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‘Weird and wonderful’ works


Avoiding the familiar pays off with the AHRC

The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Leadership Fellows scheme is no more. It has been renamed and reconfigured as the Research, Development and Engagement Fellowship programme, targeting those who are ready, in the AHRC’s words, to “undertake ambitious, innovative research and to develop capabilities as research specialists”.

Fellowships can be held for between six and 18 months, and are worth between £50,000 and £300,000, funded at 80 per cent of full economic cost. The scheme is open year-round, without a deadline.

Andrew McInnes, a reader in English literature at Edge Hill University, who was awarded just over £200,000 in 2020 for his project on the ‘romantic ridiculous’, explains why it is worth taking a risk in this scheme.

Could you give me a brief overview of your project?

The aim of the project is to shift romantic studies from the sublime to the ridiculous. It’s about moving away from the egotistical sublime of Wordsworth, and that image of the lone individual up a mountain communing with nature, to a joyful celebration of collectivity and collaboration. 

In the project, I also draw parallels with modern-day higher education and the movement away from the idea of the lone scholar to the importance of collaboration.

What kind of outputs does the project have?

Together with Rita Dashwood, the project’s postdoctoral researcher, I’ve been working on a ‘duograph’—a modern take on the monograph where we swap over partway through the book, and use footnotes to heckle each other and tease apart each other’s arguments. 

We’ve also organised a series of ‘table talks’, which is the name of a genre of writing from the early 19th century that involved recording the conversation of romantic writers. In this case, however, we’ve used the name for a series of interactive workshops—we pay early career researchers to come to talk about their new approaches to romantic studies and various subfields of ridiculousness. 

We also put on exhibitions at two museums in the Lake District, which were co-produced with students at two local schools. 

How did you find the application?

It took me about six months. I spent a few months early on in a kind of black hole of not knowing what to do. I found articulating my research questions the hardest. I had a whole paragraph with a question mark at the end, and when my colleague looked it over, he said: “Why don’t you just say: is romanticism ridiculous?” Everything just fell into place after that. It started to flow.

Did anything disrupt that flow?

The AHRC asked for a data-management plan, which felt as if it had been copied and pasted from the sciences and not easily transferable to arts and humanities. That said, there is a lot of support online and I found a template to work from.

Who did you seek advice from?

I talked to everyone I could. One of my best pieces of advice would be to seek as much advice as possible. These things don’t get written on their own, and the whole point of my project was to stress the importance of collaboration and community.

What else would you offer?

Make yourself submit the application sooner rather than later. There is no hard deadline for this scheme. This restricts the number of people who end up applying because there is a perfectionist mindset in academia where you don’t submit until everything is perfect, which essentially means that you never submit. Guard against that. When people tell you it’s ready, submit it.

What other mistakes should applicants avoid?

I think the biggest mistake would be not to take risks. 

One of my peer reviewers told me the AHRC wouldn’t support my weird duograph idea and that I should stick to a monograph. I ignored him and I’m glad I did because, if anything, the feedback I got was that the duograph didn’t go far enough and that I should do more to involve my postdoctoral fellow.

People think they know what the AHRC is looking for and that what they are looking for is what they have funded hundreds of times before. They are in fact much more interested in the weird and wonderful, as long as you can prove that you yourself are not a risk in terms of completing the research.

What do you think made your application stand out?

I would say two things. My colleague Bob Nicholson made me a beautiful poster, inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, but with the man falling over, which I submitted together with my bid. It was a cheeky risk in submitting that as visual evidence. But I think it condenses into an image what the project is about.

Second, one of the peer reviewers praised the project’s generosity in including early career researchers. In addition to my postdoctoral fellow colleague, the project funded 15 early career scholars to present their work to a big international audience at the table talks.

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com