By Stacey Pontoriero
Two recent grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – $1 million to enhance research in English at Rutgers, then a second grant to Professor Michael McKeon to lead a dissertation workshop – have had immediate effects on the Graduate Program of Literatures in English, providing summer writing stipends for students finishing their dissertations and additional funding for students doing research.
The Rutgers English Graduate Program is ranked among the top twenty nationwide, and this grant enables Rutgers to be even more competitive in recruiting the best students. “The other top graduate programs in the country provide summer funding as a rule,” says Professor Richard E. Miller, Chair of English. “We haven’t been in the position to do that in the past. The combination of this grant with strong support from the Rutgers Graduate School allows us to put together a funding package comparable to those offered by peer institutions.”
One part of the Mellon grant is set aside for students finishing their dissertations. The Mellon Dissertation Workshops give participants both financial and intellectual support. Professor Meredith L. McGill, Director of the Graduate Program, explains how these efforts can profoundly change the way graduate students view themselves and their work in preparation for the highly competitive world of professional academia. “Normally, graduate students see themselves as writing for their dissertation directors and official readers,” she says, “a very narrow group of three or four experts in their fields. Such a limited audience tends to make the student write specialized arguments in a specialized language.”
However, she says, a dissertation is actually the first draft of a book meant for a much larger audience. In the workshops, students share drafts of their chapters with each other, getting feedback from a wider audience with many different academic approaches. The process helps transform their work into a book that is useful both to specialized readers and to scholars of literature in general.
Another part of the grant helps students who are just starting or are midway through their dissertations and need to do primary research. Fellowships help support graduate students doing everything from examining manuscripts at the Wordsworth archives at Cornell, to attending summer programs like the School for Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, to participating in intensive language programs for intermediate Turkish and advanced Latin.
The Mellon grant helps graduate students to conduct interesting and innovative research and to refine their writing, which in turn leads to the kind of engaging Ph.D. dissertations the top-tier universities of the world look for during the competitive hiring process. Rutgers has an excellent record in this regard, and over the past couple of years approximately 80% of the candidates have succeeded in finding academic jobs. A Ph.D. from Rutgers English has landed graduates at other premier institutions such as Berkeley, MIT, Oxford University, Princeton, and Yale.
“One of the reasons for our present success is our past successes,” says Professor McGill. “These things build on each other. Every student who sends out an abstract of an excellent dissertation project reflects well on Rutgers, whether or not that person gets the job. And I think that the care and energy that faculty and students have put into placement over the last five or six years is helping everybody.” With the added support of the Mellon Foundation, this success will only increase, she says. “The ideal is to have scholars at other universities see ‘Rutgers’ and think, ‘Oh, I wonder what this person is doing.’”
The Graduate Program of Literatures in English
The Mellon Foundation Grant
Professor McKeon's Seminar