NEH Fellowship Inspires Drew Professor
Frances Bernstein studied how the Soviets treated WWII veterans.
April 2016 – Passion doesn’t come with an expiration date.
Frances Bernstein, an associate professor of history at Drew University, proved that last year when she landed a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and chased something she had mulled since her undergraduate years at Brown University in the 1980s.
The topic: exploring how the former Soviet Union treated World War II veterans who returned from the battlefield with disabilities.
“Basically, the response was to make them disappear” from public view, said Bernstein, who specializes in the history of Russia, medicine, sexuality and disabilities.
The seed for the project was planted when Bernstein, at Brown, was researching a thesis on the underground feminist movement in the late Soviet period. She came across documents about an underground disability rights movement that occurred around the same time period, and since then, she has continued to look for archival documents on the subject.
Bernstein’s NEH fellowship lasted a year. That award, coupled with a visiting fellowship in Russian/Slavic Studies from New York University, enabled her to spend a total of 1 1/2 years on the project.
In its last five rounds, the NEH fellowships program, on average, received 1,210 applications per year and awarded just 80 fellowships each year—meaning only 7 percent of all applicants received NEH funding, according to Bernstein. “I’m delighted that disability is something that is getting attention,” she said.
During her research, Bernstein sifted through thousands of pages of non-digitized, disorganized Russian archive material, recording anything relevant. Her findings will ultimately be released as a book, for which she has completed four chapters. She also has published several articles based on her research findings.
The sabbatical heightened Bernstein’s personal awareness of disabilities, which also helps her as a professor at Drew.
“Everybody benefits by instructors paying attention to these issues in the classroom,” said Bernstein, who also teaches a class on the history of disability. “The more people are aware, the more we can enact changes.”