Out of the thousands of applicants and 180 official nominees his year, two University students—Davy Knittle ’11 and Solomon “Zully” Adler ’11—were awarded the Watson Fellowship. The program offers $25,000 every year to 40 graduating seniors from 40 participating institutions in order to carry out an independent study and travel project.
“This is a particularly big deal, because only 23 of the 40 schools were given fellowships this year,” said Dean Louise Brown, Dean of the Class of 2013. “It’s just a phenomenal opportunity. They are saying, ‘Here’s $25,000, go do what you most want to do in the world.’ Follow your dream, your passion; go for it. It’s amazing.”
The fellowship was founded in 1961 as part of a charitable trust in honor of Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM, and began in its current form in 1968. The fellowship is outlined in loose terms, allowing for student freedom and a near infinite number of possible research topics.
Knittle, a double major in English and African American Studies, is pursuing a project, entitled “Cities in Transition: Identity, Narrative and the Changing Urban Landscape.” The project will lead him to three cities (Toronto, Quito, and Sydney), where he will study how the identities of these communities are changing.
“I’m going to see what people say about what it means to live where they live and how those narratives are changing,” he said. “My project studies the effects of urban plans from the standpoint of social science and how people’s stories are changing, and from that, I’m creating work that engages in the interplay.”
Adler’s project comes from his long-standing passion for producing and designing cassettes for independent bands. His proposal, “Redubbing the World: Cassette Culture and the Power of DIY Production” will take him to Malaysia, Australia, Belgium, Sweden, and possibly Mexico, where he will look at the intersection between art and objects—how elements in that object tell us something. Adler plans to talk to the people and communities that make these tapes.
“It’s going to be an in-depth analysis on the many facets of material culture,” Adler said. “How these objects—the cassettes—themselves are representative of their environments, how they challenge their environments.”
Fellows are responsible for forming their own agendas, making their own contacts, and figuring out where to live and how to get around—an exercise in autonomy and self-sustainability. Many of these projects arise from long-standing interests, and most are multi-disciplinary.
Although Adler has plenty of experience in do-it-yourself cassette making, he first became interested during the Los Angeles cassette-culture boom in the early 2000s. Despite his passion for production, he has no intention of working with the artists he hopes to meet.
“I want to look beyond my own project, and not absorb these artists into my own particular vision, so that I can create a kind of independent study,” he said. “It would be really cool to collaborate with these people, but it’ll be more about trying to understand the local conditions that they are responding too, rather than building some sort of body of work with these artists.”
Adler hopes to compare DIY production in the United States to other countries.
“In the States, there’s a lot of variability in terms of DIY production,” he said. “Do other places display this kind of diversity? If they don’t, what kind of options do they have? That methodology might take me all the way into paper and binding manufacturers, cassette duplicators, all these kind of bizarre under-the-radar operations coalescing to allow people to do these things themselves.”
Knittle plans to approach his research from a sociological perspective—conducting interviews, observing construction, and attending community meetings—but hopes to synthesize his discoveries into poetry and personal profiles.
“I have a similar plan for my Watson year as with my thesis: using the lens of urban studies to look at how these cities have changed, and how people relate to a city,” he said. “I picked these cities because the idea of a long-range plan over a period of 20 years was really appealing—you are planning for an entirely different generation of people to be in power. You are planning for change and for time.”
For both fellows, however, the final product is less important than the experience.
“The Watson Fellowship doesn’t want you to have a final product,” Adler said. “This might be an overstatement, but it’s more about you exploring a subject that’s of interest to you.”
Knittle said that a large part of the Watson Fellowship is about the individual, and how they change and react during their 12-month project.
“The Watson Fellowship talks about supporting the person who’s doing the project, not the project itself,” Knittle said. “It has as much to do with me as a person as it has to do with my project. It feels particularly exciting for me, because the work I’m about to do is the work I want to do forever—writing about cities.”
Knittle added that he applied for the Watson Fellowship, in part, for the personal challenge.
“I really take the Watson seriously when it talks about figuring out how to be alone,” Knittle said. “The funny thing is that the Watson is a process that almost can’t exist anymore. It’s designed for a time before the Internet…so it’s part of the decision of the Watson fellow to figure out how to be as focused on what the Watson year is designed to do as possible.”
Brown has been the University’s liaison for the past 13 years, and believes that the Watson Fellowship is one of the best opportunities for Wesleyan graduating seniors.
“It is totally made for Wesleyan students,” she said. “If you could do anything in the world that you wanted, what would you do? The important thing is that a Watson fellowship is given to a person, not a project.”
The Fellowship is not for the faint of heart, however. Fellows are not allowed to return to their native country during their 12-month stint abroad.
“It’s transformative,” Brown said. “There’s no way it could not be, because you have to rely on your inner strengths, your creativity, your innovation, your intelligence—everything. It’s just all encompassing.”