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Rachel Herrmann

Academia, food, and history

Review of Michael A. LaCombe's Political Gastronomy
My review of Michael A. LaCombe's Political Gastronomy is now available over at the Journal of Early Modern History. As per their open access policy, I'm posting a post-print copy of the review on this website.
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Not Catching the Frisbee; or, a Rumination on Rejection
Sometimes all it takes to make you feel better about rejection is a chilly morning jog and witnessing a dog try and utterly fail to catch a Frisbee.

Last night I received a rejection in response to my application for a British Academy small awards grant to help fund a conference on cannibalism. The rejection was not all that surprising considering that last semester I A) arrived at a new institution in a new country; B) learned about the scheme—with all its new and mystical UK trappings of networks and collaboration—about two weeks before it was due; C) spent a week running around campus trying to unravel the mysteries of asking institutional centers for money and figuring out how exactly one estimated the cost of a conference; and D) wrote the application over two days in the midst of my first semester of teaching my own classes.

Still, the rejection stung, and I was a bit mopey last night. It’s always frustrating to apply for a grant to do something and to then get rejected in a way that makes it less possible to do the stuff for which you applied.

I felt better this morning, especially after witnessing that poor pup, and even better after seeing a park official sitting on a swan on the ground. Now, maybe there’s something about the change of seasons here that makes swans get sick, because this is the second swan I’ve seen out of the water in the last week, looking in need of a pick-me-up. As I jogged past the man’s truck I noticed a bundle of bulky garbage bags full of white feathers, so although I’m not going to posit that we have a swan epidemic, I’m going to hazard a guess that the swans aren’t doing well. All of which is to say that the fact that the man was sitting on the swan to pin it down did not jive well with the part of my brain that’s preparing to teach on bestiality later this afternoon. This connection might seem like a stretch until you read up on the colonial case of Thomas Granger. And ALL of this digression is offered to point out that after lapsing, mid-jog, into a fit of giggles, I’m doing okay this morning.

Which leads me to suggest that even though it’s been a while since I’ve been rejected from something (having only recently begun to apply for new grants and fellowships), it’s useful to think about what, exactly, rejection is good for.

Rejection is tough because you do a lot of work trying to get money to do more work, and not getting the grant throws a wrench in those plans. BUT grant-writing, even in the case of rejection is useful for:

Forcing you to think about how best to present your project
Making you consider possible collaborations and other experts in your field
Introducing yourself to institutions on campus that you might otherwise have ignored
Necessitating a compilation of relevant literature
Getting to know how the finance people on campus cost and fund events

I’m not sure where I’m going to go next. I should probably talk to my mentor and/or head of department, and I may go after another set of conference grants. On the other hand, this edited book will get written no matter what, and perhaps it’s a bit too ambitious to try to organize and fund and run a conference just for the hell of it during the same span of time in which I’ve promised to write ALL THE THINGS.

I guess what I’m saying, people, is that I’m thinking about trying to catch the Frisbee. But also, there might be some other pressing items to sniff out and investigate. 

On Packing a Suitcase to Go to New Orleans
I have a small, forest-green, carry-on suitcase, and I’ve just finished packing it in preparation for my departure for the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction’s conference, which starts on Friday. The conference is in New Orleans, and it turns out that in packing my suitcase to go to New Orleans, I’ve discovered that I have some lingering feeeeeeeeeelings about suitcases and New Orleans.

The last time I was in New Orleans, I was on the job market, and at the American Historical Association’s annual conference. The last time I was in New Orleans, I was crazy. At this time last year, I’d packed, unpacked, and repacked that damn suitcase more times than I’d like to think about.

I’d packed it once with toothpaste but no toothbrush, and spent an entire campus visit “brushing” my teeth MacGyver-style with a washcloth smeared with toothpaste. I’d packed it with the same suit, slinky shell, and shoes combination more than once, and I’d packed it with that combination plus an extra suit “just in case” I did something as stupid as forgetting a toothbrush. I’d packed it with different iterations of the same job talk, extra copies of which I carried in the suitcase, in my briefcase, and uploaded to a memory stick. I’d packed it with enough clothes for two campus visits, in case I got stuck because of bad weather (I did).

