The Teaching-Centric Letter

In response to many requests, I am devoting today’s post to the teaching-centric letter.  The absence of a post on this subject before now might seem surprising on a blog that purports to cover every aspect of the academic job search.  But that absence was intentional.  The fact is, very few tenure track jobs outside of community colleges actually need a teaching-centric letter, and this is a point of great confusion among job seekers.  Many liberal arts colleges, mid-rank universities and small teaching colleges claim to be “teaching-focused,” and “student-centric,” but decisions about hiring and tenure will nevertheless be firmly focused on research.

Job seekers routinely mis-identify the jobs that require a teaching-focused letter, because they naively take institutional rhetoric about the importance of teaching at face value.  As I said, the vast majority of institutions, departments, and positions weight research far more heavily than teaching, regardless of the PR on their websites.  (See this guest post on the inner workings of a search at just such a department).

However, there are indeed times when a teaching focused letter is appropriate.  Those include:

  • For a community college
  • For jobs seeking Masters level hires
  • For a temporary replacement hire at a teaching focused institution
  • For an ongoing instructor position at any institution, as long as it carries no research expectation whatsoever; this will be clear from the ad, which will make no reference to research in any way.
  • For tenure track positions at teaching colleges and liberal arts colleges that are low-ranked; regional; possibly religiously-affiliated.  The well known SLACs [Williams, Amherst, Wellesley, Davidson, Smith, Grinnell, and so on] should get research-focused, NOT teaching-focused, letters.

With regard to the third position type listed above, note that temporary replacements (ie, Visiting Assistant Professorships) at research-oriented universities and elite SLACs will likely need to see a letter that balances research and teaching equally. In other words, while the teaching is of course central, and the candidate will need to reference specific courses listed in the ad, the committee’s deliberations will likely weight the research profile of the candidates heavily, because they want active researchers even among their temporary faculty).

If after careful thought and consultation with mentors, you determine that a position does indeed require a teaching-centric letter, then begin by reading the blog posts The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 Pitfalls, The Weepy Teaching Statement, Just Say No, Teaching: Not When and Where but What and How  and When I Say Be Specific, What Do I Mean? and at all costs avoid blathering on about your love of and passion for student learning. Keep your emotions about the teaching enterprise to yourself.  While I know that you are convinced that your passion sets you apart, in an environment in which everyone is peddling the same passion, it functions only as white noise.  For more on that, please see my post, Those Twelve Sentences.

If the job posting states that you may be expected to teach specific classes, you must address those classes specifically, and describe the teaching method, approach, readings, and assignments you’ll use.  If no courses are identified by name, then address the bread-and-butter classes you will likely be expected to handle.  It is unlikely that a teaching-only ad will be asking for sophisticated small seminars; chances are, you are being hired to teach the large intro courses, surveys, methods courses, and so on (but judge each ad on its own merits).

Base your letter on the following template; you can of course adjust the phrasing, but stick to this order of approach:

LETTERHEAD

Date

Professor XXX, or if name unknown, “Search Committee Chair”
Department
College/University
Street Address
City, State Zip

Dear Professor XXX/Chair of Search Committee:

PARA 1: I am applying for job X in the department Y.  My Ph.D. is in XXX, from the University of XXX, in the field of XXX (20XX).  I am currently XXX.  My teaching specializations are XXX and YYY, with an additional expertise in ZZZ.

PARA 2:  My teaching focuses on… [your core teaching philosophy with key thematics and goals relevant to your discipline and subfield, as appropriate].  For example, in XXX course, I use YYY readings to help students understand ZZZ, with the goal of increasing their awareness of QQQ….  Similarly in YYY course, I….   Etc. [2-3 courses in total; these will respond to the courses mentioned in the ad, or be the basic courses you are likely to be asked to teach].  I am also prepared to teach courses such as XXX, YYY, and ZZZ.  [Do not tether any of your past teaching experiences or courses named to the other campuses at which you taught; render your teaching capacities as general and portable.]

