IV. The Rhetoric of Job Letters Wednesday, Mar 30 2011 

What they all say you should do: tailor each and every letter specifically for each and every position. Basically, write a new letter for each job.

What works, even if it’s not quite that: write two or three template letters, which themselves borrow from a broader template. In your stockpile have:

1) A long teaching paragraph that includes a quick version of your teaching philosophy, as well as a specific example of your classroom practice.

2) A short teaching paragraph with the specific example but a minimized philosophical nudge.

3) A long research paragraph that offers detail on the diss and a future research project.

4) A short research paragraph that presents a brief overview of the diss and a future project.

5) A service paragraph, highlighting how you’ve been involved in departmental, institutional, and professional organizations (note: if you haven’t been involved, get involved immediately so you can write this paragraph the next time you apply).

6) A general closing graph, stating how you’ve sent x, y, and z with this application (which will change for every job) and look forward to hearing from them.

With that template in order, you can prepare an infinite number of letters (perhaps not infinite, but I’m in the humanities, so close enough). Most important is to have separate letters for research institutions and teaching institutions. For each letter, write a more-or-less unique opening, ideally culling the spirit or mission of the school from the official website so you can emphasize your philosophical fit. Thus a teaching letter might look like this:

Dear Professor X:

I am writing to offer my application for the position of Assistant Professor of Clairvoyance at the College for Gifted Collegians. I have long been a supporter of mutant rights and am therefore drawn to the mission of your school, where so many individuals of unique ability have been able to develop their inner superhero.

Paragraph 1

Paragraph 4

Paragraph 5

Paragraph 6

Sincerely,

Gigger

For a research position, you’d prepare a new opening, then have paragraphs 3, 2, 5, 6.

For each and every letter, search and replace is key: you don’t want your application to Harvard making reference to your desire to teach at Oxford. Oh, the embarrassment you’d later feel on the squash court.

And no matter what, don’t write the letter we all really want to write:

Dear Professor Already-Has-a-Job:

You know and I know this is random. So just throw this letter up in the air with all the other letters. Grab the closest fifteen, and invite those people for interviews.

Sincerely,

Humanities Ph.D.

Truly, the job letter is your best mechanism to combat the random nature of academic applications. Sure, there will still be a big pile, but so many letters read as if the applicant sent out a generic letter to every school…because so many applicants send out generic letters to every school. A little customization helps search committees see applicants as interested potential colleagues, and that’s what they’re looking for.

Combined with that, try to be an interested potential colleague. The reality of the market is that many people apply for positions they don’t really want, which is necessary and, I think, okay. But try to drum up interest in yourself even for those gigs. If a place really seems abhorrent (like, in my case, the school that told me in an informal meet-and-greet, “Well, our students aren’t illiterate”) don’t apply. (And, let me be clear that I crossed that school off not because of the implied deficiency of the students but because of the overt hostility and lack of generosity in this faculty member who was at a national conference representing the school for hiring. I’m sure the students at this state institution were, like every public college and university, normal college-age students who enter higher education with wildly divergent levels of preparation).

Ideally, your job letters should demonstrate an authentic enthusiasm for the school. Heck, we’re all in this profession because, on some level, we love it, since the external rewards of academia are, while certainly not bad, certainly not enough to attract people uninterested in students, teaching, and research. And even if a couple come in thinking only of “12 hour workweeks,” the labor of grad school will quickly disabuse that notion.

So it’s enthusiasm that we all really have to offer in these applications, and it’s enthusiasm, rendered tastefully, that we should demonstrate in application letters. Part of that comes through in the careful rhetoric of the letter — leading with a teaching paragraph for a teaching school shows interest, attention to detail, and enthusiasm for that kind of institution, for example. But part of that appears in a form that we often shy away from. A good letter, I think, should make it clear that an applicant wants this job, has something to offer this job, and is interested in this place.

Without allowing our terrified desperation to bleed through.

