be failing a lot of people who took all this time to prepare a grant for their communities that you could be persuasively arguing for.
HOWEVER, if you notice the following things about yourself, REFRAIN from contacting NEH because there’s enough of your opinion already working there:
- You think grant writing (as an “art” let’s say) should be prioritized over the project/people/region/community itself.
- You think “creative writing” is NOT a humanities endeavor because it does not meet the metrics of scholarly expertise.
- You think people, like disabled people, cannot create legitimate knowledge from their bodies in the form of dance/movement.
- In your noble pursuit of preserving a “non-partisan” or politically “neutral” funding stance, you say “advocacy” a lot to bring into question projects that involve youth of color, specifically black youth.
- Your expertise mainly centers white scholars, writers, and artists.
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