The last time I went to a FEEGI conference, by contrast—two years ago—was a complete blast. I met interesting and helpful early career scholars who were several years ahead of where I was, and really generous senior scholars who treated me as an equal rather than the graduate student I still was. The conference, which sticks to a plenary style, with just one panel going at a time, was formatted to encourage everyone to attend all the panels and to think about how each paper built on the next. People made helpful comments and I left thinking more concretely about my work.

As I packed today, it occurred to me just how thankful and flabbergasted I feel to be attending the next FEEGI conference in New Orleans in an utterly different state of mind. I am able to attend because the organizers asked me to chair a panel, which makes an early career scholar like myself able to attend because my department and institution will assist with the travel costs.

I am so looking forward to attending a conference in New Orleans where I can eat to have fun rather than eating my feelings about the job market. It gets better.

Confessions of a Compulsive Re-reader of Rowling
I recently realized that I defended my dissertation just over a year ago, and that it’s been almost as long since I’ve regularly updated this blog. Part of this neglect has to do with the fact that I’ve been surviving my first year on the non-tenure-track (because it doesn’t exist) here, and I’m still wrangling my teaching and research schedule. The main reason though, has to do with the fact that I’ve been awaiting that magical sense of distance that I’m apparently supposed to get from my dissertation, and I’m not convinced it’s happened, yet.

I’ve been a compulsive re-reader my whole life; although I do take joy in discovering new novels, I frequently read books and series I’ve already finished before starting something I haven’t read. My mother and sister got into Harry Potter a few books before I did, but in the year that Goblet of Fire came out, I read the first three books and the fourth at least twice through. Thereafter, I always read all the extant books in the series before the newest one came out, in addition to going through them all at least once a year. I started and finished Deathly Hallows sprawled on a blanket during a long, long day in Central Park—at the end of which I walked home emotionally exhausted and elated—questionable epilogue notwithstanding. The books came with me to grad school, where I read them all approximately once a year, usually at the height of the semester when I needed something to take my mind off of history.

I was surprised to see the number of academics I follow on Twitter and Facebook who posted the story about J. K. Rowling wanting to rewrite Harry and Hermione’s relationship in the Harry Potter books. Not because I blame people for being as obsessed as I am with the world that Rowling created, but because I hadn’t thought about how deeply the concept of rewriting would resonate. Those books have become canon, and admitting that you’d change the canon if you could is an act that really inspires some strong reactions.

I may be a compulsive re-reader, but I am only a middling rewriter—and herein lays my ambivalence about the dissertation, as well as (I’d guess) academics’ reactions to the Rowling revelation.

Rowling wrote an epic story that got people involved, and deeply invested in, the storylines of the characters she created. To read that she’d like to go back and change a major facet of that story is understandably troubling to the people who read about the dangers of time-turners. I’d imagine it also bothers those who spent a lot of time arguing for and against the way things played out because it will change our re-readings of the novels in the future.*

On a more personal level, though, I think academics may find her confession troubling because we know that once we publish something, it’s irretrievably out there. Sure, you can write a second book or article that admits that you were wrong, though that assumes A) that enough people read and care about the first book, and B) that you’ve got enough steam left to reconsider the topic many months or years down the line. That fear is part of what prevents me from facing the momentous task of rewriting my dissertation. I’m not scared of the editing process, and of having to deal with my tendency to tell the reader what happened rather than why it matters—but I’m worried about the finality of that final product. My book will be no Harry Potter, which is to say that I’d better get it right the first time because there sure as hell isn’t going to be a large audience of shippers waiting to reread it and imagine alternate endings.

