“Don’t forget your cover letters,” I remind my students the class before they turn in their final research papers.
Some are short, but in others students write many pages about their research experience. Students who run into difficulties in finding primary sources or wading through the secondary literature can use the cover letter to explain their research process, their decisions about their sources and organization, as well as to give me an explanation for their paper’s shortcomings. Since learning research methods is an important part of the project, students gain points if they show me they understand doing historical research and describe detailed efforts to find information.
Although in theory the cover letter would allow a lazy student to invent excuses for a weak paper, in fact my students at IU South Bend often modestly undersell their papers and overemphasize the weaknesses in their work. Because I have required paper proposals, annotated bibliographies, and rough drafts, by the end of the semester I already have a good idea which papers have the most potential.
In writing their cover letters, students return to the evaluation rubric that I have posted in advance for them, and the cover letter gives them practice in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of their work. By reading the points where students ran into trouble, I also can consider the types of feedback I give to students to help them produce strong papers or other ways that I can assist them as they write their papers.
In sum cover letters on final drafts serve a useful and productive purpose not only for students who practice analyzing and evaluating their own work, but also for me as I assess my teaching and see where I could better assist students to produce exciting and persuasive historical research.