Disposed to Propose

I’ve done a fair bit of judging proposals for grants over the years, and a recent experience doing so pushed me to finally assemble some notes and thoughts I’ve been collecting. These are specific to undergraduates: graduate and faculty proposals are a different kettle of fish. These points apply not just to proposals for grants and fellowships, though. They even cover certain kinds of writing for the classroom, but more pointedly a good deal of activism and community learning undertaken by undergraduates at institutions like Swarthmore. Primarily what I’m going to talk about here is a sort of rhetorical posture that causes problems in a lot of proposals and plans.

I’m giving this advice both pragmatically and idealistically. Pragmatically because I assume that many undergraduates seeking grants or proposing action would like to win a grant or see their proposals enacted, and the problems I’m going to talk about often keep that from happening. Idealistically because I think some of the shifts I’m suggesting are desirable whether or not they result in a greater success rate for applicants.


The basic problem I’ve seen over the last five years or so, witnessed very intensely during my recent experience of judging, is a Promethean posture commonly adopted by undergraduates who are proposing to study social problems, formulate public policy, or work with communities, especially communities that are commonly understood to have special burdens in terms of social problems or to need some kind of policy intervention.

I feel some responsibility for the intense tone of hubris, sometimes verging on messianism, that sometimes cripples proposals of this kind.

First, because I think that this kind of rhetoric is first taught to smart, ambitious undergraduates through the ordeal of applying to selective universities (and all the preparatory work those students do during their high school years). We goad 18 year-olds into narrating their lives as bursting with accomplishment, as already being fully realized, and often particularly reward those who describe those accomplishments in terms of service. I could do with a few more admitted students who are smart and well-read but who haven’t already performed an innovative new procedure in prosthetic surgery on lepers wounded by land mines while also boosting agricultural yields in surrounding communities and using microfinance to help encourage fair-trade production of organic wines.

Second, I think sometimes in the social sciences in particular, we solicit and reward student writing with strong arguments, which sometimes includes an expansive, assertive vision of action or policy, or at least a strong claim about the authority of social theory. It’s a bit as if a medical school curriculum included a series of courses which asked students to write–purely abstractly–aggressive plans of surgical intervention without mentioning the Hippocratic Oath. We often don’t get around to directly advising students about how to move from this kind of writing (which has its value) to intelligently laying out a humbler, more tentative approach to problems and policies as they exist in the world outside the university.


So, some specific advice for undergraduates seeking fellowships and grants that have some element of social action or who are involved in community projects or drafting plans for social action.

1. Keep it manageable. Work with one place or a small group of people. Study or work with a small, tractable portion of an issue. In my recent experience, I was staggered–and occasionally amused–by the immensity of the ambitions in some proposals.

2. Along with modesty in subject focus, some modesty towards the site of proposed work or activism would be helpful. This problem is often most exaggerated among students with the strongest political or social ideologies. (Not just, though quite often, on the left: I’ve seen this issue crop up among openly religious conservatives as well.) A surprising number of proposers set themselves up as bringing fire from the gods. It just comes off badly when a 22-year old asks for resources to go to a place with which they have at best a short-term acquaintance in order to lecture the local people about self-actualization, economic development, political transformation, what have you. Many newly minted B.A.s have something of distinctive value to bring to the table, but they shouldn’t oversell themselves or their ideas.

3. Respect the existing intractability and historical development of real-world social problems. This is partly a matter of attitude, but it’s also about doing some intellectual homework about why social problems exist and about what people in various places are already trying to do about them. The social problem a proposal is hoping to study or address doesn’t exist simply because the person making the proposal has yet to make their triumphant arrival on the scene. Proposals which casually sweep away practical obstacles as if they didn’t exist and ignore the realities of history and context leave a very bad impression.

4. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If it just takes me a few minutes on Google to find out that the supposedly novel organization an undergraduate proposes to create in some struggling community is more or less a carbon copy of an existing community organization that’s already there, then the need for yet another organization has to be at least discussed in the proposal itself. I’m not sure what’s worse when I read something like this: when I think the proposer doesn’t know that they’re just duplicating existing efforts or when I think that they do know it. It’s better to work with an existing organization if you’re a newcomer, whatever its shortcomings might be–if nothing else, working with a badly flawed existing group is a great way to come away a lot wiser about what can and cannot be done. (See #3.)

5. First do no harm. Works for doctors, and it should apply equally to aspiring development experts, policy wonks, demographers, and so on. There isn’t any way to get around the fact that a tremendous amount of social policy amounts to human experimentation (really, in some sense, any meaningful action we take in the world, even as individuals, can have that dimension). But an undergraduate or recent graduate who is proposing to do something where there is real potential for serious and direct harm to the health, welfare and well-being of real individuals leaves most evaluators feeling very uncomfortable unless that proposal is being carried out under strong supervision. Again, this is where I often feel acutely worried about what we’re teaching in the social sciences, given that we seem to be egging on students who think nothing of proposing aggressive and very direct interventions in communities and personal lives.

6. Be curious. If you’re going somewhere to learn something, then be open to what you might learn. I concede that a well-written proposal needs to come off as confident and well-prepared. But a proposal that’s written as if the proposer has already had the experiences they’re asking to be funded to have is unconvincing. There’s a way to sound both tentative and diligent at the same time.

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2 Responses to Disposed to Propose

  1. I like the advice, but I wonder if the problem isn’t more generic than the high-performer subset you work with. Overconfidence and oversimplification — intellectual, organizational, etc. — is a natural function of youth.

    To some extent, I wonder if we do our students a disservice by expecting them to be decades more mature than they are, by expecting independent judgement when we know they don’t have it.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, it’s why I try not to get too much on my high horse about these tendencies. I know full well I sounded like this at times earlier in my life. But on the other hand, I think few of us push back on students when we see this kind of posture in their work or proposals, precisely just figuring that it’s a “time of life” thing, a youthful excess, and that they’ll get over it in time. Just in terms of success in immediate goals (proposals adopted, funding obtained, fellowships given), it might help to say, “Look, you really don’t want to sound like this”, because the folks who are disproportionately successful applicants in these contexts are those who for whatever reason have already learned to precisely define problems, to not overpromise, and to have a sense of proportion about their own talents. Or at least they know that it’s best to come off as if that were true.

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