So what does one do when faced with the task of revising? For one thing, I read John Irving, who’s a compulsive rewriter. As I’ve written about before, however, Irving’s charm is that he does his rewriting many times within the space of a novel, telling and then retelling his story with different storylines and endings (though he also does it from book to book). I can’t say I’m convinced that this technique would be effective for a history monograph, but it does make me think usefully about the multiple ways in which I could write the history I want to tell.

I’m also trying to reevaluate my work patterns. I had to do something similar when I was reading for comps, and again when I was writing the dissertation. In the first instance I became an early riser, and in the second I became much more inclined to work in the office than at home. This time around it seems I’m marrying the first habit with a newer one; I’m becoming even more of an early riser while also trying to become a morning reader. I’ve started to get up earlier just to read something I know I need to read to think more about how to revise the-thing-that-must-not-be-named. I like to do so sitting on the couch with my toast and tea, with the computer halfway across the room, and my email unopened. We’ll see how those habits change once I’m actively involved in editing.

Harry Potter didn’t have to go it alone in the end, though—and neither do I. I think that perhaps it’s been a mistake to sit so long alone with these apprehensions. I’m going to try to be better in the future.

*In case you are nerdy—ahem, cool—enough to care what I think about Rowling’s admission, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I really lost a lot of respect for Ron when he abandoned Harry and Hermione in the forest, and remained unconvinced that he deserved Hermione. On the other hand, I still like the idea of a young adult novel where the male and female protagonists don’t fall in love with each other. So.

In Which I am IN IT
Well, I've made it to Southampton! I've found a flat that I'm probably paying too much for, but I've got a view of the River Itchen and before and after work I go out onto my balcony and breathe deep soothing breaths of waterside. This fresh air is especially welcome given that during my first week in my flat my apartment was filled with the less pleasant smells of a wet mattress, which arrived soaked from the shipping company after I'd already spent two days sleeping on the floor. It was successfully returned and exchanged, but only after another couple days of camping out. I had to admit that I did feel very much like MacGyver for managing to assemble the thing--that is, if MacGyver ever had to assemble divan beds.Sunrise, low tide
Sunrise, low tide

In-between leaving work and getting home I go to the markets, where I stand in the aisles and Google furiously, trying to find British equivalents of the things that I need. Pods of laundry detergent look remarkably similar to pods of dishwasher soap, and I almost made a dire mistake the first time I went to do a load of laundry. The other day I made a poor man very perplexed by requesting cheesecloth. After cheesecloth proved unforthcoming, I was exceptionally pleased with myself for wrangling the large spices for pho into tea strainers. Note: pho makes an excellent option for the first real week of the semester, as you've got a giant bowl of soup waiting at home that requires very little effort to assemble once the broth is made (I use this recipe).

I am slowly acclimating to the rhythm of the semester. I feel so lucky to have had the last three years essentially to myself; with the exception of weekly meetings of an hour or two, my time was my own. Now I'm having to relearn how to balance teaching (or, you know, learning from scratch how to balance teaching) with research (checking books out of the library totally counts as research this week) with responding to (SO MANY) student emails. I already feel as though my relationship with Blackboard is an unbreakable bond of love and mutual respect.*

But in the end, I'm liking it here a lot. My colleagues have been welcoming, ready to answer my many, many questions, and nice about stopping by to see how I'm settling in. I'm looking forward to getting to Cambridge the weekend after this one to check out the BrANCH conference and meet other Americanists working in England. Train travel might be expensive here, but at least it doesn't take eight hours to get somewhere, as it does when you attempt to drive out of the state of Texas.

And of course, there's the fact that I've managed to find all the ingredients necessary for assembling pho.

*See also, my relationship with timetabling and tech support, both of whom receive regular emails from Yours Truly. 

Soliciting comments on my plan for teaching the American Revolution
It turns out that once you've got your PhD and a job, you need to plan to actually teach things. Madness!

In the interest of giving it the best go that I can, I thought I'd post my syllabus as a Google Doc and open it up to comments from you, lovely readers.

The syllabus (or handbook, as the Brits call it), is available here.

A couple of caveats:
-It's a first-year (~ = to freshmen) class, so the readings have been planned accordingly.

