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:
Professor XXX, or if name unknown, “Search Committee Chair”
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.