By Isaac Sligh
Sewanee’s Dave Dermon IV (C ’16) is a history and German major. He recently received the Biehl International Research Fellowship, an award sponsoring research abroad for rising Sewanee juniors and seniors. Typically two to seven students receive the awards for a summer of research, after which each recipient writes a research paper under faculty supervision and presents it in a public talk during the following Advent semester. The Purple’s Isaac Sligh (C ’18) caught up with Dermon for a talk about his plans for using the award this coming summer. SP: Could you generally describe the DD: The Biehl fellowship is available to any rising junior or senior who is a non-math or science major, and it is meant for you to be able to do some sort of Humanities research project. In years past it has been a lot more political science-oriented I would say; more international and global studies type students will go and it usually involves a lot of interviewing individuals and things along those lines. However, for History work like I’m doing you can, for example, apply and specify that you’d like to do archival work, basically saying, “Here’s why I think this project should be approved and why going to this specific archive is the only way for it to be done.” The only other stipulation is that the research has to be conducted in a foreign country that does not speak English, so part of the application is that you have to either explain that you know any language that you’ll need to use or that you alternatively have a plan for circumventing needing to know that language.
When you apply, you have to state your research proposal, in which you give the background to your project, stating the background to the issue; the questions you want to ask about it; who you plan to coordinate with; language skills; and any challenges you think might come up. One of the last things that needs to be included is a budget. You can request up to $4000. After that you have to show why you need the amount you requested. After that, they review the application and notify you if you’re successful, and you come pick up your check and fill out a few standard forms like any other internship or similar thing.
SP: So it’s really rather simple once you’re awarded it.
DD: It really is. But it’s also true that the official part is simple but it’s all completely on you. I asked them if they needed any assurances, but they said honestly the only thing they wanted after this is the 20 page report [due in the Advent semester] . . . so they handed me a check for $4000, and they said, “You’ve told us how you’re using it, we trust you to do this.” It’s in some ways like applying for grad school, saying, “This is the issue, these are the gaps in scholarship that I’d like to fix with my research.”
SP: So you just take this money and you really decide how best to spend it.
DD: Yes. So with the budget you present they want to see your travel, flight, housing, and food expenses — these are really the main things. Funding for local transport and museum and research access is also included. Since I’m going back and forth from Europe, the biggest cost will be my flight and then housing. I’ll probably have to fund a portion of my food costs and such out of pocket.
SP: Tell me about your plans for the Biehl.
DD: I will be going to Berlin and possibly to Halle, Germany. I’m looking to try and focus primarily in Berlin. I’ll be reading letters from roughly 1690-1710 from a Mr. Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf. He was associated with a group of Pietists in Halle. The Pietists were an organization concerned with education and religious reform, but they were also heavily involved with the solidification and the buildup of the Prussian state mechanism. Ludolf, however, did not spend much of his time in Halle, which was part of Prussia at that point. Instead he traveled to England, through Italy, Scandinavia, it looks like the Middle East as well, and even to Peter the Great’s court in Russia. In this time he’s serving as a diplomat, so while he’s not officially appointed by the Prussian government, he’s still going and creating the same sort of network and personal connections that a diplomat would have for a government. So he’s really a very good, very early example of a very international individual. He could read and write fluent English, French, German, Russian, Greek, and Arabic, just from his travels and all the people he knew. So what I’m curious about addressing is the issue that really there’s not much work that’s been done on him. When you look at the scholarship dealing with the Pietists, everyone hints at him and the things he did, but no one ever explains everything. I’ve been able to piece together a sparse biography of his life, and I’d like to use my trip with the Biehl to fill this out and use him as a case study for how diplomacy and the phenomenon on the “Republic of Letters” build off one another. . . . Eventually I will have an end product, a paper of some kind that will theoretically be suitable for publication in an undergraduate journal because there are individuals out there who will be interested in this research and will find it useful.
SP: So what’s the timeframe for your study and trip to Germany with the Biehl?
DD: About 8 weeks — you can apply from 6-10 weeks, and I thought that 8 was in the middle and just enough for me. I plan on spending the first two weeks or so looking at more German secondary sources, things I just can’t get a hold of here, and then from there start diving into the letters for the next six weeks, and that way I figure I can use about five weeks to really go through as many as I can and then in the last week spot check everything.
SP: What kind of student is eligible for the Biehl next time around, and who would you recommend it to?
DD: As I said, rising Junior and Senior humanities and non-Science and Math majors are eligible and should have a look at it. I would recommend though that unless you are someone who is very dedicated and self-driven then I would be hesitant to say “go do it” because you are on your own conducting a project. This isn’t like a class research project where you meet the professor and can work directly with them. Once I get there I have people I can contact, but largely I’ll be flying solo. That being said, anyone who is considering applying to grad school in the humanities who wants to be any sort of researcher or professor should get into it, especially if you have interests outside of American history, literature, and culture.
For more information on the Biehl, or to apply for the award, visit their site.