-It's long. Most of the sample handbooks I've received from my awesome future colleagues come with many suggestions for additional readings, so I've done the same with my handbook. Please feel free to add things I've missed, but keep in mind that undergraduates will have easier access to articles than to books or book chapters. I've omitted some suggestions I've received on Twitter because my university library doesn't have access to all the journals we have access to in the U.S.

-The department determines the forms of assessment ahead of time, and they are not adjustable.

Thanks in advance for any genius suggestions coming my way!

Those Panic-Inducing Gaps
Some of the arguments that Ken Owen made in his recent post over at the Junto on the events leading up to the American Revolution really hit home for me in the archive yesterday. This week, I’m in Ann Arbor for the first time, enjoying the rich material on repository at the Clements Library.

One of the main points Ken made was that he has trouble reconciling the large gaps between significant events in the decade before the war with the (fairly) neat historical narrative we tell our students. His assertion that “if the Stamp Act crisis happened today, it would be 2024 before we reached the Declaration of Independence, and 2035 before the Constitutional Convention met” was, I thought, particularly telling.

Given that I’m currently engaged with the task of filling in my own research gaps that remain from the dissertation, I’ve been thinking about a parallel quandary: how to square with the holes in the archival record that exist in some manuscript collections and not others.

I’m currently looking at the Anthony Wayne papers here at the Clements so that I can find any additional commentary on the Western Confederacy War that I didn’t come upon while looking at the Anthony Wayne manuscripts at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania or the Timothy Pickering microfilms at the Massachusetts Historical Society. From the two latter collections, I have a section in a chapter on the failed June 1793 Treaty of Sandusky. I’ve interpreted it as one final, unsuccessful attempt on the part of the United States to make peace with the Western Confederacy (it fails mostly because the U.S. commissioners are unwilling to accept the Ohio as a boundary line). I thought it was a pretty important moment. But the Anthony Wayne papers at the Clements make almost no mention of the meeting.

Granted, it was a pretty peripheral event for Wayne. He got told off by the U.S. commissioners for bringing his troops too close to Native territory during the treaty rather than holding his position as he was instructed. But even despite that fairly insignificant involvement, there’s quite a bit of information on Sandusky in the HSP. So now I’m left wondering whether I’ve overstated the event, or whether that’s just how manuscript research goes—whether sometimes, some archives have more to say than others on important events.

If that’s the case, though, then I’ve got new reasons to become unreasonably paranoid about missing out on the manuscript collections I’ve not yet examined. Maybe there are other events only portrayed in a state collection in Kentucky, or Tennessee, or Wisconsin, and there’s only so much funding and time and oh god how do we historians ever feel as though we’ve written an accurate narrative of the things that happened?

I don’t have the answers yet. I suppose I can only say that much the same as people of the Revolutionary era might not agree with how we historians tell the story of the 1760s and early 1770s, the people of the 1790s would possibly have uncharitable things to say about my Current Chapter Five.

The combination of a cold spring (less jogging outside), a research trip to London, and a short fun trip to Rome have necessitated a turn toward healthy lunches. It turns out that I like tabbouleh and fattoush, and because I couldn’t decide which I preferred I decided to mush the two recipes together. This is a very easy recipe, but it’ll take more time than you think it will because of all the chopping.

3 tablespoons bulgur wheat (fine is better but coarse worked okay for me)
5 roma tomatoes, seeded, diced, and drained
2 scallions, sliced thin
1 English cucumber, seeded and diced
The largest bunch of flat-leaf parsley you can find, washed, dried, and picked off all stems (this will take forever)
2 cups mint leaves, washed and dried
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice (I had no allspice so I combined ¼ tsp cloves with 1/8 tsp coriander and 1/8 tsp ginger)
1 teaspoon sumac (I couldn’t find it at the store and didn’t have the patience to order it online before making the salad. If you can find it, I’d probably decrease the lemon by a teaspoon or two)
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2 small pitas

Salt to taste
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
Juice of 1 lemon (I used a lemon and a half)
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Combine the salt and the sliced garlic, and mash until a coarse paste forms. Add the lemon and olive oil and allow to sit while you put the rest of the ingredients together.

