Today’s post is a Special Request post for a reader who shall remain anonymous. Her question concerns how to tailor her letter and c.v. for different jobs.
Here’s the background: She is a Victorian literature specialist and on the job market in English (I know, more’s the pity). She’s applying for Victorian specialist jobs, but also writing jobs and the occasional generalist position as well.
She has experience teaching writing, and she’s heard through the grapevine that search committees are impressed with her application for writing/generalist positions, but that her c.v. is so Victorian lit-heavy, that Victorian lit colleagues have responded unfavorably, claiming that she is going to invade their turf, so to speak.
So she wants to know: how can she ethically tailor her letter and c.v. to appeal to the writing/generalist positions without frightening the Victorianists already on the faculty?
I have not actually seen her job letter and c.v., so I am not basing my response on an actual example, but on principles. And English is not my field, and at the same time it’s a highly regimented field that serves many service needs on campuses, so it’s possible that my understanding of the principles may need some amplification in the comments below. So, readers from English, please feel free to comment.
The principle is that in this kind of case, where not just the specialization, but the very nature of the job is distinct, the cover letter should be highly tailored to match the position. What that means is that if she is applying for a writing job, then her primary role in the department is to teach writing, and not to act as a period specialist. In that sense, the profile she will present to the department is a teaching profile, with some Victorian research skills thrown in as an “extra.” I would recommend that her letter put her teaching paragraphs first (after her self-introduction paragraph), and that these be the main bulk of page one.
The teaching paragraph should describe what she has taught, what she is capable of teaching, and what she envisions teaching for the department, based on the needs identified in the ad, and on their course listing (but never, ever using course numbers, which is tacky). She should give some specific teaching strategies that she uses in the basic remedial, introductory and advanced Writing classroom, and how and why they worked. These should be innovative enough to be memorable, and not just obvious things like “I encourage discussion.” She should indicate or summarize student responses or evaluations.
After these two paragraphs (I don’t normally recommend more than two paragraphs dedicated to either teaching or dissertation research in a job letter), she can move into her dissertation research, and her publications, a second project, and then her tailoring paragraph. The publications do not have to be listed in their entirety—one or two are appropriate. Her second project should be mentioned, as I am assuming that this is still a tenure track position, and tenure requires a forward-looking research trajectory. If that is not the case, and it is not a tenure track position, then a second project should not be mentioned. Her tailoring paragraph should emphasize teaching innovations and initiatives, as opposed to ones focused on research.
In terms of the c.v., again, Teaching can be listed first after Education and Professional Employment. Publications should of course be listed in their entirety; I never, ever recommend removing a publication from a c.v. for tailoring purposes. Teaching Awards and so on should be emphasized if there are enough to make a separate heading or subheading.
She should have a teaching reference, preferably a colleague from her current position if she is beyond graduate school. That reference will be a fourth reference, after three academic references, if the job is a tenure-track position. If it is not a tenure-track position, then the teaching reference can be the third of three references.
All of these things together create an impression that the person is genuinely interested in teaching Writing, and will not be a shadow competitor to the Victorian specialists in the department.
Now, be aware that some Victorian specialists will be absolutely thrilled to get a specialist comrade in arms “for free,” as it were, through a Writing search. So this type of paranoia is not universally necessary. However, since she has received this specific feedback previously from a search, it is safe to assume that the problem does exist.
By retaining the research and publication elements of her profile (which always increase her capital on the market), while clearly demonstrating a primary interest (in the letter and c.v.) in the Writing position, she should be able to balance the two audiences for the search, and let the search committee feel that she is a “both/and” candidate, rather than an “either/or” candidate.
Suzanne Keen says
A view from English. In many small college departments all faculty contribute to the writing teaching, and most writing teachers also contribute to at least the 200-level (general education and intro major) course work. The fact that things are less segregated than in big outfits (where writing may be a separate program from English) makes concern about expertise “overlap” a real one. It need not be a liability on the market, however, if candidates can avoid “volunteering” to take over a senior colleague’s field and to teach her specific courses. This frequently happens, in letters and in the MLA interviews, and it is the kiss of death. Here’s a clue: while it’s ok to express interest in teaching from an expert vantage point in courses that are allocated to “Staff” in general, it’s not at all ok to announce that you’d love to teach the upper-level Victorian novel course that bears a specific faculty member’s name in the course catalog. You may think I am joking. I have watched literally dozens of job candidates crash and burn as their largesse and desire to appear maximally useful to a department marks them as predators hungry for an established colleague’s courses. You know that thing committees say about “fit”? Volunteering to take over a field already filled demonstrates lack of “fit.”
Wow, THIS is good advice!!!!! Thank you so much, Suzanne! It’s such a perfect example of how the candidate’s ill-informed efforts to appear “helpful” are actually counterproductive and self-defeating. This is so much what I try to teach at The Professor Is In—that the candidate must understand, first and above all else, what the department is actually wanting, when they hire, and write to that thing in their materials. It’s like Goldilocks. You can’t pitch it too high, and you can’t pitch it too low. You have to pitch it JUUUUST right.
In my field, ethnomusicology, MA theses are rigorous and my MA thesis is a contrast from my dissertation research (on a traditional classical genre while the PhD is on contemporary music but with overarching themes). Does this MA research deserve a few sentences or a paragraph? I think it shows my versatility but I haven’t gotten around to publishing it yet.
It can have one sentence, in your pubs para, in which you say, “I am planning a journal article based on my masters research on xxxx, which I will submit to xxx.”
anonymous chemist says
I have been on the TT job market this year with moderate success (phone interviews and campus visits). But I do not have an offer yet, and two schools have told me that they are not expecting to make an offer until late April. I am considering applying for some 1 year VAP positions, in case I don’t get an offer. What does one write in the cover letter for these sorts of positions? I have taught a few classes as an adjunct while doing a postdoc. Since the position does not involve research, should research interests/experience be mentioned? Any other considerations?
VAP letters are not significantly different. Since so many VAPs have their pick of the litter, so to speak, you can’t really afford to dumb down your materials–you still have to present yourself as a highly effective scholar as well as teacher. Yes, you’ll emphasize teaching a bit more, and have a para that focuses on the specific teaching needs of the job, perhaps in place of the para that speaks to a second major research projct. But aside from that replacement, most will remain the same.
Hi Karen, This is a little detail, but it becomes a point of stress every time I write a new cover letter. If the application doesn’t specifically say who to address the letter to, then who do I address it to? I know you have said to always put an actual person, but if they don’t specify, for example as I am applying for English jobs, do I go for the Dean of the college of Humanities or the head of the English department? Thanks for all your past advice. Jennifer
Excellent question. simply write, “Dear Members of the Search Committee:”