28 May 2005

A Tale of Two Rejection Letters

Two rejection letters I recently received, with identifying information removed:

Dear Ms. Goetz,

The [name of fellowship] selection committee has carefully reviewed all of the applications for appointment beginning in the fall of 2005. I regret to inform you that yours was not among those chosen to receive funding.

Letters such as this regularly claim that the applicant ppol was large and that many deserving candidates had to be rejected. Let me assure you that, in this case, these are not empty words. We had a rich pool of [number] excellent applications from candidates at [number] universities in the United State, Canada, and Europe, and we could only make nine awards. It was disheartening to have to turn down so many promising young scholars whose work is worthy of support.

While I am sorry not to be able to convey better news, on behalf of the committee I want to thank you for applying for the fellowship and for giving us the chance to learn about your work. I wish you every success in your future endeavors.

Now that was a rejection letter that left me beaming. Yes, I was very disappointed not to be offered a fellowship, but this letter let me down easy. Now try this one:

Dear Ms. Goetz,

I am writing to inform you that you have not been awarded a [name of fellowship here] in this year's competition. On behalf of the Department, I wish you continued success as you complete your dissertation.

Eh? Now that is an example of how NOT to write a rejection letter. It isn't polite or kind. Let all those who read this blog who have to periodically write reject letters model theirs after the first example. Give the grad students some reason to keep trying!

25 May 2005

To Count or not to Count, that is the Question

I seldom take the time to meditate on method, which is probably a mistake. I started this dissertation by skimming through reel after reel of microfilm of Virginia county court records, looking for any case in which the words “Christian” or “heathen” were used. I also looked for mentions of ministers, churches, or religiously-oriented punishment (looking for instances in which miscreants were punished before church congregations on Sundays, wrapped in white sheets, for example). I also noted wills that mentioned godchildren, just out of interest. I had a few theories about how all of this material might hang together, but I didn’t really have an overall methodological picture of what I was trying to do until much later.

Wills mentioning godchildren have turned out to be far more important than I thought. Dying English men and women gave their godchildren cows, pigs, horses, Bibles, money, and sometimes even slaves. Livestock were especially useful, and bestowing livestock meant material gain for godchildren. In other words, English Virginians took the social and religious function of godparentage seriously enough to materially and spiritually benefit their godchildren.

But how seriously did they take it? In the absence of letters or other personal reflections on the importance of caring for godchildren, and in the absence of parish registers that would show pairings of godparents and godchildren (pretty much nonexistent before 1740), wills are all I have to go on. So here comes my methodological problem: how much information can I get from counting the total number of wills in a county for a certain period of time, and then figuring out the percentage of wills that mention godchildren?

Here’s a sample: On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the County of Northampton (which split in the 1650s to become two counties, Accomack and Northampton) I have a very long continuous run of county records (also rare for seventeenth-century Virginia). From 1632, when the records begin, until 1640 (where I stopped counting this afternoon), I can tell you that 20% of wills mention godchildren. But how significant is this? There were only ten wills probated during that time; so just two of them mention godchildren. (In both wills, a godparent left a godchild a cow.) This is hardly a representative sample, since there were at least two probate inventories in the records that have no wills attached to them. That means, it is probable, if not certain, that not every will probated in Northampton County between 1632-1640 was actually recorded. Additionally, between 1632-1640, at least one attentive godparent gave a cow to his godson before he died. It pops up in the county court records because he wanted to make sure that everyone knew that a cow with his brand now belonged to someone else. How many other similar transactions occurred but no one thought to register them with the court?

In other words, wills are the only source for numbers that might or might not show the importance of godparenting in Anglo-Virginian culture, but those numbers are certainly flawed, since the record keepers themselves didn’t always have their eyes on the ball.

