WKU faculty member receives NSF grant for research project

Dr. Audra Jennings, associate professor of History and director of the Office of Scholar Development at WKU, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science, Technology, and Society Scholars Award for her project, Insecurity: Disability, the Great Depression, and the New Deal State.

The project examines how thinking about citizens' bodies, abled or disabled, shaped New Dealers' efforts to relieve the suffering wrought by the Great Depression and effect long-term economic security. The New Deal propelled momentous state growth and transformed Americans’ expectations of the federal government. Dr. Jennings’ research analyzes how perceptions of ability, inability and disability guided that growth.

Today, at roughly 19 percent of the population, disabled Americans constitute the largest U.S. marginalized population—one that anyone could potentially find themselves a member of at any point. This project aims to bring the disability history of the New Deal into the public sphere to inform and contextualize significant, contemporary debates and help to illuminate useful paths forward by making the path we have already traveled clear. Many of the policies New Dealers developed to address disability, and the ideas that helped define these policies, continue to shape the lives of disabled Americans. These ideas and systems shape the inequality disabled Americans continue to experience: disabled Americans earn significantly less than their non-disabled peers and are more than twice as likely to live in poverty.

The project has received funding from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, the Roosevelt Institute, and WKU through the Research and Creative Activities Program (RCAP) and the Quick Turn-around Grant (QTAG) initiatives.

Insecurity is shaped by extensive research and writing that draws on U.S. political, social, labor, disability, and medical history as well as disability and gender studies. Dr. Jennings’ past work analyzes how state policies were informed and shaped by disability and how social movements challenged those exclusions. Her first book, Out of the Horrors of War: Disability Politics in World War II America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), examines how disability activists, particularly members of the national, cross-disability organization the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped, with the support of organized labor, sought to remake the state to accommodate disability in the World War II era. Other work focuses on how concern for health and safety inspired and shaped the U.S. labor movement, examines the dynamics of gender and disability, and analyzes the medicalized politics of veterans’ health and disabled veterans’ activism in mid-century America.

The $190,709 grant will fund a year of research leave and travel to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. In addition to working on a book manuscript, she will be developing teaching materials on disability during the Great Depression and New Deal. The content will be made available to a wide audience through a collaboration with the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at The Ohio State University and the center’s two affiliated websites, the History Teaching Institute and eHistory. The History Teaching Institute website includes hundreds of lesson plans and content for teachers, while the eHistory website targets a more general audience with an interest in history.

Dr. Eric Reed, head of WKU’s Department of History, said this is the first NSF grant awarded to a WKU History faculty member. “We could not be more thrilled that Dr. Jennings' has won this important and highly competitive grant,” he said. “NSF funds only a small percentage of the project proposals it reviews. That the NSF selected Dr. Jennings' project is an indication of how significant and timely her project is.

“I am particularly excited that Dr. Jennings' plan is to share her cutting-edge research with a broad public, as well as publish it in more traditional academic outlets. I think her project has the potential to inform public discourse and shape the way we teach new generations of Americans about disability in American society.”

About the NSF: Founded in 1950, the NSF is an independent federal agency that advances science and national health, prosperity, welfare, and defense through support of basic research. The NSF aims to fund transformative work that contributes to the future. The Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program supports research that uses historical, philosophical, and social scientific methods to investigate the intellectual, material, and social facets of the scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) disciplines. It encompasses a broad spectrum of STS topics including interdisciplinary studies of ethics, equity, governance and policy issues that are closely related to STEM disciplines, including medical science. 

Contact: Dr. Audra Jennings, (270) 745-5043; or Dr. Eric Reed, (270) 745-3841

Posted with permission from WKU News