During my time at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center, I worked with several graduate students on the development of large grant proposals like the Fulbright. In that work, I noticed a tendency among humanities and social sciences students to overemphasize the intellectual value of their work in application materials. Repeatedly, I found myself making suggested edits to cut down on the “why does this matter?” sections, and requesting more information about “how you will accomplish your goals” in grant proposals.
In order to help my students I reflected on what I’d learned in the process of applying to Fulbright multiple times. One of the key realizations that I’d made is that the statement of purpose is primarily a practical document, rather than a theoretical one. When I clearly explained that the point of a statement of purpose is to explain how you plan to achieve your goals and develop answers to your research questions, my students gained new perspectives about how to describe their work.
How to write a practical document
The idea of crafting a practical document is often at odds with the way that scholarly writing is framed in graduate school, so teaching this aspect of grant writing has remained a sticky subject in my work.
Large grant organizations like Fulbright Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the U.S. Government, which offers Foreign Language Area Studies grants and Boren Awards, all provide doctoral funding that can support year-long international research projects. But, it’s very difficult for a student to justify spending so much time abroad with purely intellectual or theoretical reasons. Statements of purpose written for large grants are not the same as research proposals, prospectuses, or application materials for getting into graduate school. In most cases the reviewing committee members for such large grant applications are not likely to be experts in the field, so you do not need to provide an in-depth intellectual justification for your scholarship.
Instead, these kinds of committee members want you to convince them of the following:
- You are capable of justifying the overarching value of a yearlong international project to a variety of audiences.
- The project that you propose is feasible.
- You have the correct skillset to accomplish the goals you’ve set out for yourself during the project.
- You demonstrate the capacity to establish your own collaborative relationships and support networks while abroad.
My Fulbright story
Given how much I had to accomplish in a relatively short written text, the statement of purpose was the most intimidating document of the Fulbright application for me. This was especially the case because due to the timing of the Fulbright application cycle and the academic year in Brazil, which starts in January, every time I wrote my application materials I knew I would not be able to carry out my proposed project until a year-and-a-half after writing it. The winning proposal that I submitted to the Fulbright committee in October 2014 described a project that would not commence until February 2016. The mere element of time, let alone whether I’d even be granted the Fulbright, added an extra cloud of uncertainty to the project development and the writing process every time that I approached a new application cycle.
Fulbright statement of purpose lessons learned
By the third time that I put an application together, I embraced the uncertainties created by time, and learned some of the keys to mastering the grant writing process.
- Throughout the process of project development, the statement of purpose does not always have to communicate a certain and unbending research path.
In my case, this document served multiple purposes as I composed it. At first, it was an incomplete project proposal that I sent to potential host institutions and future collaborators in Brazil. Through dialogues that I created by sending this initial draft to potential advisors, my statement of purpose evolved greatly.
- It’s okay if you haven’t figured everything out about your statement of purpose when you reach out to potential collaborators.
In fact, many aspects of my project were still not pinned down when I started sharing my materials with individuals and institutions. Even though I wasn’t sure what my driving question was, or where I wanted to be primarily located, I put together a document that stated my expertise, experience, and desire to work in Brazilian archives of literatura de cordel, and that’s what I sent out.
Several people responded to my emails and initial drafts, and we set up Skype calls. As I engaged in additional correspondence, I quickly learned that multiple digitization initiatives had just received funding to process cordel at large institutions in Brazil. I had no prior knowledge of those initiatives until I began speaking with other archivists, and that’s when some of the most important aspects of my project, like “redistribution” and “accessibility” began to crystallize.
The evolution of the statement of purpose
Even with a flimsy first draft of the statement of purpose, my project developed in dialogue with the potential collaborators with whom I initiated contact, and the document grew stronger and more nuanced as a result of those dialogues. Once I had secured related letters of affiliation, I revisited the original statement of purpose and rewrote it as a practical document that reflected the resources and insights I accumulated through collaboration and dialogue. Basically, my application process began and ended with wildly different versions of the statement of purpose. Though there was a lot of uncertainty and transformation during the development of the project, I knew the Fulbright committee wanted to read a document that described the best possible outcomes of my proposed work.
It took more than six drafts for me to get to the final draft of my winning Fulbright statement of purpose, which is the version that I’ve shared and carefully analyzed in this post.
