Three Dartmouth Scholars Awarded ACLS Fellowships

Dartmouth tops the list this year for the prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

Three Dartmouth scholars have been awarded 2023 ACLS Fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies. 

Sarah Carson, a lecturer in the Department of History, Son Ca Lam, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography, and Sara Swenson, an assistant professor of religion, were selected as part of a cohort of 60 early-stage scholars from nearly 1,200 applicants. Each fellowship provides between $30,000 and $60,000 to support scholars during six to 12 months of sustained research and writing. 

With three fellowships apiece, Dartmouth and the University of Washington led the country in recipients this year.

"With higher education under sustained attack around the country, ACLS is proud to support this diverse cohort of emerging scholars as they work to increase understanding of our connected human histories, cultures, and experiences," said ACLS President Joy Connolly. "ACLS fellowships are investments in an inclusive future where scholars are free to pursue rigorous, unflinching humanistic research."

"I'm thrilled that the ACLS has recognized the promise and potential of three of our early-career scholars," says Elizabeth F. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "Their work will push their respective fields in new directions, forge connections across disciplines, and enrich our academic community."

Formed in 1919, the New York-based ACLS serves as the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences. In 2020, the ACLS redirected the funding focus of its signature fellowship program to support early-career, nontenured scholars. The decision came in response to the disproportionate effect the economic downturn has had on emerging independent scholars and those without tenured positions, as well as on academic programs in the humanities and social sciences.

Dartmouth's Grant Proposal Support Initiative, known as GrantGPS, supported some of the Dartmouth scholars with the ACLS application process.

Weather Forecasts and Political Power in Modern India

A historian of modern South Asia who studies the intersections of weather and climate, predictive sciences, and modern governance, Carson plans to work on her first book during her fellowship year, which will explore competing methods of weather prediction and explanation from the 1860s to the 1960s. 

"Since I finished my dissertation on the politics of weather prediction, I've incorporated more local systems of prediction into my research, specifically jyotiṣa śāstrīs—Sanskrit scholar-astrologers," Carson says. "I now have a much bigger story to tell about their role in the making of modern India." 

By incorporating ancient and native perspectives on weather prediction into her research, Carson plans to illuminate how people in South Asia have understood their place in nature, and how the uncertainty of modern science created opportunities for local weather experts to assert their authority on the environment. 

Carson says her work helps account for hesitancies in the region today regarding climate science narratives.

"We can't explain the way that people make sense of the climate crisis without understanding the frameworks, culture, and knowledge that they process this information through," Carson says. "We won't understand how people experiencing heat waves in North India or flooding in Bangladesh explain what's happening to their communities, for example, without understanding the longer genealogy of this knowledge or the politics that were waged over prediction in the 19th- and early 20th centuries." 

Buddhist Charity and Urbanization in Vietnam

For her fellowship year, Swenson plans to finish her book, Near Light We Shine: Buddhist Charity and Urbanization, which will show how Buddhist charities offer volunteers a way to find hope and build communities as they navigate the changes sweeping Vietnam.

One of the fastest developing countries in Asia, Vietnam has experienced rapid economic growth that has divided the poor and wealthy while straining public infrastructure. In response, Swenson says, charity volunteers are building roads, subsidizing medicine, and feeding the homeless. 

"I'm excited to reflect the motives and experiences of local Buddhists in Vietnam who are passionate about doing charity work," Swenson says. "My project focuses on how real, everyday people are stepping up to start social service efforts and organizations—grassroots perspectives that are not reflected in much of the scholarship." 

Swenson's project emerged from her dissertation on Vietnamese Buddhist volunteerism, which was also supported by the ACLS as a beneficiary of its Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in Buddhist Studies.

"I'm incredibly grateful for the ACLS and their advocacy for humanities research," Swenson says. "The ACLS offers vital resources for scholars to develop research on questions that are both timeless and pressing: What brings people together? What drives social change? How do we deal with ethical dilemmas? This cohort of fellows will create work on these topics that both advances scholarship and engages public readers. It's an honor to be among them."

Refugee Displacement

Drawing on over two years of ethnographic video field work with Vietnamese refugee families in the U.S. and Vietnam, Lam will focus her fellowship project on refugee displacement and placemaking.

"My work aims to humanize refugees, not as victims, but as agents with universal desires for home and belonging," Lam says. "These motivations are shaped by my own family's experiences coming to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam without a cent in their pockets or a word of English."
Lam's research reveals the ways that people remain influenced by ongoing displacement, generations after resettlement. 

"Many elders even decide to return to Vietnam because they feel that 'no one has time in the U.S.,' calling attention to the friction between Vietnamese refugee temporality and the rhythm of daily life in their host country," Lam says. "Yet much of the scholarship on the relationship between time and space is premised upon a linear notion of time that is culturally specific but assumed to be universal. My project highlights how diasporic people create alternative spaces in which time operates differently, and home can be made."
By centering refugee lives, Lam's work contributes to the emerging field of critical refugee studies, which generates scholarship for and by refugees. 

"Despite the impossible circumstances that my family and many others like them face, they still find ways to carve out places to call home," Lam says. "I am indebted to them and all the families who have shared their lives with me during my fieldwork. The ACLS fellowship gives me the opportunity to focus on producing work that amplifies and honors these stories."