Having students write an NEH grant proposal as a course assignment

In teaching my “Intro to DH” class last semester to Chapman’s MA/MFA graduate students, I spent a lot of time discussing professionalization and a significant part of that discussion focused on how funding agencies (like the NEH-ODH) make DH projects do-able.  As the culmination of this conversation, for the final project in the course I had the students compose mock applications for an NEH-ODH startup grant.

I designed the course in this manner for three primary reasons:

1) The first time I had to write a grant proposal for external funding, I found it incredibly daunting to describe what I aimed to do with my project when I wasn’t even yet sure myself what I would find once the project got underway.  Doing the legwork and the guesswork involved in that process  and then writing coherently about it, was much more difficult than I expected.  Thus, I felt that it would be a great learning experience for the students to do this before they had actual money at stake.

2) Crafting a mock NEH-ODH application reinforced many of the concepts that we’d discussed in class, and brought them together in such a way that it showed me that the students understood the filed of DH better than if they’d simply written a traditional end-of-the-semester paper.  In their proposal they had to discuss other similar projects, outline their technical requirements, include descriptions of team members’ skills, craft a budget, and create a plan for the sustainability of their project.  From their proposals I had a strong sense of what they’d learned throughout the semester since when the class started the students had only the foggiest notion of what a DH project entailed.

3) Writing a grant application is a portable skill that could serve the students in a wide-variety of ways after they graduate, even if they don’t continue in academia.  Learning to communicate their research ideas to a general audience could serve them in many ways, including a future in technical writing, project management, journalism, or in a non-profit job.

The success of the students in their proposals far exceeded my expectations.  As each student gave a lightning talk description of what they aimed to do, I realized that nearly every one of them was worthy of funding.  And not only that, since December several of the students have moved forward with their projects on their own (sans funding), based on the proposals that they outlined in our class.

At the end of the semester I tweeted about our project and caught the attention of Brett Bobley (the CIO of the NEH and the director of the ODH).  That exchange:

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