The College of Liberal Arts at Temple University

Profile of Dr. Kelly Shannon

This is part of an ongoing series of profiles of graduate students, scholars, and Temple faculty members associated with CENFAD. We want to show you the kinds of innovative work that is out there in the research areas -- the study of force, diplomacy, and international history -- in which CENFAD specializes. If you are interested in participating in this series, please contact Brian McNamara, CENFAD's Thomas J. Davis Fellow, at

Dr. Kelly Shannon is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Atlantic University. She earned her PhD from Temple University in 2010, studying under the direction of Dr. Richard Immerman. Before moving to Florida, Dr. Shannon was an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alaska -- Anchorage. Throughout Dr. Shannon's continental criss-crossings, she has advanced her research agenda, which considers US foreign relations since 1945, and focuses specifically on human rights and US foreign policy. Her first book,U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women’s Human Rights is forthcoming from Penn this fall. CENFAD asked Kelly a few questions about himself and his work. His answers follow below!



1) Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Education?

I was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia. I went to Catholic school for twelve years. While that experience prepared me for college by teaching me to write well, I went to school with a homogeneous group of students and was not encouraged to examine the world from multiple perspectives, which I found really stifling. So once I got to choose for myself where I would go after I graduated, I decided to go in a completely different direction; I wanted to experience life somewhere else and encounter all sorts of people. I ended up going to Vassar College, which was a really positive, life-changing experience that opened up all sorts of new horizons for me. I graduated from Vassar with a Bachelor’s degree in history in 2003. I then earned my M.A. in history at the University of Connecticut in 2005, where I studied U.S. foreign relations history with Frank Costigliola (who is awesome).

Then I came to Temple to study with Richard Immerman (who is beyond awesome); I earned my Ph.D. in history in 2010 with a specialty in the history of U.S. foreign relations. When I left home in 1999, I never thought I’d come back to Philadelphia, but I’m so glad I did. Temple was such a vibrant, exciting place to be with all sorts of incredibly talented faculty, many of whom had just been hired, and bright, collegial grad students. It had the added bonus of letting me fall in love with Philadelphia all over again. I also met my husband, Jason Sylvestre (History M.A. ’05) while at Temple (he was studying public history), so I have the Temple History Department to thank for many things.

After graduation, I landed a one-year Visiting Assistant Professor position at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, followed by a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where I worked for three years. That was a fantastic adventure, but after a few years there, I wanted to come back to the “lower 48.” Luckily, I landed another tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL in 2014, and that’s where I’ve been ever since. Jay and I keep joking that we don’t seem to make small moves, so if we ever move again, we’ll have to go to another continent or something.


2) What sparked your interest in studying history?

That’s hard to say. My mom loves history, especially medieval and early modern British history. She never had the opportunity to go to college, but she instilled in me a love of learning and of reading. She used to tell me stories about the kings and queens of Europe and about old Hollywood that I found fascinating. That probably planted the seed for my later love of history. I also had a fantastic history teacher in high school, Mrs. Snyder, who had us work with primary sources and do research papers, and that certainly helped continue my interest in the subject. It wasn’t until college, though, that I really caught the history bug. I started off as a theater major – I had grand dreams of being on Broadway - but I had such an incredibly inspiring and interesting history professor, Mita Choudhury, my freshman year in a writing seminar, “Paris and London, 1500-1800.” She really encouraged me. I was shy and not at all confident that I deserved to be at such a prestigious school, and she really helped bring me out of my shell. That made all the difference in the world to me; I can’t really explain it. Plus, her course was fascinating – the London fire, the French Revolution, I couldn’t get enough! After I took her course, I switched majors and never looked back.


3) Tell us about your research.

My first book, U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women’s Human Rights (forthcoming with the University of Pennsylvania Press this fall), provides a fresh interpretation of U.S. relations with the Muslim world and, more broadly, U.S. foreign relations history and the history of human rights. I argue that, as U.S. attention to the Middle East and other Muslim-majority regions became more focused and sustained, the issue of women’s human rights in Islamic societies was one that Americans - from the public to feminist activists to policymakers - gradually identified as vitally important to U.S. foreign policy. The issue of Muslim women’s human rights became so salient over time, I argue, that it became one variable that policymakers must now consider - or at least appear to - when dealing with Islamic countries. Americans’ concerns about women’s human rights in Muslim countries were triggered by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and evolved within the frameworks of longstanding Western stereotypes about Muslims, as well as transnational feminism and the global human rights movement. These frameworks sometimes competed and sometimes reinforced one another. The result was intensifying U.S. public conversations about Muslim women in the years after 1979, which culminated in feminist campaigns on behalf of Muslim women by the 1990s and U.S. policies that aimed to defend women’s rights in Islamic countries, like the Clinton Administration’s decision not to recognize the Taliban regime in 1996-1998 and the George W. Bush Administration’s identification of women’s liberation as a key war goal in Afghanistan.