PARA 3: My success in the above efforts has led to: awards, increased responsibility [no runner-up “almost” awards].  My effectiveness in the classroom is attested by my quantitative evaluations. [1 or 2 quantitative averages, no cheesy student quotes].

PARA 4: Additional areas of teaching/pedagogy focus [discipline specific], study abroad, directing a program, innovative curriculum, etc.  Here address any additional pedagogical requirements mentioned by the ad.

PARA 5:  Research description [if you have/if necessary for the job—not necessary for teaching-ONLY instructor positions].  Approximately six sentences: your dissertation topic; its material/data/texts; its theoretical or conceptual approach; the questions/themes pursued; your core conclusion; contribution to the field.

PARA 6: Publications [if you have/if necessary for the job—not necessary for teaching-ONLY instructor positions]

PARA 7: X and Y make this job particularly appealing/your department particularly attractive.  [To write this paragraph, also consult the blog posts How to Tailor a Cover Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging) and Tailoring: Beginning and Advanced; focus on courses to develop, teaching synergies with current faculty, and program or curriculum potential.]

PARA 8: I look forward to hearing from you soon.  Thank you.

Sincerely,

signature

Name

 


Comments

The Teaching-Centric Letter — 24 Comments

    • Each case has to be individually parsed—I’d need to know which institution, know which department, and then examine the job ad. I don’t normally provide this service for readers because if I did I’d need 10 of me, but to illustrate this case, if you’d like to copy the ad and any VERY BRIEF context you’re aware of for the field/dept/type of job, I’d give you an opinion. Just for the purposes of adding substance to this blog post!

      • Okay great! Thanks, Karen. Here is the posting (It gave me pause because it lists teaching as the first responsibility):

        POSITION: Assistant Professor of English, tenure-track, with research specialty in Early Modern Drama including Shakespeare.
        RESPONSIBILITIES: Teaching three undergraduate classes per semester, including the First-Year Experience. Teaching competencies required: upper-level courses in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama and lower-level survey courses in British Literature before 1800. Research activities, including publications and presentation of papers; participation in professional and scholarly activities, including attendance at professional meetings. Student advising; service to the department, the university, the profession, and the community.
        QUALIFICATIONS: Recent Ph.D. (or near Ph.D.) in English, with research specialty in Early Modern Drama including Shakespeare, with broad-based, survey knowledge of British Literature before 1800.
        QUALITIES AND SKILLS: A strong commitment to teaching undergraduates and evidence of potential as a scholar; ability to relate well to students at a relatively small liberal arts and sciences university.
        SALARY: Competitive
        THE DEPARTMENT: The Department of English at Trinity University consists of twelve full-time faculty members; it offers a major (B.A. Degree) and a minor in English and in Creative Writing, as well as an Honors Program and courses for the Common Curriculum and electives. Trinity, founded in 1869, is an independent, coeducational, primarily residential university with a predominant emphasis on undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences tradition. Highly selective in its admission standards, Trinity is rapidly becoming one of the foremost institutions of its type in the United States. The quality of both faculty and students is acknowledged to be among the finest in the country. Undergraduate enrollment is approximately 2,700, including students from all parts of the United States and many foreign nations. An attractive campus overlooks downtown San Antonio, a city rich in heritage and ethnic diversity with a population of approximately one million.
        APPLICATIONS: Send letter of application, curriculum vitae, three confidential letters of reference (not to be sent by candidate), graduate institution(s) transcript(s), dissertation abstract, and writing sample, by November 21, 2014 to:

        • I’m going to first say, that either kind of letter would probably be fine, and in a sense, this is a case for a ‘balanced’ letter; however, given that they do seem to say a lot about research, I’d send a research-first letter to this, just making sure that you ahve a solid 2 paragraphs on teaching.

