Research Division Evaluates the Impact of its Fellowships Program

October 11, 2012

In academic circles, it’s common to hear it said that a professor “got an NEH.”  What is meant by this shorthand is that a faculty member was awarded an NEH Fellowship. One of the oldest and largest NEH programs, Fellowships receives over 1,200 applications annually.  The success of the program has always been readily apparent by the publication of thousands of books – 7,000 to date – and many of them award winners. Yet the impact of the NEH Fellowships Program for humanities learning has until now rested on mostly anecdotal evidence.           

In a year-long study, the Endowment’s Research Division staff conducted a formal evaluation of the program. Focusing on the three-year period from 2002 through 2004, we surveyed the 520 Fellows who won awards during that time.  In addition to the survey, we researched Fellows’ publications, located reviews of those publications, and documented the awards and prizes the publications received. Our aim was to better understand in what ways the Fellowships Program has benefited scholarship and scholars.

NEH Fellows may work on the beginning, middle, or final stages of their projects. Study results show that 70 percent of the Fellows completed books within seven to nine years after they received their awards—and some stated that their books are currently in press.  They also told us that their grants enabled them to research their subjects more completely and finish their projects sooner, thus producing higher quality scholarship. In all, 96 percent of the Fellows have so far produced a product: usually a book, an article, or an essay.   

The survey group included faculty members at colleges and universities as well as independent scholars. Among other valuable insights we learned that independent scholars especially appreciate the Fellowships program because there are few other sources of support for them. Many junior faculty members at higher education institutions told us that their Fellowships helped them win tenure status, and many senior faculty noted that their awards led to promotion or other recognition. Over 90 percent indicated that their awards had an impact on their careers. Significantly, 77 percent of those surveyed noted that their NEH-supported research directly benefited their teaching.

Judging from the prizes the Fellows’ books earned, and the three to four reviews (on average) that Fellows’ books received within three years of publication, NEH Fellows’ books have evidently reached not only humanities scholars but a wider public audience. Some reviews appeared in major periodicals such as The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The New Yorker, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Foreign Affairs – thus reaching millions of readers.  We were pleased to learn that reviews also appeared in publications not usually associated with the humanities: for example, Nursing Administration QuarterlyThe Journal of the American Medical Association, Civil Engineering, American Scientist, and Army.

From the scholars’ testimony and the data on publications, awards, and reviews, we found that NEH Fellowships effectively succeed in promoting high quality scholarship and individual scholarly development. Fellowships are widely distributed among junior and senior scholars and across institution types and regions, and the resulting scholarship reaches multiple audiences as well as the general public.  In other words, the program can claim to have nationwide benefits. As NEH Chairman James Leach writes in his preface to the report, “NEH Fellowships provide essential support that enables American scholars to advance humanistic knowledge, enrich the cultural record, contribute to educational programs, and inform the general public.”