Based on an analysis of a wide range of sources - including U.S. government and United Nations documents, oral histories, the archival records of non-governmental organizations, news media, scholarship, films and television, novels, and other sources – as well as a wide range of historical actors – including journalists, academics, women’s rights and human rights activists, NGOs, the public, Muslim women, Islamic fundamentalists, and U.S. policymakers - this book contributes to the growing literature on the roles of culture, women, NGOs, and human rights in the history of U.S. foreign relations. My conclusions contradict traditional interpretations of U.S. foreign policy, which assert the primacy of “hard power” concerns in U.S. decision making. By reframing U.S.-Islamic relations within the contours of women’s human rights, and by challenging historians to rethink their assumptions about the drivers of U.S. foreign policy, the book sheds new light on U.S. identity and foreign policy creation from the late 1970s through the present. In doing so, it alters the standard narratives of the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world in the closing years of the Cold War and the advent of the post-Cold War era.

My second book, which I’m currently researching, will explore U.S. relations with Iran from the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 through the CIA- and MI6-orchestrated coup against Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953. Using a similar combination of traditional policy methods, cultural history, and transnational approaches, I hope to understand the roots of the U.S.-Iranian relationship and to explain how Iran became a site for early U.S. Cold War interventionism.


4) What book should all historians read? Why? How has it influenced you and your scholarship?

You mean besides my book?! Seriously, though, it’s impossible for me to pick just one! In general, I think historians need to read the classics in their field, to read broadly outside their research specialties whenever possible, and to read well-written fiction. I am lucky that I get to reread some of the classics of U.S. diplomatic history every two years or so when I teach my graduate readings seminar – books like George Kennan’s American Diplomacy, William Appleman Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Emily Rosenberg’s Financial Missionaries to the World, etc. – and I discover new wisdom every time I read them. Reading outside of our research specialties can also help us to find new methods and theories that can be helpful, as well as keep us conversant with the big questions that other historians and other humanities scholars are asking. Finally, reading really well-written prose, especially fiction, can be helpful for keeping academic writing from becoming too stale. Find an author who you thinks writes gorgeous sentences or constructs narratives really well, and use that author’s work as inspiration. I really like Nuala O’Faolain’s books – her memoirs, her novels My Dream of You and With Love, Rosie, and her non-fiction book The Story of Chicago May. She was an Irish journalist; she had a natural historian’s sensibility and wrote beautiful prose.


5) Where do you see the field of American foreign relations/international history moving? What methodological/historiographical trends have you excited?

People in the field are now talking about a “transnational turn,” so I think we can expect to see more scholarship that examines non-state actors, transnational movements (social movements, human rights, etc.), terrorist networks, and the like, as well as transnational phenomena, like migration and refugees, environmental change, and so on. I also think that we’ll continue to see traditional policy studies, as well. The really exciting thing for me since I’ve joined the field has been watching it expand. There’s space for all sorts of topics and methods, whether they’re traditional or cutting-edge. Speaking of cutting-edge, I’m excited by Andy Rotter’s current work on the five senses and U.S. empire in the Philippines. I look forward to his book when it’s finished because I think it will be really innovative, challenging, and interesting.


6) How did your association with CENFAD contribute to your time here at Temple?

Being a member of CENFAD contributed invaluably to my time at Temple. It gave me a community. Plus, it enhanced my research and other skills. During my first semester, I gave a CENFAD talk based on my M.A. thesis, which was a great introduction to the CENFAD community and which offered me a lot of food for thought as I began my Ph.D. I also found the CENFAD lecture series intellectually stimulating, and I appreciated the great variety of speakers, from military historians to foreign relations historians, from traditionalists to culturalists. CENFAD also provided me with generous travel funding that helped with my dissertation research. The 2008 International History Workshop on human rights put together by Petra Goedde and Will Hitchcock not only brought me together with a group of professors and graduate students working on the cutting edge of human rights scholarship and offered me a chance to workshop my own (at the time very rough) paper, but it also led to me having a chapter published in The Human Rights Revolution: An International History, eds. Akira Iriye, William Hitchcock, and Petra Goedde (Oxford, 2012). Finally, I was a Davis Fellow, so I got to see some of CENFAD’s behind-the-scenes work, help with the lecture series, learn how to run the website, etc., all of which gave me really valuable administrative experience.


(above: Dr. Kelly Shannon, holding a copy of The Human Rights Revolution, a volume co-edited by Temple's Dr. Petra Goedde, alongside former Temple colleague Dr. William Hitchcock, and Dr. Akira Iriye, in which Dr. Shannon's chapter "The Right to Bodily Integrity: Women's Rights as Human Rights and the International Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation, 1970s-1990s." appeared)


7) What tips do you have for graduate students trying to move from their degree into a position in academia?

Well, first off, I’d say that graduate students today need to be really savvy about how they can use their degrees to get a job, whether in academia or outside of it, because the competition is unbelievable. I also think it’s important to see a non-academic job as a potential goal, not as a plan B; our skills can be useful in a variety of careers.