  1. How’s this for a rule of thumb: if it’s 3-3, do a research letter no matter how much they say they value teaching; if 4-4, then lead with teaching.

  2. Would you say that an ad requesting a generalist might be an indication that a teaching-centric letter is called for? This is a very small college in a rural area. They don’t list a teaching load, so I can’t use that proposed rule of thumb. This one is close to my family, so I don’t want to screw it up!

    • it’s not typically content-area that matters, but institutional type and status. small and rural suggests teaching-centric, unless it’s one of those little gem-like elite SLACs that dot the landscape in odd places (like Grinnell).

      • Definitely not a place like Grinnell! I meant to note its status as well as its location and size in my original post but forgot. I’m going to try to determine teaching load and base my letter off of that. Thanks for the reply!

    • Do some detective work to find out the teaching load. Usually the course schedule can be accessed publicly. Look at that to see how many courses people are doing.

      Also if the ad doesn’t say how much teaching the answer is probably “a lot.”

  3. Forgive a newbie question: *How* substantial is the difference between addressing a cover letter to the search chair by name and using the less-detailed “Dear Chair” option? If an individual isn’t mentioned in the announcement, is it an important use of time to try to find a name? Is the juice worth the squeeze, so to speak?

  4. So all of us who have adjuncted for years without publishing should kill ourselves, correct? To get ourselves out of the way for the golden children?

    • No, you can still apply for the jobs that are truly teaching-focused: community college and probably other instructor-type positions.

  5. “I am also prepared to teach courses such as XXX, YYY, and ZZZ.”

    Should XXX, YYY, and ZZZ be courses specifically listed by the institution? Basically course titles copied from the institution’s website? Or more general descriptions of courses I’m prepared to teach?

    Thank you for such an informative blog!

  6. This is great information. However, if applying for a C.C position, and you are only currently an adjunct, should you still use the letterhead of the current institution you work for? In addition, should you include this on your CV as recommended in your CV post?

  7. I just wanted to say thanks for this post, as it’s the exact topic I was looking for. Your blog fills a huge void. My history Ph.D. program is having a much better than average year for placement, and I suspect your blog is the decisive factor.

  8. Dear Karen,
    How do I address in the letter my position towards a Community College that advertises as part of the minimum qualifications:

    “Demonstrated cultural competency, sensitivity to and understanding of the diverse academic, socioeconomic, cultural, disability, and ethnic backgrounds”

    The CC serves a predominately ethnic community with limited financial resources, many students are underprepared, don’t dominate the english language, are first in their families to go to school and hold full time jobs.

  9. I just want to say that you and your website are awesome. I love that this resource exists; it didn’t when I started job-searching and I’m so glad it’s out there now. Keep up the good work–

  10. Thank you for this most informative post, which will be most helpful as I apply to community college instructorships and non-tenure-track lecturer positions.

    One question whose answer I haven’t come across: about how much overlap should there be in a teaching-focused cover letter and a teaching philosophy statement? The job for which I’m currently applying asks for 1-2 pages of each document, and as no research obligations are mentioned in the listing, I assume the cover letter itself should also be highly teaching-focused.

    My intuition is that the teaching-focused Cover Letter should still contain the 8 PARAs you list above, but that the Teaching Philosophy statement should elaborate on material from PARAs 2 and 4 (perhaps also 3?) in much more depth. Is this on-track?

    Thanks very much for sharing your expertise!

  11. I am applying for a job that requires a cover letter which includes statements of teaching and research interests (not submitted as separate documents). Have you encountered this? how long is too long?

  12. I am applying to a tenure-track position at a SLAC which requires a teaching statement, research statement, and letter of application detailing how one fits into the department. The problem is they specify each document is limited to one page. Two pages is short but manageable. I am working on the research statement now and I got my teaching statement and cover letter to one page, but that is not including the letterhead/formatting typically included in that type of letter. Do you think it is acceptable in this case to include pertinent information in the header/footer and forgo the classic formal letter formatting?

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