Statement of Grant Purpose
Rebecca Lippman, Brazil, Comparative Literature
Redistributing Popular Culture: Technology, Libraries and literatura de cordel
The oldest poems of the northeastern Brazilian tradition of literatura de cordel, or “literature on a string” (cordel), were originally improvised as songs and performed by memory in public musical duels called cantoria de viola. But since the late 19th century, these poems have become most recognized as cheap, chapbook-like pamphlets printed with woodblock illustrations. In this printed form cordel has had an outsized impact on 20th century multimedia culture. Even today, contemporary artists, television shows, films and musicians often cite the characters, legends, melodies and visual iconography of the printed tradition. Several anthologies have also reproduced collections of the most popular narratives and illustrations associated with cordel. Despite this visibility, however, the majority of the world’s collections of original pamphlets have remained inaccessible to contemporary audiences. Steadily incorporated into international archival and library systems as objects of popular or folk culture in the second half of the 20th century, older pamphlets disappeared from public circulation just as new media like radio, television and film began to mass produce new iterations of the tradition. Several independent producers of cordel moved from the northeastern region of the country to the south and subsequently transformed what was once a more rural tradition into a recognizable national genre and an urban phenomenon. An essential consideration of literary archives, information science, public memory and cultural literacy, this project investigates the ways in which evolving technologies have had profound effects on the poetic narratives, graphic images and the cultural dissemination of cordel.
Much as technology has transformed notions of cordel throughout the 20th century, it has also allowed older pamphlets to be remembered, preserved and accessed. Currently, digitization initiatives are making selections of the older pamphlets fully available online, subsequently revealing complex relationships between authors, independent publishers, narratives, commercial advertisers and illustrators as they are embodied by the original texts. As a visiting scholar, I will conduct archival and information science research at the Universidade Estadual da Paraíba (UEPB), in Campina Grande. This work will contribute original research to my dissertation and subsequently enable me to digitize a selection of University of California at Los Angeles’ (UCLA) collection of cordel, thereby enhancing available resources and building critical dialogues between international library institutions about public access and digital initiatives.
As a fellow at the Center for Primary Research and Training at UCLA’s Special Collections (2012-13), I described and published an itemized Finding Aid for over 4,500 pamphlets of cordel. During that time, I became interested in the way that local radio stations and sound technology companies such as RCA Records and Phillips Sound impacted the visual, narrative and commercial content as well as the distribution of specific pamphlets. With that in mind, my research in the Brazilian archives will focus on identifying more examples of cordel that incorporate the presence of multimedia technologies between 1960-2000. Examples of such pamphlets include the liner notes for musician Ednardo’s 1973 album O Romance do Pavão Mysteriozo and a pamphlet entitled A verdadeira peleja do povão contra a inflação, which was composed in order to advertise Phillips home sound systems and Arapuã credit cards in 1984. Building a corpus of this type of pamphlet will allow me establish the relationship between poetic narratives of cordel and the instruments or technologies that redistribute them throughout the 20th century. By engaging in collaborative dialogues with the scholars who work in these archives, I will also be able to analyze the systems by which these previously hidden collections have been made more accessible to a variety of public audiences.
To complete this project, I will conduct archival research in three of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of cordel. Primarily based in the city of Campina Grande as a visiting scholar at UEPB during the academic year of 2016, I will work with the largest collection of cordel at the Átila Almeida Library under the supervision of Professor M. Professor M. has worked extensively with the digitization of cordel and her publications regarding the process of collecting and managing usable data about the items informed the initial stages of my work at UCLA. Through this collaboration I will both identify specific items of cordel and generate critical dialogues between the UEPB and UCLA collections. Also an expert in cordel and its incorporation into academic contexts through digital means, Professor I. has granted me access to 4000 items held at the Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros in São Paulo. For a period of a month I will learn about IEB’s new digital project for their cordel collection. Professor S., at the Fundação Casa Rui Barbosa (FCRB) in Rio de Janeiro has granted me access to 9000 items. FCRB has made the poetic content of over 2000 pamphlets available online. By spending six weeks spent in Rio de Janeiro, I will not only add to my corpus of sample pamphlets, but I will also learn from the librarians who manage FCRB’s associated online content.