That said, for students who want to pursue an academic job, I’ve been on both ends of a few job searches, so I can offer a few words of advice. First, try to build up a thick skin, and be persistent. Rejection – lots of rejection – is part of the job application process. From the perspective of the applicant, job searches will seem totally illogical; why you don’t get a first round interview for a job for which you fit every qualification won’t make sense to you, but you don’t know what is going on behind the scenes or who the other applicants are. Just don’t take rejection personally. Job searches are about the candidate who is the best fit for the department’s needs. Based on my observations, though, most (although not all) good scholars usually end up getting something, although it may not be their dream jobs. A lot of people start off with postdocs, visiting positions, adjuncting positions, or tenure-track positions with less than ideal working conditions. Say yes to those offers if you can so that you can build your experience to become a more attractive candidate for the next job cycle. View those positions as stepping stones to the job you want, and keep working on your research while you’re there.

It’s also important to get a full education in professional development, not just in how to be a good researcher: get a graduate teaching certificate if your university offers one and/or teach your own courses (but not too many – finish the dissertation!); find ways to get involved in professional or grad student organizations to get administrative and service experience; practice writing job letters and CVs that you get feedback on from current faculty members and ask to see CVs and job letters from people who were recently successful in getting the kind of job you want; and practice giving conference papers and giving job talks so that you’re comfortable explaining your research to groups before you start applying for jobs.

Beyond picking an interesting dissertation topic (your adviser should help with this), it’s important to be able to explain your research to people in other fields of history and other disciplines in a way that makes your research interesting and that makes the broader significance of your work clear. It’s crucial that you be able to do this, since it will both interest potential departments in your research agenda and signal to them that your project is capable of getting a book contract. You also need to be good at answering questions about your work from audiences. I gave a mock job talk at Temple my first year on the job market, before I went on campus interviews, and it was invaluable practice. Temple’s graduate program is fantastic for this sort of preparation, and SHAFR now offers a Job Workshop at its annual conferences. Take advantage of these kinds of opportunities.

Most jobs today are teaching-oriented, so in addition to wanting candidates who fit their subject area and other needs, most search committees want to hire someone who can hit the ground running and who doesn’t have to be taught how to teach. Having teaching experience and indicating clearly in your letter and teaching philosophy that you’ve thought carefully about teaching are really helpful. It also doesn’t hurt to stay current on the major trends in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and to take advantage of any opportunities your graduate school offers through their center for teaching to learn more about this. Departments also want to hire someone tenurable, so demonstrating that you have an active and ongoing research agenda is also essential. Present papers at conferences while in grad school, and try to get an article or book chapter published if you can. It also helps to have specific publishers interested in your book manuscript once you earn your Ph.D.

When you apply for jobs, only apply for jobs for which you realistically fit the job description; it’s annoying to get job applications from applicants who don’t do the type of history advertised in the job ad. But you also have a better chance of success if you apply for as many (realistic) opportunities as you can and are willing to relocate. Unfortunately, academics can’t really choose where they live, so geographic flexibility and the willingness to apply for jobs at institutions that aren’t necessarily your dream jobs expand the number of possibilities you have. When you apply, be sure to address each aspect of the job ad to show how well you fit the department’s needs; job ads are crafted carefully by the search committee, so everything – down to the wording – is deliberate. Tailor each job application letter to each type institution, as well. Show that you’ve researched the school and that you want that particular job, not just a job. Be enthusiastic about the position. Also be sure to include in your letter anything that’s unique about your experience, research, teaching methodologies, etc. so that you stand out from the crowd. Again, seek help in crafting this letter from your adviser or recently hired junior faculty so that you can write the strongest application possible. This will get your foot in the door. Once you get an interview, then you need to be able to speak well about your research and teaching interests, ask good questions about the department and university where you’re interviewing, and show that you’d be a collegial colleague (in other words, they want to make sure you’re not a jerk).

Finally, be careful about what you put online about yourself (Facebook privacy features are your friend), but trends seem to indicate that having a scholarly online presence will be helpful going forward. Create an page, and many universities are expressing an increasing interest in digital humanities, so familiarizing yourself with those methods could also be helpful. I know this seems like a lot – Be a great teacher! And publish your research! And show you can do service/be a good colleague! And learn new digital techniques! – but the shrinking market for tenure-track jobs and the number of people on the market each year makes the competition fierce. Finding a job in academia isn’t for the faint of heart, so it helps to enter the market with both eyes open. I also am a strong believer in the Temple “pay it forward” culture, so once you get that job, don’t pull the ladder up behind you. Help grad students who are just entering the market by sharing your experience; advocate for the rights of contingent faculty if you are lucky enough to get a tenure-track position; share job ads with friends who might be a good fit for a position. Having good karma can’t hurt!


CENFAD thanks Dr. Shannon for agreeing to participate in this project. Look for our next slate of profiles this fall!