(CLOSED) John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures

Sponsor Name: 
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Description of the Award: 

Penn State has been invited by Mellon Foundation to submit a proposal to host a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures. The Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminars program was established in 1994 to provide support for collaborative research on historical and contemporary topics of major
scholarly significance. The seminars, named in honor of the Mellon’s long-serving third president, John E. Sawyer, bring together faculty, foreign visitors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from a variety of fields—mainly, but not exclusively, in the arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences—for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants. This program aims to engage productive scholars in multi-disciplinary and comparative inquiry that would in ordinary university circumstances be difficult to pursue, while at the same time avoiding the institutionalization of such work in new centers, departments, or programs.

A more detailed description of the program’s aims, structure, budgetary guidelines, and selection procedures is available on the Foundation’s website.

Proposals should describe:

  1. the originality and significance of the central questions to be addressed;
  2. the cases to be compared (e.g., nations, regions, social aggregates, time periods) and the rationale for the comparisons that are selected;
  3. the thematic "threads" that will run through the seminar;
  4. the institution's resources and suitability for the proposed seminar; and
  5. the procedures to be used in selecting graduate and postdoctoral fellows.

Proposals are judged on the significance of the subject of inquiry, the aptness of plans for seminar meetings, the opportunities they present for comparative study, the rationale for the comparisons, and on the scholarly accomplishments of the participants. Penn State has been a previous recipient of Sawyer awards, please click here to learn more.

Program Activities: To date, 240 seminars have been funded. Their subjects, which have ranged widely, can be viewed on our website.

The maximum grant award for each Sawyer Seminar is $225,000. Each seminar normally meets for one year, though some have continued for longer periods. To allow for planning, seminars need not be scheduled for the coming academic year. Faculty participants largely come from the humanities and interpretive social sciences, although some of the most successful and provocative seminars have also drawn on faculty in the arts and in professional schools. Seminar leaders are encouraged to invite participants from nearby institutions, such as community colleges, liberal arts colleges, museums, research institutes, etc. As Mellon reviews proposals, preference will be given to those that include concrete plans for engaging participants with diverse institutional and disciplinary affiliations.

Sawyer Seminar awards provide support for one postdoctoral fellow to be recruited through a national competition, and for the dissertation research of two graduate students. It is expected that the graduate students will be active participants in the intellectual life of the seminar. The seminars’ contribution to graduate education in the humanities and social sciences will be carefully considered even though they are not intended to be organized as official credit-bearing courses. Seminars are not expected to produce a written product, though many do.

Selection and Award Process: Institutions are to decide through an internal downselect process which proposals they will submit to the Foundation for consideration. Questions concerning this Penn State limited submissions process may be submitted to limitedsubs@psu.edu.

Texts of proposals to the Foundation covering the five components listed above typically range from 3,000 to 6,000 words and must not exceed 8,000 words. Additionally, proposals should be supplemented by three appendices: (1) a budget (using the Mellon Budget and Financial Report template); (2) a well-developed preliminary plan for the seminar that outlines the specific topics to be addressed in each session and provides the names and qualifications of the scholars who would ideally participate; (3) short CVs (1-2 pages) for the principal seminar organizers (if other participants are identified, the organizers are asked to limit information about them to a few lines of text).

Budget: Funding requests should not exceed $225,000 for each seminar. Each seminar’s budget must provide for a postdoctoral fellowship to be awarded for the year the seminar meets, and two graduate student dissertation fellowships to be awarded for the seminar year or the year that follows. The amounts for postdoctoral fellowship awards and dissertation fellowship stipends should follow institutional practices. To acknowledge the sustained intellectual involvement of these graduate students in the seminar, institutions may include tuition support or, for those funded by existing fellowships, supplementary support such as research and travel funds. Travel and living expenses for short stays by visiting scholars and the costs of coordinating the seminar, including those incurred for speakers and their travel, may also be included. Funds may not cover released time for
regular faculty participants, rentals of university space, or indirect costs.

We anticipate that appropriations for the Sawyer Seminar program will be considered by the Foundation's Trustees in October 2023. This means that final proposals for seminars must reach the Foundation by April 14, 2023 so that the selection panel may review them and make recommendations well in advance of the meeting of the Trustees. This schedule allows revisions to be made should the panel request them. Past experience suggests that it can take a year or more to organize the seminars. They need not be scheduled for the coming academic year. The grant cannot exceed 36 months (3 years). We suggest a 24-36 month grant period, which should include a 6-12 month planning period and an 18-24 month long seminar.

Budget periods should align with reporting dates that work for the institution, but the first budget period must begin with November 1, 2023. For this reason, the first period may be longer, or shorter, than 12 months.

Sponsor Final Deadline: 
Apr 14, 2023
OSVPR Application or NOI Instructions: 

Interested applicants should send the following documents in sequence in one PDF file (File name: Last name_SawyerSeries_2023) no later than 4:00 p.m. on the internal submission deadline:

Cover Page:

  • Principal Organizer name and departmental affiliation
  • Co-organizer names and departmental affiliation(s)
  • A list of possible participating organizations, if applicable
  • Proposal Title

Project Description (no more than three pages):

  • The rationale for raising the central questions to be addressed and the potential significance of the inquiry to be pursued.
  • A description of the cases to be studied (e.g., nations, regions, time periods, cultural trends, social tensions) and the perspectives to be brought to bear on them; the thematic “threads” that will run through the seminar; and the institution’s resources and suitability for the proposed seminar.

1-2 page CVs for principal series organizers

Formatting Guidelines:
Font/size: Times New Roman (12 pt.)
Document margins: 1.0” (top, bottom, left and right)
Standard paper size (8 ½” x 11)

To be considered as a Penn State institutional nominee, please submit a notice of intent by the date provided directly below.
This limited submission is in downselect: 
Penn State may only submit a specific number of proposals to this funding opportunity. The number of NOIs received require that an internal competition take place, thus, a downselect process has commenced. No Penn State researchers may apply to this opportunity outside of this downselect process. To apply for this limited submission, please use this link:
OSVPR Downselect Deadline: 
Wednesday, February 22, 2023 - 4:00pm
For help or questions: 

University Development is the designated institutional contact responsible for communicating with the Foundation, and the Office of Foundation Relations is collaborating with Limited Submissions on the internal downselect process. Questions concerning the application process and other foundation-related questions should be directed to Heather Winfield, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Office of University Development (hbw11@psu.edu) or Kate Totino, Associate Director, Office of Foundation Relations (kxf188@psu.edu).

Scott Burnett (CoLA)