Why does it matter, you ask? From a variety of secondary sources, I have learned that in old England, godparenting was a serious social and spiritual duty. I want to know how that continued in the Chesapeake (if it did) and how that social and spiritual duty changed over time. Prior to 1670 it was fairly common for English people to have African-American godchildren. Godparents figure in several freedom suits prior to 1670, in which they were able to attest to their black godchildren’s Christianity. And before 1670, being Christian meant being entitled to freedom. By the end of the seventeenth century, you see very few examples of this. During the course of the eighteenth century, planters came to accept (reluctantly) that baptizing their slaves was the proper, Christian thing to do, but they never stood as godparents for slaves. This always struck me as odd: in the planters’ paternalistic worldview, their slaves were family to be cared for. Why not engage in that most familial and spiritual sign of care—stand as godparents for your newly baptized slaves? That might be an imponderable. But, understanding the social and religious functions of godparenting in the Chesapeake can help answer all sorts of questions about religion and race.

This is a complicated problem, and I’m abstracting about seventy pages of writing I’ve done on the subject. However, I am still left with the problem of counting. It gives some data about what was expected of godparents, which fills in the gaps left by the fact that seventeenth-century Virginians left very few personal papers. But I don’t know how far I should take it, given that the numbers are bound to be suspect. Food for thought. In the 1970s, I think most historians would encourage me to count away. Now, I am not sure it is the best course of action. I have to decide, and fast—my instinct is to finish the counting and hope it proves useful later. But it might also go down in the pile of research I’ve done but never found useful or illuminating in the long run.

24 May 2005

Conferences, Redux

I’ve been surprised by the response my post about conference papers has evoked. There have been many links to it, and the most number of comments I’ve ever had. One commenter wrote that she finds conferences fun and stimulating. Another wrote that conferences are for networking, and that networking trumps the scholarly aspect of conferences. (Another Damned Medievalist also bestowed the title of Lion upon me. Thanks!)

My curmudgeonly comments aside, conferences can be fun. I went to the “Virginia in the Atlantic World 1500-1624” conference at Colonial Williamsburg last March, and I found that conference to be very stimulating. Papers were thirty-forty minutes in length, and panels lasted for about three hours. This meant that three or four people at a time were getting the opportunity to really develop interesting ideas. It also meant that my rear end, legs, and brain were numb by the end of the sessions. A friend mentioned to me this morning that conferences can be a great way of staying current in your field, especially when you are teaching at a small college in a rural area and you have fewer opportunities to dialogue with others in your field. Agreed. Small conferences focused especially on your field can be particularly useful in this regard (I like the annual Institute of Early American History and Culture conferences for just that reason.)

I also agree that networking is an essential conference function. But I also think that part of conference life leaves us with slightly mercenary approaches to initiating conversations. In the frenetic exchange of business cards and promises to contact one another with citations of useful sources, we aren’t doing scholarly work...we’re involved in games of one-upmanship. I think these sorts of exchanges are what give conferences their empty feel. One need only spend a little time at the AHA to get that impression.

I think my overall critique of conferences is that they are supposed to be about scholarly exchange, but the short length of most papers and the emphasis on networking make them feel more like business conventions than conferences.

My paper for the Berks is now done, although I’ll probably tinker with it again before I leave. I’m never quite satisfied with these short little expositions...you can generally make only one point and that point gets made imperfectly, without the wealth of supporting evidence and analysis that shows how much research, thought, and preparation goes into one ten-page essay. But if it gets a conversation started, one that can continue in other venues besides the conference room, it must be worthwhile!

I have heard that there's a "dance" at the Berks. My informants on this matter tell me that the "dance" is attended by the majority of conference attendees and that it is a great place to network. I must confess I am filled with trepidation at the prospect of a "dance." What kind of music? Top 40? Eighteenth-century minuets? Swing? Chances are, if I want to get down with my bad self, I'm going to do it...elsewhere than at a professional gathering.

23 May 2005

Good fences...

This article
appeared in the Washington Post Magazine over the weekend. I was attracted to it because I enjoy reading about the various legal maneuvers neighbors can put on each other. I've read similar cases from the seventeenth century involving roaming pigs and cows. This had a familiar ring to it.

Except this instance ended in tragedy. Why a stop couldn't have been put to this sooner I'll never know.

20 May 2005


Via Another Damned Medievalist and the Cranky Professor, a book meme that I spent some time thinking about.

