Saturday, October 29, 2005

English department job applications

I had every intention of mowing the lawn this morning, and it’s a beautiful day for it, but I’m just feeling too chilled and snuffly and coughy to leave the comfort of the couch and my afghan. So instead I’m spending the morning curled up and reading through job applications. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on my very first search committee, and I’m finding it an incredible learning experience. I’ll confess that I’m also feeling my age, since I’m seven to ten years older than most of the applicants (as far as I can tell from their dates of college graduation). This makes sense, of course, since this is my fifth year in my current job and I had a two-year lectureship after I got my Ph.D., and I took two years off from school before my doctoral program; so it is quite to be expected that people applying for their first job would be at least seven years younger than I am, but I’m having another one of those moments of realizing that time is moving an and that I’m getting older with each passing year. Yeah, that should be obvious, but it still unpleasantly hits me anew every once in awhile.

But enough about me and my anxieties. I am learning an awful lot about what makes a good application (helpful if I end up going on the market again), all of which wisdom I’d be saving up to pass on to grad students if only I had any. But since I don’t, I’ll share these observations with the blogosphere instead. I know that this advice is too late to do any good to people who are currently on the market; but maybe it will be helpful to those still in grad school. Let me add that these are just my own novice conclusions; it’s possible (although not likely, I think) that my senior colleagues on the search committee will disagree with some of my assessments. And nothing I’m saying here is brand-new; this is hardly original advice. But with those caveats, here is my advice for folks applying to liberal arts colleges:
  • Remember that some of the people reading the application letter won’t be in your field, so make your dissertation/research sound interesting even to people who don’t know exactly what you’re talking about.

  • Please, please, please avoid jargon. My eyes glaze over, and I think that you wouldn’t be much fun to talk with over lunch. Maybe that’s unfair, but there it is. Remember that I’m reading a huge stack of these applications, and I’m going to be more interested in letters that are easy to follow and engaging, in part because I want engaging colleagues.

  • When you talk about your teaching in your letter, don’t just talk about which classes you’ve taught; also talk a little about your pedagogy, about assignments you’ve given or class exercises you’ve designed. And make sure that you sound passionate and energetic about teaching; we’ve got to believe that you really care about teaching.

  • That being said, shorter letters are better than longer ones. I’ll admit that I was one of those applicants who used 11-point font and small margins to get as much as possible on two pages, but I wouldn’t do so again.

  • This isn’t so much application advice as it is grad school planning advice: I’ve wound up defining a weeding-out litmus test for applications, and that is that applicants who have never taught a composition class are going to the bottom of the pile. Not that we teach so much comp here at St. Martyr’s (certainly far less than at a lot of liberal arts colleges), but we do each teach it occasionally, and certainly there’s an element of writing instruction in all of our courses. And besides, I want evidence that applicants have designed a syllabus and been entirely responsible for a course. I find this piece of advice particularly interesting because my own grad program has in recent years moved away from having students teach comp., and lots of the students are pleased about this because they’d rather be teaching literature, but I think that this move is SUCH a mistake and that the department is doing its students a real disservice. When I was in grad school, I volunteered for two terms to teach the remedial composition course, which in retrospect was one of the smartest things I could have done.

  • Similarly, make sure you’ve taught a variety of courses. At St. Martyr’s, you’ll probably only teach one upper-level English course per term, and the other courses will be Gen. Ed. courses. So I’m more impressed with applicants who have taught survey courses, intro to lit courses, maybe a genre course or something similar. The applications which say, “I’m prepared to teach courses not only in my specific dissertation topic, but also in these two other closely-related very specific topics,” go to the bottom of the pile; I just don’t see their being helpful at St. Martyr’s. If your school has TA opportunities for Gen. Ed. courses, volunteer for those courses. On a personal note, this conclusion has been a healing moment for me, because I’ll confess that in grad school I was really jealous of the students who had such amazing fellowships that they taught maybe one year in grad school; but now I’ve realized that my varied teaching experiences in grad school were actually great training for a career in a liberal arts college, which is what I was most interested in and where I ended up. So maybe I can finally let go of this particular grass-is-always-greener point.

  • Back to application advice: Have your letter-writers update your letters. If you’ve finished your dissertation, the letters that say “Applicant X has written one chapter of his dissertation, and it’s very good” aren’t doing you any good.

  • Have your dissertation director and other letter-writers observe your teaching. The more that I learn about your teaching, the better, and letters that address both your research and your teaching help to make the argument that these parts of your professional life are closely related, which is a great selling point.

  • If you’ve done any service at all in grad school, it’s worth mentioning it in your letter as evidence that you understand that there’s more to an academic position than teaching and research.

Certainly this advice is most apropos for folks applying to liberal arts colleges, but I can’t imagine that any of it would be bad advice for folks interested in research universities. I hope it’s been helpful; if nothing else, it’s a record for my own sake, so that if I end up on the market again I can remind myself of all of this advice. Now if only someone would write such a list for folks who have been in a job for several years and are looking for their second job.