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III. You Too are an Academic, Right Now Saturday, Mar 19 2011 

I didn’t always believe the general sense of this post. And parts of the philosophy I’m about to propose bother me, largely because I think there’s a tendency in academe to hasten “professionalization.” In that great ethereal, romantic, mind-world of pure AcademyLand, we could all spend eternity drinking fine coffee, mulling over ideas, and only bother to publish work that really makes a difference. But as anyone who has ever spent any time at all reading scholarship knows, lots of stuff is published that never makes a difference at all. Or even deserves to see the light of day.

Thus the uncomfortable pragmatic understrain of this post runs directly opposed to that fantasy. Those graduate students who will get jobs will publish. And bummerishly, not everything that’s published will be all that fancy, or snazzy, or awesome. But it will be out there, incrementing forward some body of scholarship.

Yet there is also an important conceptual strain at work here, and this is my main point. It’s too easy to think of oneself as just a student when one is, well, a student. Being a graduate student, however, is much more than being a student. That adjective matters a ton. Graduate student. Let it roll of the tongue. Linger over it. Understand and relish in the idea that this is a rare time of life when a person is largely without grand academic responsibility and has access to grand academic resources. This is a time of potential and unfettered enthusiasm, and if we approach it right, a time to take the academic risks we really, really want to take.

People wind up in graduate programs because they are smart, creative, inquisitive, and yearn to dig into a subject matter. They go for love, really. Because if we wanted jobs, we’d do something far more practical. But all too often, graduate students exercise intellectual deferment. They don’t follow their own path of interest, but instead allow themselves to be led by an advisor’s interests, perceived market trends, fashion, propriety, peer pressure.

Me: when it came time to decide on a dissertation topic, I had two in mind. One excited me tremendously, was something I’d never seen done before, and generated lots of buzz when I chatted informally about it with other academics at conferences. Of course, it was also difficult to pigeonhole as a particular timeframe, tradition, or theoretical approach. The second topic bored me, more or less. But it was traditional, looked like a dissertation topic, made sense within a narrow academic way, and would easy to explain to a search committee.

I met with a faculty member to discuss these topics, and he agreed that the first one was quite interesting. But he advised me away from it, citing that pesky pigeon hole problem. How would future hiring departments know what I was? It would be tough to market myself as X, Y, or Z with a topic like that. Do the traditional topic, and save the interesting one for later. I nodded, and decided to agree with him.

Until I got home and realized that I hated topic B. Loathed it. Would face years reading, researching, and writing it. And my credo upon returning to academia was all late Sinatra: my way, baby. I chose topic A, enjoyed the work, had lots of excited conversations with people at conventions about it. I wrote a dissertation I cared about, that drew attention, and that at least one search committee really loved.

That’s being an academic, right now. That’s trusting one’s own talent and interests, and staying true to the academic self. If we don’t do the work we care about, then there is very little reason to be in this line of work. All we have is our own enthusiasm. All we’re supposed to be (and everything we’re supposed to be) are experts who fixate on focused ideas that other people didn’t care about before. We’re the voices in the wilderness who say, yo, this little bit of the world matters. I looked at it, and I’m here to tell you we can learn something here.

Chasing fashion leads to cyncial burnout. Only doing what an advisor suggests leads to passive disengagement. Succumbing to the peer pressure of “proper” diss topics leads to stagnation. We owe it to ourselves and to the academic world to recognize intellectual individualism from the start.

Now, be sure that I’m not suggesting that graduate students need to be stubborn, disrespectful, me-firsters who never listen to the faculty. There’s way too much of that already, and that’s not being an academic. That’s just being a jerky boor (though a lot of established academics are boors, when you boil it all down). Certainly, we owe it to ourselves and to the field to listen carefully and respectfully to those who have worked hard to earn faculty positions. As with every moment of an academic career, we should be respectful and open to the suggestions of others, assume they know things (because they do!), and weigh ideas carefully. But I encourage even the greenest M.A. candidate to way his or her own ideas carefully as well. Because, often, there’s gold in what appears to be a bucket of mud and, usually, we’re the only ones who can see our own gold.