Women and the residential fellowship: a few thoughts



In my email inbox last week was a notification of a fellowship opportunity. Since I have a sabbatical coming up shortly—okay, in a couple of years, but time flies, right?—I eagerly skimmed the details. It’s a fellowship squarely in my field. The funding is pretty generous, probably enough to help me buy out some extra time at my institution, and finish the damn book that is core to my next promotion. But at the end of the description, there sat the deal-breaker: “visiting scholars are expected to be in residence for the entire year.”

I understand the advantages of residential fellowships. For the institution sponsoring a fellowship, it is a good (and relatively inexpensive) way to introduce “fresh blood” into a program. And I cannot even begin to explain how much I have benefited from residential fellowships. On fellowship as a graduate student, I formed networks with some incredible scholars, gained some invaluable mentors, and met some of my best friends in the field. But therein lies a critical detail. As a graduate student, I had few things that tied me down to a certain location. I could fairly easily upend my single self—or perhaps my single self plus graduate student boyfriend—and journey around the country in search of fellowship spoils. Now, with two very young children and a husband with his own professional commitments, this flexibility is gone.

I bring this up because, unless you have been living in a cave (or frantically finishing your dissertation), you are probably aware of the ongoing discussion about women and families in academia. We have Barbara Walter and her colleagues writing that female authors in international relations are cited far less often than men. Other studies suggest that women with a family are far less likely to get tenure, and that women are also promoted to full professor less quickly than their male counterparts. Some of this has been attributed to practices of self-citation, the continued prevalence of all-male scholarly networks, and the unique service burdens placed on women.

It is worth asking, I think, what structural factors in academia might inhibit the promotion of women and, in particular, if there are certain opportunities less accessible to women (and, to be clear, men with inflexible family obligations) that might have a significant impact on their ability to be promoted. After all, fellowship funding allows women to put aside the burdens of service and teaching to focus on their research. Such fellowships also build networks that can lead to an increased recognition of one’s research in the field. Might it thus be worth thinking about how things like “residential fellowships” might be restructured to attract a different pool of applicants? Is a full-year presence at an institution really necessary, or more a relic of a time when communication and transportation was a serious obstacle to intellectual exchange? What would these fellowships lose from having seminars throughout the year, without requiring an in-house presence? I’m certainly not claiming that this is a panacea, but certainly it seems time to think about the ramifications of our institutions for ongoing issues of gender and family in academia.