2. Heat oven to 400º. Slice pitas into strips, coat lightly with olive oil, and bake in oven for about 10 minutes, until crispy. Allow to cool, then break into small pieces. Set aside. Resist eating all pita chips.

3. Place bulgur in a bowl and pour boiling water over. Set aside until it’s tender but still has a bit of a chewy bite (5-10 minutes), then drain.

4. Chop parsley finely, and cut the mint into thin strips (you can do the parsley early on; the mint will turn black fairly quickly so wait until everything else is assembled).

5. Combine bulgur, tomatoes, scallions, cucumber, and spices. Add in parsley and mint. Pour dressing over. Add pita chips just before serving and toss.

I added goat cheese at the end, because I’m a cheese fiend. Some things can’t be helped.

(Sources: I fiddled with this Tabbouleh recipe on David Lebovitz’s blog, and this recipe for fattoush)

Digging Out my Cannibal Girl Hat
So, funny story. When I first submitted my article on cannibalism and the Starving Time at Jamestown to the William and Mary Quarterly, the piece strongly argued against any occurrence of cannibalism. When I got my readers’ reports back, Editor Chris Grasso pointed out that I didn’t really have the evidence to convincingly make that claim. He said that he’d accept the article only if I agreed to temper the argument—which was really fine with me because the main point of the essay was to ask why the stories of cannibalism mattered, not to argue for or against the existence of cannibalism in colonial Virginia.

And yet. Even after publishing the article I remained a bit doubtful of the veracity of all those early reports of cannibalism. I came to the private conclusion that Jamestown colonists probably did eat the bodies of a dead Indian and those of hanged men, but to my mind the story of the salted wife seemed completely exaggerated.

Lo and behold, a slew of recent news articles have appeared following the discovery of a 14-year-old Virginia girl whose bones apparently “prove” the existence of cannibalism in Jamestown.

And here I am, still decidedly skeptical.

To be sure, some of these articles offer convincing evidence for cannibalism. The point that “Jane’s” bones were found in a trash pit along with the bones of snakes and horses is persuasive, especially because they are the first bones to appear alongside the refuse of other Starving Time-era edible items. I also agree with the idea that people would have viewed tongue and brains as perfectly tasty forms of offal insofar as animals were concerned, and don’t find it all that weird that people might’ve gravitated toward those portions of Jane’s body. The cuts on her skull (and especially on her tibia) and the way these pieces describe them try to make a strong case for the fact that people made them after Jane’s death.

Here’s the thing: I’m still not sure that any of these pieces successfully prove the existence of cannibalism.

In the Jamestown Rediscovery Youtube video, Dr. Douglas Owsley suggests that the butchering marks were made after death. But the Smithsonian release clearly states that “cause of death could not be determined from the remains, estimated to be less than 10 percent of the complete skeleton.” From that assertion it seems just as reasonable to suggest that the marks could have been made during Jane’s life. Who knows? She was a high-born girl. Maybe like so many of the gentlemen at Jamestown, she was hoarding food, someone killed her to get it, and then that person unskillfully removed her face and dumped her in a trash pit to hide the body.

There are other points that give me pause, beyond the circumstances surrounding Jane’s death. Although all of these articles prove the removal of specific portions of Jane’s body, none of them convincingly demonstrate that people consumed those body parts. All the news reports I’ve seen mention the butchering of Jane’s tongue, brain, the skin around her face, and the area around her tibia—presumably her calf. The USA Today link asserts that skin was a traditional cuisine from the 17th century, and I just don’t see that argument translating to this particular case. Why eat the skin, or even choice bits like tongue and brains, when people had access to fattier, more nourishing portions? We’re not talking deep-fried foodie chicken skin here; we’re talking severe nutritional deficiencies, so why the focus on such measly parts? In this respect especially, I think I’d need to wait on further evidence regarding consumption of other parts of Jane’s body before I believe that people ate her.

