Fellowship experience at International Centre for Jefferson Studies

This short blog, covering Nelson’s experience as a Fellow of the International Centre for Jefferson Studies in Monticello, Virginia, might give you a very rough idea of what a fellowship entails, with a few pointers from his own experience. Click for hi-res photos, and
if you have any questions you can always tweet @RunawaySlavesGB or @NelsonHistory

Once my application was accepted, a few weeks later I was in contacted by ICJS and told to start the application process for my B1 visa. This was fairly straight forward, but you need to visit an American Embassy to have a quick interview before they will admit you. Most people go to London to fulfill this, but I was advised that Belfast might be quicker, and cost just the same. It was, and I was over and back from Northern Ireland within 16 hours or so, with my passport with new American Visa reaching me in the post a few days later.


The highlight of my Belfast trip – Ulster Museum.


I arrived at Kenwood House, where ICJS is situated, tired of living out of my suitcase and desperate for a semi-permanent room. My previous ten or so days had seen me fit in some research in the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and attend and give a paper at the Eighteenth Century Scottish Studies Society/American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Pittsburgh. I had had a great time, but was looking forward to sleeping without being awoken by couples squabbling at 4am, or people practising the banjo at 2am (protip: definitely research all your AirBnb bookings). I was given the lovely garage flat just beside Kenwood House and the Jefferson Library, and it was my own space, with kitchen, great shower, excellent bed and a fairly luxurious living room/study. After a couple nights of auditory hallucinations (curse that banjo ‘player’) I settled in, soon growing used to the absolute peace and quiet, it was wonderful.

Kenwood Garage

Kenwood House (left) and the Garage Apartment (right).

Kenwood lunch

Lunch outside the Garage Apartment.


The first day there I attended the Fellow’s Coffee – bagels, cakes and coffee with a large helping of more coffee. And cakes. And bagels. Here I was introduced to the other fellows and met most of the staff. The staff at ICJS were fantastic. I was the latest in over 500 fellows that have worked with ICJS, and I would be surprised if the first was any more warmly greeted than me. Everyone is interested in your field of study, common connections (first rule of history club: there are always common connections), and you as a person. The expertise at ICJS was frankly stunning: Prof Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Dr Gaye Wilson, Dr Christa Dierksheide, Mary Scott Fleming, and of course there are staff from the Jefferson Library, people such as Foundation Librarian Jack Robertson, Associate Foundation Librarian Endrina Tay and Research Librarian Anna Berkes. And then there are those working on the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series with editor Jeff Looney. This is not to mention the Archaeological staff, the behind-the-scenes staff, as well as many, many volunteers! Pinning it all together for us fellows was Whitney Pippin, who organised and pulled the strings while there to ensure we got to make the most of the experience. Apart from all being lovely, helpful people, they really are a wealth of information on all areas of Jefferson, Monticello and Revolutionary America.

Monticello (1)

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house. Fantastic interactive tour here.

TJ Band1

The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corp band playing for Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13th.

Other fellows

It was brilliant to meet other academics during my stay, and in a context completely different to any other. A bond grows between you as you all share the same experience, whether or not it’s the first time being a fellow. I was fortunate to meet academics who studied: 18th & 19th C gardens and woman; 18th & 19th C agricultural improvement in Virginia; and a retired academic who proved that you’re never really retired, studying Benjamin Latrobe and his relationship with Jefferson. These different topics became clearer over the course of the fellow’s lunches every week that ICJS organised, where we had a chance to sit down and discuss our findings, but also enjoy each other’s company. Personally, I found it just as captivating when they talked about themselves: their lives, their careers and their adventures, related to history or not.

It also meant we had people to share the experience of discovering a new country or area with. Dismayed at having no-one to grab and go “Will you look at that!” in Washington D.C., it was nice to share the experience of discovering Monticello and Virginia with others. We ended up going on road trips to places like Crabtree Falls, the Blue Ridge, and further afield to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. The last two are definitely worth visiting if you manage a Fellowship with ICJS, or find yourself in the general area. Some find the dressing up and accents a tad off putting, but I thought it added to the experience and tried to imagine how it would have looked without all us tourists.

Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg

Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg.

Pocahontas Governor's Palace

Pocahontas Statue from Historic Jamestowne; Governor’s Palace from Colonial Williamsburg.

My research

My PhD thesis, Race, Ethnicity and Otherness in the North British Press, 1740-1800 will examine the newspapers and periodicals of the time to try and ascertain how the press informed its readers of ‘others’, and how this contributed to their own ideas of identity. While other scholars have examined Scottish Enlightenment thought and philosophy with regard to race and identity, nobody has examined how the newspapers and periodical press articulated such ideas to broader audiences. From my fellowship with ICJS I wanted to research the output of Scots who had travelled to America and printed or published newspapers during the same period.

