Two professors from UC Davis awarded Guggenheim Fellowships

Two professors from UC Davis awarded Guggenheim Fellowships

Photo Credits: JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

Professors Ari Kelman and Elizabeth Miller two of 173 American and Canadian winners

On April 10, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced the 2019 recipients of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Of the 173 American and Canadian winners, two were from UC Davis: Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Academic Programs and history professor Ari Kelman and English professor Elizabeth Miller. The foundation receives around 3,000 applications annually and tends to pick around 175 recipients for the fellowship.

Both Kelman and Miller have received other fellowships, but the Guggenheim Fellowship stands out in multiple ways. They both mentioned the fact that the award can be given to artists or scholars from a number of different disciplines.

“The thing that makes the Guggenheim unusual is that it’s available to people from a variety of different fields, some academic, some not, as long as they’re engaged in creative activities,” said Kelman, who has also been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Huntington Library. “There are artists, […] there are all different kinds of scholars, novelists, etcetera so to be selected for something like this honestly feels surreal. I’m not quite sure how it happened, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. But at some point I imagine it’ll sink in, and I’ll probably feel really good.”

Miller added to Kelman’s sentiment, mentioning that Debbie Niemeier, a professor from the department of civil and environmental engineering, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2015. Miller also noted some differences between this and other fellowships she has received, which include the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship, the Curran Fellowship and the Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship.

“I think the thing that’s different about the Guggenheim compared to any other thing that’s happened to me in my career is that it’s such a known fellowship,” Miller said. “I’ve even had neighbors on my street who aren’t in academia congratulating me about it. People just have a sense of what it is, in a way that goes beyond the academy. So that’s been really cool and exciting, and definitely a new experience for me.”

About a month before the official announcement, Kelman and Miller were told that they were finalists. One day before the official announcement they were informed that they had received the award. Kelman was sitting in his office when he received the email while Miller was volunteering at her children’s school.

“I always make a point not to have my phone out when I’m volunteering there, but as soon as I’m done with my shift, I always check my email,” Miller said. “And that was when I found out. I just sat down on a bench in the playground and took it in for a minute before I went on with my day. It was quite a shock and a surprise, and obviously, I was really delighted.”

Both Kelman and Miller spoke to the amount of rejection that precedes an honor like this. For many academics, there are far more denials than acceptances.

“I applied more than once,” Kelman said. “I fail at everything that I try and do many times before I succeed. And this was no different. I applied a total of two other times.”

Miller elaborated on how to handle the amount of rejection that comes with applications of this caliber.

“I’ve applied for lots and lots of things that haven’t worked out,” Miller said. “You just always have to assume that you’re not going to get it, but at the same time, put in the application. And then when it does work out, it’s an amazingly wonderful surprise.”

Currently, Kelman is working on three books that will be supported by the award — “Liberty and Empire: How the Civil War Bled into the Indian Wars,” a book for the Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series on Indian Wars from the colonial period through the end of the nineteenth century and a graphic history of the Northern Cheyenne people that he’s working on with two colleagues.  

“One of the major projects that this is supporting is a revisionist history of the United States Civil War,” Kelman said. “[It focuses] on the experiences of indigenous nations, the ways in which federal soldiers during the era of the Civil War, in part prompted by the United States Civil War, engaged in violent encounters, in practices of conquest and imperialism against indigenous nations or native nations, American Indians in the West.”

Miller will be using the award toward a book that she’s been working on for about five years on extractivism and mining in the Industrial Era. She is looking at literature, and using it as an archive to consider how ideas of the world changed alongside the industrialization of mining.

For the Guggenheim Fellowship, applicants must complete a career narrative. In it, Miller talked about the continuity of her two published books and the one she is working on. She described “the attempt to understand literature within a historical context, within an economic context” and the ways in which literature reflects and also changes political ideas.

“Even though I’m looking at the 19th century, the project is really also engaged with discussions around climate change today and trying to think about the origins of environmental crisis and how they can be traced back to the beginnings of a coal fired economy with the Industrial Era,” Miller said.

Last year, three faculty members from the College of Letters and Science — Mika Pelo, associate professor in the department of music, Annabeth Rosen, Robert Arneson Endowed Chair in the department of art and art history, and Archana Venkatesan, associate professor in the department of religious studies and the department of comparative literature — were awarded with Guggenheim Fellowships. There are now 39 Guggenheim Fellows from the college.

“I think it’s unusual for a single campus to have multiple recipients in two years running. And I think it just speaks to the incredibly high quality of the work that’s being done on this campus,” Kelman said, “[…] and you know, this just feels like a pretty lucky thing.”

Written by: ANJINI VENUGOPAL — features@theaggie.org