By identifying and analyzing pamphlets that reflect upon transforming multimedia technologies I will create links between various areas of scholarship regarding Brazilian literary studies, literatura de cordel and Media studies. This critical work will serve as the crucial foundation for a dissertation that considers the literary, musical and multimedia reiterations of cordel in contemporary culture. Scholars such as Mark Curran and Candace Slater consider the historical content and the social practices that generate narratives of cordel. Later studies conducted by Rosilene Alves de Melo, Roberto Emmerson Câmara Benjamin and Alda Maria Siquieira Campos trace trajectories of cordel as individuals and institutions begin to use different production methods to target a variety of audiences. This project considers how graphic artists, authors and advertisers that participate in the composition of cordel actively incorporate the presence of technology in order to explore how this printed literary genre both influences and is influenced by changing methods of distributing popular culture in mass media during the second half of the 20th century. My work in the archives will foster collaborative relationships between international institutions and prepare me to digitize the only itemized collection of its size currently held in the US, thereby encouraging future scholarship regarding cordel and popular Brazilian culture.
Analysis of the argument – paragraph by paragraph
Persuasive goal: Introduce the object of study (literatura de cordel) as a continuously transforming social, historical, technological, and literary phenomenon.
Evidence provided in paragraph:
- A brief description of cordel that includes only enough detail to make sure that a reader unfamiliar with my object of study has enough information to understand the value of my project and its contribution.
- Clear identification of the main historical problem surrounding cordel: inaccessibility of original documents to the public.
- Project goals: to investigate the ways in which evolving technologies have had profound effects on the narratives, images, and dissemination of cordel.
Persuasive goal: Explain the methods of investigation of the historical issue I’ve presented and for achieving my project goals during my time as a Fulbright Fellow.
Evidence provided in paragraph:
- The consideration of ongoing digitization initiatives.
- Plans to conduct archival research in Campina Grande, Paraíba.
- Plans to digitize a portion of UCLA’s collection of cordel.
- Efforts to build critical dialogues between international library institutions.
Persuasive goal: Provide detailed evidence as to how my previous experiences have shaped my research questions equipped me with a skillset that will enable me to carry out my project.
Evidence provided in paragraph:
- Through my work at CFPRT I:
a. Developed a Finding Aid for 4500+ items of cordel, thereby playing my part in making a hidden collection more accessible.
b. Built questions about radio stations, sound technologies, and companies that impacted the visual aspects of cordel.
c. Identified objects that I hope to find in other archives and incorporate in my research.
- Since I am both an expert in the object itself, and have worked carefully with systems through which previously hidden collections are made accessible to public audiences, I am able to engage in productive dialogues with other individuals who are working on the same issues and objects in Brazil.
- Though not referenced explicitly in this paragraph, three of my letters of recommendation speak directly to the accomplishments, experiences, and skillsets that I mention in this paragraph. I asked each recommender to focus closely on my contributions to one of the three major fields my project involves: library science, musicology, and Brazilian popular culture. There were, of course, plenty of other research experiences in my work history, but I only included those that were directly relevant to this project.
Persuasive goal: To clearly map out the specific locations and institutions that housed archives, resources, and collaborators I plan to engage with throughout my time in Brazil.
Evidence provided in paragraph:
- Includes estimated timeline: majority of time based in Campina Grande, one month in São Paulo, and six weeks in Rio de Janeiro.
- This was the last paragraph that I finalized in the writing process of the proposal, and I built this paragraph in dialogue with my Brazilian affiliations.
- Every person or institution that I named in this paragraph wrote a Letter of Affiliation that is included in the application.
- Given its practical nature and clear support of the “feasibility” of the project, this is likely one of the most important paragraphs of the entire proposal.
Persuasive goal: To articulate the anticipated academic and non-academic impacts of the research I plan to conduct as a Fulbright Fellow.
Evidence provided in paragraph:
- A brief literature review to show an evolution in existing scholarship that makes room for my original contribution, specifically through the processes of:
a. Asking how cordel artists and poets responded to new technologies.
b. Questioning whether or not these same artists influenced how those technologies circulated within, were sold, and/or marketed to certain communities.
- Clear demonstration of the broader impacts and outcomes of collaborative work with Brazilian institutions, archivists, and scholars, including:
a. The digitization and accessibility of a U.S. collection of cordel.
b. Encouragement for students and scholars at United States institutions to study popular Brazilian culture.
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