You Too, Humanist, Can Get a Fulbright Fellowship

When I arrived at UCL, I was filled with confidence and exuberance. I had been awarded the US-UK Fulbright All-Disciplines Award, and orientation had just begun. After words of congratulations and compliments, a Fulbright representative asked that we each come to the front of the room to introduce ourselves and describe our projects to the group. Waiting for my turn to speak, I listened to my peers describe their work.

They spoke of their research into counterterrorism strategies in Africa, the impact of policy on juvenile incarceration, the way in which nanotechnology can improve cancer treatment, and the cognitive processes that underlie radicalization among at-risk youth.

As they spoke, my confidence withered. Suddenly my project didn’t seem to measure up to my sense of what an ‘ideal’ Fulbright project should be. “I’ll be translating the first book of the ancient scholia to the Iliad,” I said, abashedly. I explained that scholia are marginal notes in medieval manuscripts that transmit ancient scholarship, and that the scholia to the Iliad are a vast and underutilized resource that contains a treasure-trove of information, hidden behind difficult and never-before translated Ancient Greek which preserves the work of antiquity’s most important critics on the most widely read poem in antiquity. But even as I explained the merit of my project, my sense of its value disintegrated. This, I thought, is not what Fulbright wants from me. Fulbright wants me to study nanotechnology, or climate change, or policies that end in incarceration rather than rehabilitation. Fulbright wants me to be the kind of person who makes phone calls and schedules interviews and makes site visits, not the kind of person who translates Ancient Greek.

My doubts, of course, were unfounded. But I think my false sense of what Fulbright wanted—all while presumably embodying some variation of that—reflects a common misconception about what it means to be a Fulbrighter, generated by the anxieties of a culture that undervalues the humanities.

When I think of the ‘ideal’ Fulbright project now, I remember also the projects of the novelist, the playwright, the choreographer, the musicologist, the conductor, the jazz trombonist, the filmmaker, and the medievalist. Regardless of their disciplinary affiliation, each student-scholar articulated their project in a way that the rest of us could appreciate, regardless of our disciplinary backgrounds. And when I speculate about why my proposal in particular was successful, I imagine that it had a lot to do with my ability to make the arcane accessible. If you can convince a committee of non-classicists of the significance of two thousand-year-old scholarship about a three thousand-year-old poem that has been preserved in the margins of a few thousand-year-old manuscripts, you probably excel at what Fulbright values most: communication and exchange.

Fulbright wants leaders in every field, be it Chemistry, Classics, or Computer Science. If your project is meaningful to you, and you can demonstrate why it would be meaningful to others—that is an ideal Fulbright project.

Bill Beck is a doctoral candidate in Classical Studies. His dissertation, 'The Narrative of the Iliad: Time, Space, and Plot' examines temporal, spatial, and narrative boundaries in the Iliad. As a recipient of the US-UK Fulbright All-Disciplines Award, Bill spent 2015-16 working on a translation of the ancient scholia to book 1 of the Iliad, under the supervision of Eleanor Dickey. He is currently the Edward Capps Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece.

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