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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Grant Me Some Relief!


The "Best of Country Western" CD was galloping through the sound system when I opened a letter telling me I'd been rejected for yet another grant.

Maybe it was fate. Not the decision: the music.

As I read through the standard "I regret to inform you" opening, Patsy Cline was crooning "Crazy." This seemed entirely appropriate. I always knew I had better odds of being crowned Miss Nashville than I had of being crowned by (even a very small) wreath of cash (it seems that green bills have replaced green laurels as indicators of a scholar's worth).

There was no doubt in my mind, even as I completed the necessary forms several months ago, that I'd be left on the sidelines once again, gnawing at a knuckle while others were rewarded for their accomplishments. Why did I bother? Why did I put in the time?

B.J., an old friend from high school who now works in education -- dealing specifically with kids with Asperger's syndrome -- applied for a grant around the same time. She and I commiserated about the process. We got together and moaned about the unfairness of grant-giving groups the same way we used to get together and moan about guys.

Why do they tease us this way, these committees? Why have us write our hearts out when we're just going to be ignored?

B.J. and I knew we were headed for heartache (both of us singing along with Patsy Cline's "I'm crazy for trying") but we threw ourselves into the fray hoping for the best.

Why, oh why, did we ask colleagues at other institutions to write letters of support, which meant that we now had to thank them for their efforts but explain that we weren't hopeless failures, even if we appeared just hopeless?

I got my rejection first. I put on the C & W music.

When I reached the passage of the letter explaining that a distinguished committee found my proposal to be "very clear," but "undertheorized," the musical selection switched tracks.

Suddenly I was listening to the theme from "Rawhide." The cowboy was singing "Don't try to understand 'em/ Just rope and throw and brand 'em."

The prophetic nature of this lyric was instantly obvious. I called B.J. She laughed.

"Grants are not meant to be understood. Not even -- or maybe not especially-- when the grants have a classroom component," she sighed. "If you can demonstrate how you will make use of your good ideas in the classroom, then the committees decide the ideas can't be very good."

B.J. suggested that, "Their theory can be summed up as: 'If you can teach it, then it ain't complex enough'" and I found it hard to disagree.

What bothers me is that often successful grant-getters use language to obscure rather than to illuminate their ideas, thereby writing a proposal of such impenetrable murkiness as to make Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics read like Pat The Bunny. Many proposals include -- or even rely upon -- ideas disguised so elaborately you would think they are trying to sneak them out of the country.

B.J. got her rejection a week later because "we received a record number of requests this year and could not fund them all." They told her to reapply. ("This is like when guys used to say 'I'm in a relationship, but maybe you could give me a call to see how things are going.'") She asked if she could borrow my country music CD.

So from B.J. I learned that this grant-getting business is just as tough no matter where you work: getting a grant for work at the elementary-school level is at least as difficult as securing one at the university. The bottom line is this: we are always looking for our work to be validated by an outside source. Yet grants are rarely awarded to "outsiders."

Grants, in other words, are awarded to the initiated. Chronically successful awardees are a special group of people composed of those who can purposefully crush their ideas into any shape required, sort of like making balloon animals.

: Who got the money? In my case, it was scholars, two of whom happen to be working on similar projects: the historical origins and contemporary political implications of the American folk song "Frog Went A Courting'." One scholar was from the history department and the other was from a contemporary historical theoretical department, so you can see how different their work will be.

Only kidding. Ha ha. I wish the example were really, really far from the truth -- but it isn't.

B.J wonders whether the fact that one of her award-winning colleagues got a degree from a more prestigious college (got the degree 20 years ago, mind you) had anything to do with the choice. I wonder whether the applicants to whom I lost were thinner or cuter. We are all haunted by our deepest, weirdest fears.

I live in hope that somebody high up will one day say, "Don't let's keep seeing the same hands" and that grants might be awarded to the occasional working teacher and researcher who has not yet received recognition but whose work shows authentic promise.

Call me irresponsible, but perhaps grant money should not always support theories so esoteric and unimportant that they are nearly invisible to the naked eye.

I believe that grant reviewers should be required to explain, under oath, the single main point of the pages they just read. Then they should have to explain how it will work in the classroom.

That would be a real standard; that would be a goal worth a great deal of our time and effort. Meantime, turn up the volume and sing along with me: "Crazy for trying..."

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