I had lots of questions I wanted to answer: Was there a distinct and recognizable Scottish way of describing and writing about ‘others’ which survived the journey across the Atlantic, or was it diluted and ‘Americanized’ as Scots published for a different but similar audience? If the latter, did this result in Scots abroad sending ‘Americanized’ ideas about race, otherness and identity back to Scotland, and did these help shape changes in Scottish representations and understandings in its own press?

First, I had to determine who the main Scottish newspapermen in America were. The Jefferson Library provided digitized versions of many newspapers of the colonies and Early Republic, but all too few were edited or published by Scots. I referred to Isaiah Thomas’ The History of Printing in America (1810) and Clarence S. Brigham’s meticulous 19 piece bibliography for the American Antiquarian Society (1913-1961) to try and track down a few of these men. Once I had my targets I was then able to search digitized versions of their newspapers and other published works, using keyword searches to locate articles that refer to race, ethnicity and identity. Unfortunately, the database interface is too clunky and inefficient to allow me to read the pages front to back, as I do with the Scottish newspapers, but keyword searching still provides a good coverage. While the work is still ongoing, it was great to make a good start in on this area, and I hope to do the same with Scots in the Caribbean in my third year.

Nelson forum1

My Fellow’s Forum presentation in my last week.

Some pointers

I am only on my first fellowship, so there will be blogs out there with more experience, but these are a few tips from my own time with Monticello:

  • Research

Research, research, research. Like the old Carnegie Hall joke (“practice”), if one word sums up a fellowship it could arguably be “research”. So, do some looking up on the staff at your destination, find out a little about the other fellows and their fields of interest, determine where the nearest grocery and, depending on your sensibilities, liquor stores are. These small things will make your trip feel not quite as daunting as being relocated somewhere new for a month and being completely unfamiliar with everything (can you guess who didn’t do enough research on grocery stores beforehand?).

  • Don’t live in a bubble

The fellowship experience should also be about your interactions with the world outside your own research. This sounds rather grandiose, but I just mean make sure you enjoy the experiences out-with your research. You will be in a new part of the country, or, if you’re lucky, a new country altogether, and this experience is about helping you grow as a person, by broadening your cultural horizons, gaining new perspectives on how people envisage things, and. Think about how these local contexts may have influenced local academics’ writings, locals’ opinions of politics and culture, and if and how it will influence your own writing.

  • Don’t take too much work with you

We all have too much work to do, and if we stay in academia this will never change. But try not to bring any more than the absolute “have to’s” – you don’t want to be spending your time stuck in your residence marking papers that aren’t due for ages, nor organising events that can be done when you return (and it can be tempting, with the lack of interruptions). Sure, keep your eye on the ball with emails, and doing some work for your institution will always be necessary, but ensure you aren’t keeping yourself away from the real reason you’re on the fellowship.

  • On returning

It was my first time away from Scotland, for that length (six weeks) and by myself. When I came back, it felt very surreal for the first couple of days, the five hour time difference really made everything seem a bit topsy-turvy (and it was sunny, which added to the feeling of being in a bizarro world!). This will get better as I travel more, but it’s worth giving yourself a couple of days to catch up with life and sort yourself out for work – clothes washing, food shopping, routine for work. I came back feeling rejuvenated and eager to get stuck in, but was glad I had laid out a fairly strict timetable for the first two weeks after the initial rest.

  • Enjoy it

It is, I have found, too easy to worry about time slipping away and the mound of work you have to do, the feelings of guilt at not being harried and harassed like your colleagues back home, but you are (as they will rightly remind you) in a very lucky position. You are here to research and write about your own work – this fellowship is about you. I had to stop myself a few times, take a few slow, deep breaths and remind myself that I’m in a very fortunate position. How many people will get to experience this? Surrounded by passionate people, immersed in history, free from day-to-day distractions and more coffee and bagels than you can shake a stick at. Some of the relationships you forge here, I’m told, will last a lifetime, for professional or personal reasons, there’s something quite lovely about that.


Finally, remember that the experience doesn’t start from when you arrive, it starts from when you send off that application. Everything along the way should help you grow as an academic and as a person, and I’ve certainly come back a bit more confident about my place in the academic world and where I see myself going in the future, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work.


A version of this blog also exists on my PhD blog: https://peculiaritiesinthepress.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/the-fellowship-experience-at-icjs/

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