Total number of books I own This is a bit of an imponderable, since pretty much all my books are currently in storage somewhere in the wilds of Somerville. But, when I retreated from the rodent-infested studio apartment in January, I found that I had crammed, into that one 10x12 room, 35 boxes of books. 5 of those book boxes were full of my science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novel collection. 2 were full of "real" literature. The rest were history books, cookbooks, my back issues of Cooking Light, and reference material (dictionaries, etc.). How I had fit all that into that little room, I cannot say. All I know is my Gentle Giant movers actually quailed a bit when they saw the stacks of book boxes. I acquired a lot of my history books when my undergraduate advisor retired and boxed up part of his library and shipped it to me. That moment of generosity was the beginning of my book-acquiring insanity. I also have books (mostly European history, biography, all my German books, and popular fiction) at my parents' house.

Last book I bought The fourth installment in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Series, Dead to the World. I got it last night at a small independent bookstore in Shockoe Slip called the Fountain. Pure brain candy, people. If you've spent the day watching microfilm whiz by your eyeballs, something entertaining that you don't have to think about is just the ticket.

Last book I read Camille Townsend's Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. There's a surfeit of Pocahontas/John Smith/Jamestown books coming out right now, and that will only get worse as 2007 approaches. If you'd like to read something short, yet scholarly and insightful about the encounter between Virginia's Tidewater Algonkians and the English, this is an excellent book. I really enjoyed it. Next on my list of 2007 books to read is Helen Rountree's Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Lives Changed by Jamestown. I'll report back when I'm done!

5 books that mean a lot to me

1. The Chronicles of Narnia. Yes, I know that's actually 7 books but I'm counting them as 1 book today. No, I don't plan on going to see the movie. I did see the Royal Shakespeare Company version in London in 1999. That was fabulous. But I just don't trust Hollywood to do right by C.S. Lewis.
2. Pride and Prejudice. 'Nuff said there.
3. Jane Eyre. I adore this book. I first read it in the fifth grade and I have reread it every year since. What a love story.
4. Death Comes for the Archbishop. I like anything by Willa Cather, including My Antonia and another favorite, The Professor's House. But Death Comes is just beautiful. I love it at the end when the Archbishop tells his assistant that he shall not die of a cold, but that he shall die of having lived. We should all be able to look back at our lives like that.
5. The Hobbit. I also read that one for the first time in fifth grade. Wonderful book. Better than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If a movie were to be made of The Hobbit, I doubt I would see it.

There's no history on that list, which is OK by me. I could give you a list of the 5 history books that mean a lot to me, but I really, really, should get back to this conference paper.

18 May 2005

Conference Paper, Schmonference Paper

Having now finished two fabulous research stints at Colonial Williamsburg and the Virginia Historical Society, I am spending my last two weeks in Virginia engaged in solving small research problems at the Library of Virginia. I'm talking about those small, lingering problems that buzz around in your head at night and seem to have no resolution, such as: I've seen repeated references in secondary literature to Anthony and Isabella, clearly Africans, who lived with Captain William Tucker as either servants or slaves, and in 1624 had a son they named William who was baptized. Every secondary source, though, cites Alexander Brown's 1890 tome "The Genesis of the United States" on this. Brown, very unhelpfully, did not adhere to modern conventions of scholarly citation, and listed no primary source for this information. Clearly I want to see this primary source for myself, especially if it involves a baptized African-American child. About three hours of work yesterday, chasing up and down the reference shelves of the LVA, burrowing into the Swem index, I finally come up with the 1625 muster list, which is the source for information about little William's baptism. And, what about the marriage of Reverend John Bass to Elizabeth, daughter of the "Nansemond King" in 1638? Another mystery, which finally led me to a digital picture of a privately owned record alleging the information (privately owned by whom? good question) and a 1960s era genealogy which traced the descendants of this Anglo-Indian couple. I'm not sure if any of this information is useable...But I sure would like to be able to write about an Anglo-Indian marriage AFTER that of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.