In addition, why are there no primary sources that cite the cannibalization of this girl? She’s no salted wife, no dead Indian, and no hanged man. I’ve written a bit on how some colonists like John Smith and George Percy sensationalized such stories of cannibalism, and find it a bit odd that they wouldn’t have included the story of the cannibalization of a high-born girl. Wouldn’t that have been much more “lamentable” than the death of a lazy colonist (at least in Percy’s interpretation)? The future of the colony could have rested on Jane as well as other women’s capacity to bear children. There were, as these news stories all assert, myriad accounts of the Starving Time, and I’ve never seen any primary source account that even closely matches a description in keeping with what this anthropological find describes.

None of these speculations negate the severity of the Starving Time—but neither do they convince me that cannibalism took place.

Of course, one of the lovely things about being a historian is the forgivingness of the profession. We are allowed to say that we’ve been wrong. So maybe that’s that: maybe Jim Horn, Bill Kelso, and Douglas Owsley are right, and I’m wrong—but as of this moment, I’m not completely swayed.

Edit: You can hear me briefly talking about cannibalism on the BBC radio show World Have Your Say (the segment I'm on starts at 40:35)

The Elusive Task of Tailoring
I wrote a fair number of cover letters while I was ABD this year. At the start of job season, I remember feeling particularly perplexed by the idea of tailoring my cover letters. How much was too much? Where in the letter was I supposed to do it? And where else could I insert tailoring into the remainder of my job materials?

I thought it might be helpful to write up a post describing the cover letter that I generally used, and to point out the spots where I tried to tailor. I started with Karen Kelsky’s cover letter template, but then I sent it on to history colleagues for discipline-specific feedback. After that, it went through a round of revisions before I asked my adviser to look it over. What follows is a cross between a cover letter template, and a discussion of how I drafted my letters. I hope it’s useful for those of you entering the market in the fall.

[letterhead: to avoid having to print and then scan all your letters, you can make a digital copy using this how-to over at ProfHacker. Or you can do what I did: 1) Scan page of institutional letterhead. 2) Save as JPEG. 3) Open in Paint and crop until just the letterhead part remains. 4) Open Word document and insert and draw textbox. 5) Paste letterhead inside. 6) Change formatting of text box so that the outline is invisible. 7) Move letterhead around until it looks like a reasonably close copy of original.]

Date [note: when January comes, don’t be an airhead like me and forget to switch the year]

Physical address with name of search chair if known

Dear Professor X [alternately: To the Selection Committee],

Please accept my application for [job title]. I am currently [your status—I listed myself as a PhD candidate, but I also gave my current affiliation as a fellow], where I am [identify the type of historian you are—I’d probably identify as an early Americanist specializing in food and race in the Revolutionary Atlantic. My adviser warned me not to change this summary line too much, so if you have to alter it significantly to justify applying for a job, maybe reconsider that application]. After [find a brief way to describe your progress on the dissertation, IE “after a year of writing, I have had a completed draft since May 2013” or “after visiting X number of archives, I have made significant progress outlining my dissertation, and”], I will defend my dissertation in [as early as your adviser will sign off on what you put in this letter].

My project, “[dissertation title],” [Describe your dissertation in the broadest strokes possible, including its main historiographic contributions].

[Longer paragraph on the diss, pitched to the non-specialist on the search committee. Lay out the contributions as clearly as possible—I think I used three points. I have a line in this paragraph about the interdisciplinary nature of the project, so if the job was for a specialized post (as opposed to just a first half of U.S. history survey job) I usually changed the wording here to explain how my work contributed to, say Native American or environmental historiography].

