Mellon Postdoc Fellowship – Virtuality

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Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities

Call for Applications, 2010–2011
Topic: Virtuality

Five (5) one-year Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowships are available for the 2010-2011 academic year for untenured scholars in the humanities who received or will receive their Ph.D. between December 2001 and December 2009. The fellowship is open to all scholars, national and international, who meet application terms (see Guidelines below).

The programs of the Penn Humanities Forum are conceived through yearly topics that invite broad interdisciplinary collaboration. For the 2010–2011 academic year, we have set Virtuality as the theme [details below]. Humanists and those in related fields are invited to submit research proposals on any aspect of this topic, except educational curriculum building and the performing arts.

Fellows teach one undergraduate course in addition to conducting their research. The fellowship stipend is $46,500, plus health insurance. Fellows are required to be in residence during their fellowship year (September–May).

Application Deadline: Thursday, October 15, 2009
Applications will be accepted via online webform only.
Awards will be announced by the end of December 2009.


Application Guidelines

The Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities at the Penn Humanities Forum, University of Pennsylvania, is open to scholars who are not yet tenured and who are no more than eight years out of their doctorate. Candidates may hold a tenure-track position but may not be tenured either before or during the fellowship year. For the 2010–2011 Fellowship, candidates must have received or will receive their Ph.D. between December 2001 and December 2009. You must have your degree in hand or have passed your defense no later than December 2009 to be eligible. Your application will not be considered unless this condition is met. The Ph.D. is the only terminal degree eligible (i.e., MFAs and other doctorates such as EdD are ineligible).

During their year in residence, Penn Humanities Forum Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows will have the opportunity to pursue their own research. That research must relate to Virtuality, the Forum’s topic of study for 2010–11. Fellows must also participate in the weekly Mellon Research Seminar of the Penn Humanities Forum (Tuesdays, 12:00–2:00), and present their research at one of those seminars.

In addition to conducting their research, Mellon Fellows are required to teach one freshman seminar in an appropriate department. In writing the course proposal for the fall freshman seminar, please consider carefully the university’s description of those seminars (click here [] for examples of Penn Freshmen Seminar descriptions).

Preference will be given to candidates whose proposals are interdisciplinary, who have not previously used the resources of the University of Pennsylvania, and who would particularly benefit from and contribute to Penn’s intellectual life.


Penn Humanities Forum on Virtuality

Topic Director: James English
Professor of English, Penn

Out of the Latin virtus (“excellence”) and the Middle English virtuell (“effective,” “powerful”) comes our modern word virtuality. Its happy etymological connotations are still in force, as virtuality expresses the utopian hopes of the Information Age. The rise of new media and digital technologies, new feats of prosthetic engineering, and new forms and practices of simulation suggest a brave new world of cyber-living just around the corner, a future where the dynamic power of semblance will utterly redeem the real.

And yet, virtuality, even—indeed especially—when it tempts us with its most alluring promises (virtual youth! virtual sex!), has acquired unmistakably dystopian associations. For many, virtuality represents the loss of what is most precious and authentic in human experience. Should we not resist a future in which romance is reduced to virtual dating and friendship to virtual greeting cards, or when, as educators and humanists, we “meet” with our students in merely virtual classrooms?

Torn between the promise and the threat of these contemporary virtualities, we need to remind ourselves that the virtual itself is nothing new. Humans seem driven, with whatever material and representational technologies lie at hand, to spin out richly imagined alternative worlds, powerful simulations, strategies for rendering the fictive or artificial “effectively” real. Art and literature have always evoked the power of near or not-quite realities. So too has scientific experiment, which depends on the laboratory simulation of real-world conditions. Athletic competition and warfare are unthinkable without the “as if” of training, in the same way that most theatrical performance relies on the anticipatory duplication of rehearsal. Likewise, political governance mobilizes the “imagined community” of a nation into a real social force. Historians explore this inexhaustible archive of virtualities, even while their discipline is itself transformed by new digital means for replicating the past, from virtual reenactment to the virtual museum.

Though the vir of “virile” is also a root of virtuality, the word exceeds the conventionally masculine precinct of computer scientists, engineers, and military training experts. For feminist and queer scholars and those in disability and minority studies, the notion of virtual communities and virtual selves has raised a host of questions about identity, the body, and stigmatization. For philosophers, virtuality poses both ontological and ethical issues: if, when we “go virtual” we remain yoked to our everyday selves, where is our primary address, which is our more valid subjectivity, and what rules or constraints bind us? Related questions arise for legal scholars, as contract law is increasingly strained in transactions conducted by our avatars and as goods and services are exchanged in virtual worlds such as Second Life. How far into such spheres can or should the law extend?

By now, every field is contending with such ambiguities. For specialists in education and pedagogy, the emergence of interactive instructional software and the rise of distance learning have stimulated exciting new research and speculation, while at the same time raising fears about the eventual replacement of human with digital educators. For media critics, cultural theorists, and economists, the rise of a “Nintendo generation” diverted from literature, music, cinema, sport, and even television calls urgently for attention. Is gaming the great new art form of the 21st century, as cinema was of the 20th? Or is it a soul-destroying extension of the routinized, competitive, goal-oriented modern workplace, a symptom of a society that has forgotten the real meaning of “game”? Or can we safely ignore it as a harmless distraction, of no particular consequence either aesthetically or socially? Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of virtuality is that we sense these may not be the right questions to be asking, but it is not yet clear how to formulate better ones.

In its research and public programming, the Penn Humanities Forum will be hosting a wide-ranging conversation on these issues. Scholars, students, and citizens are invited to join in this collective inquiry, the 2010-2011 Forum on Virtuality.

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