English Ph.D. Candidate Wins New Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowship

May 10, 2023

By Emma Deshpande

Destry Maria Sibley discusses her dissertation on motherhood memoirs and shares advice on seeking funding.

Destry Maria Sibley headshot
English Ph.D. candidate Destry Maria Sibley received a 2023 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship. (Photo courtesy of Sibley)

Ph.D. candidate Destry Maria Sibley (English) is one of the first winners of the new Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowship. The prestigious fellowship, introduced this year, supports humanities and social science doctoral students as they pursue bold and innovative approaches to dissertation research.

Through her dissertation, "After Mother: Genres of the Maternal in Twenty-First Century American Memoir," and an accompanying podcast, Sibley reads the cultural construction of the mother as a method to understand the affective and material conditions of contemporary life. Rather than conceive of "the mother" as a characteristic of personhood alone, she shows how the American maternal figure, in an age of political and economic anxiety, is rendered a site of cruelly optimistic cultural attachments, knowledge production, and sense and sensation. And she looks to the possibilities envisioned by memoirists –– particularly from queer, disabled, and transracial communities ––who reimagine what family and identity can be as they transgress the limits of gender and genre.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in English

Long focused on women’s autobiography and memoir, Sibley said she chose her dissertation topic after she gave birth to her first child at the end of her first year in the Ph.D. program.

“Initially, I turned to motherhood memoirs for companionship in the life-altering experience that is becoming a parent,” Sibley said. “But the more I read these books, the more I noticed the interesting moves that many of their authors were making, especially in pushing against the constraints of the genre category of ‘memoir’ and the gender category of ‘mother.’”

Another motivation to research motherhood, she said, is to “challenge the sexist assumptions of those who might reflexively write off this kind of study.” In her research, she said, “I continue to encounter the assumption, misogynistic as it is, that writing (and thinking, and research) about motherhood is inherently frivolous, tedious, or unworthy of scholarly attention. Whereas in my actual experience, I have found that the sustained act of raising and caring for children is one of the most profound, mentally stimulating, and intellectually rigorous experiences I have ever had. I became interested in that discrepancy.”

Sibley was also awarded a 2023 PEN/Jean Stein Award for Literary Oral History for her nonfiction book project The Children of Morelia: Child Refugees of the Spanish Civil War. This research is separate from her dissertation, but she says the two projects are in conversation.

“Both projects,” she said, “are interested in the relationship between the private world of the domestic and the public world of governance: not simply how politics shapes our personal lives, but how the stories we tell about those personal lives, and how we feel about them, create a culture or ideology that also shapes the public. And both works grapple with, really struggle against, the limits of what is knowable and communicable about our most intimate selves –– our own and that of other people.” Earlier, Sibley’s research for this project was funded by a Fulbright-National Geographic fellowship.

Before giving advice for those applying to these dissertation and research fellowships, Sibley said it was important to note how much luck and contingency are involved in these fellowship applications. “I applied for 15 research and writing grants this year and of course was rejected from most,” she said. “So much of the outcome depends on chance.”

What can be done to make applications stand out among these chance conditions? “Remember that the reviewing committee needs to be able to understand the stakes and meaning of your project across multiple registers: within a scholarly discipline, to a broader public outside the academy, and to you (the applicant) personally,” Sibley said. And applications should feature the applicant as well as the research. “Something I learned previously from my Fulbright-National Geographic fellowship was that often these funding institutions seek to invest as much in the individual grantees as in their research,” she said. “I try to find ways to bring in personal elements to the application, allowing the readers to get to know me alongside my work.”

And for non-academic funding, for awards such as the PEN/Jean Stein Award and the Fulbright-National Geographic fellowship? Sibley says that for her application to the PEN/Jean Stein Award, the process was similar to her doctoral funding applications. “In both cases,” she said, “the task was to shape a narrative about a research project already underway: how it relates to me as the researcher, why it matters to a public beyond myself, and why it's meaningful to complete and share this work at this particular historical moment.”