[Very short paragraph on the second project. You don’t need to be sold on carrying out the work for this project, but this paragraph needs to accomplish two things. 1) It needs to convince the search committee that you’re not a one-trick pony, and that the second project will grow organically from the dissertation without taking on the air of Dissertation, Volume II, and 2) It needs to convince the specialist on the search committee that you’re aware of the direction of your field. This second task is trickier, because you want your second project to sound current without sounding cliché. As far as tailoring goes, IF and ONLY if your second project relates to a center at the campus to which you are applying, mention it here—but don’t stretch the project to fit].

[The “Why I’m awesome” paragraph. This is the hardest part of the letter to write because you really have to sell yourself, and some people will say you don’t need it—but I disagree. I used this paragraph to summarize the high points of my CV, assuming that some selection committees would read my cover letter first. I included publications and major fellowships, as well as tentative publication plans for the dissertation and a couple articles. In most cases, the writing sample I sent was a draft of one of these two articles, so I mentioned that here (but I’m increasingly of the opinion that a published article that doesn’t relate to the dissertation is a better choice of writing sample simply because it’s published). I had a line about my writing for The Chronicle, but if you’re part of a big group blog, you could talk about that, too. I also included a line about service. Finally, I spotlighted some of the things I’ve done that might be considered part of the digital humanities. I did the latter because everyone department is interested in DH, and ESPECIALLY if the search is NOT a DH search, committees like to see that you’re aware of/contributing to the field.]

[The teaching paragraph. A few opportunities to tailor here. If you’re applying to a SLAC, this paragraph goes right after your first paragraph on the dissertation. If it’s a research school, the paragraph goes here. For the bigger schools you will need an extra line about teaching graduate students, so make sure you know whether the school offers an MA, a PhD, or both. If the application materials require a teaching philosophy, you can also tailor there by adding or removing a paragraph on how teaching graduate students is different from teaching undergrads. Because I didn’t have much experience, I tried to explain how the little experience I did have had yielded transferrable skills, and then I described several ideas in which I’d use food to teach early American history. If the job ad mentioned a certain kind of teaching, I included a line about how my teaching experience would enable me to teach that way at their institution.]

[The why I want to work in your department paragraph (for god’s sake, get the name of the school right—but if you don’t, know that I’ve also screwed this one up. It happens). People might disagree with me here, but I decided not to list the names of faculty in my cover letters. Instead, I opted to identify the department’s strengths, and to say that I wanted to work in a particular place by highlighting faculty interests that overlapped with mine. (Note that for bigger departments, finding out this information took about an hour to an hour and a half for each letter). Name the courses you are willing to teach, IN ADDITION to the ones mentioned in the job ad. Be strategic about this line; if there’s an established faculty member who teaches Native American history, maybe don’t mention that you will teach Native American history. If, however, you desperately want to teach Native American history, and said faculty member focuses on, say, the Ohio Valley, you could offer to teach a course on Southeastern Native American history. Next, do a bit more research on the school. I generally checked to see if a school had any food classes, early modern seminars, or race seminars that I could contribute to (CONTRIBUTE TO, not “participate” in—you’re a potential colleague, not a grad student). Find a way to describe your enthusiasm to make those connections. If it’s a small college, they might not have any such seminars—focus instead on how you will help history majors become part of a scholarly community and get jobs. If you have any training preparing students to think about history jobs that don’t require going to grad school (such as public history training), this is the place to say so—departments like being able to sell job security to their undergrads.]

[The sign-off paragraph. Say you’re attending AHA. If you’re presenting, even better. This line lets departments know that you will be there so they don’t have to wonder. If they haven’t asked for writing samples or syllabi and you still have room, offer to provide them. Thank them for considering your materials.]


All this needs to fit on two pages, which isn’t to say that I fit it all using 12-point Times New Roman. I opted to piss off older faculty members with poor eyesight by fiddling with fonts and margins, rather than break the “no cover letter should exceed two pages” rule.

Note that my version of a cover letter requires tailoring in several paragraphs, which can seem time-consuming compared to some. But once you have this letter prepped for a research school and a SLAC, you should still be able to copy and paste accordingly.

Disagreements? Comments? Additional advice for job-seekers? Have at it!