So that's how I spend my mornings, chasing obscure references and often getting more confused in the process. Afternoons I spend finishing my paper for the Berks. My title is "'She defyled her body wth a Pagan': Religion and Interracial Intimacy in the Early Chesapeake." Yep, I get to talk for twenty minutes about religion, race, marriage, and, that great draw of academic audiences, FORNICATION. I gave a version of the paper in January at the AHA that went over well; now I find myself trying to revise that paper and say something of true significance that will also focus my argument for the dissertation chapter that examines these issues in greater depth.

It has caused me to wonder, why on earth do we have conferences? I have twenty minutes to talk. That's about ten pages of text. I can make just one argument in that amount of time, and that not in a very well-developed fashion. The issues are complicated, involving what made a body "Christian" and what it meant to "defyle" that body outside marriage, and why it was even more of a "defilement" to mix a Christian body with a heathen one. This touches on some delicate issues, and also requires a nuanced reading of the available source material. In twenty minutes and ten pages it will be difficult if not impossible for me to fully and convincingly make my case. I'll get some questions that ask me why I didn't talk about x, y, and z, and I'll have to say, yes, those are interesting ideas and I address them elsewhere. I will probably get one or two suggestions or questions that are genuinely helpful. And two days after my paper, I am sure no one in the audience will remember what I spoke about. Yet we're asked, in the name of professional development and scholarly exchange, to do this exercise on a regular basis. I have to ask, why?

Of course, I have no solutions to offer to this problem. A conference that allows longer papers and therefore longer sessions risks numb brains and numb behinds in the audience. I could just write it up and publish it somewhere, but to do so would be to add to the cacaphony already overrunning journals. So, my complaint is offered without solution. How can we do better at exchanging and critiqueing ideas?

Maybe I should just start posting conference papers to my blog...

14 May 2005

Go to your local library and read...

My article! My first ever real academic publication is now out, in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 113, no. 1 (2003). (Yes, it is backdated, don't ask.) "General Artemas Ward: An American Revolutionary Remembered and Reinvented, 1800-1938" was the result of Professor Ulrich's Spring 2001 seminar on the Artemas Ward House, its former occupants, artifacts, and objects. I took the more familiar route to paper-writing and found myself sucked in not by objects but by the 86 boxes of Ward family material available at the American Antiquarian Society. I rather enjoyed writing it and hope people find it interesting, although, as with most such things, if I had it to do all over again...

There is also an introduction written by Laurel Ulrich and another paper written in the seminar by my friend Justin Florence. Enjoy!

Took that postmodern quiz...

revisionist historian
You are a Revisionist Historian. You are the Clark
Kent of postmodernists. You probably want to
work in a library or in social services. No
one suspects you of being a postmodernist...
until they read your publications!

What kind of postmodernist are you!?
brought to you by Quizilla

I have been buried in the archives for the past two and a half months...two months in Colonial Williamsburg, and the past two weeks at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. I've been knee deep in sources for all that time, and here I was, thinking I was an old-fashioned empiricist. What do the documents say? And, I have always resisted the "Foucault footnote." All this is to say: I never thought of myself as a postmodernist at all! I might be a revisionist historian, since I am helping revive the idea that seventeenth-century Virginia was a place in which religion was important. It didn't function the same way it did in New England, but different doesn't mean unimportant! I'm also reading documents in creative ways to help further our understanding of how English Christianities (Anglicanism, Puritanism, Quakerism, Catholicism, all of which were practiced in Virginia) influenced early ideas about bodily difference. I suppose my interest in difference (read: race) is a sign of psotmodernist influence. But on the other hand, is to be revisionist automatically postmodern? Simply reinterpreting documents others have pored over for centuries can't make one postmodernist...
I'm reading way too much into that quiz, aren't I? Thanks to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria for the link.
Back to the vestry book of Albemarle Parish in Sussex County, Virginia. Great source for slave baptism. The Reverend William Willie, of Scotland, was minister there from 1739-1776, and kept very detailed records, God bless him. And it does not appear that he was baptizing all slave babies until the 1770s. Before that, it appears that he only baptized slave children on request of their masters. (I say appears, because I am still deciphering this thing.) What a way to spend a gloomy Saturday!