Cover Letters for English Faculty Positions

Many colleges are holding off on hiring, at least for a year, waiting until they can read the Richter scale on these economic tremblers. With competition for good candidates down, this is a great time to be hiring, and my institution is looking for a comp & rhetoric faculty, full-time, tenure track; read all about it: http://www.sunyjcc.edu/index.php?q=node/2914.

The applications are coming in, and while I can’t comment on them, I can say that in the past I’ve written about how pathetic the typical cover letter accompanying the resume is. So Point #1 is, a cover letter is a letter. As in, it’s a letter, not a label. Really, I see cover letters that read like this:

“Dear Fill-in-the-blank, Thank you in advance for previewing my accompanying resume. Sincerely….”

The cover letter is also not a recasting of the resume into paragraphs (which only makes it harder to read). It’s a letter, and it seems to me that someone applying for a comp and rhetoric position ought to be able to write one whizz-bang of a letter, and this digression raises something else that should be obvious to applicants: In applying for an English position you are demonstrating your wares in the letter. The principles you would teach to your students (we presume), you have first taught to yourself and are demonstrating in the cover letter: economy and clarity of language; a style and grace that is professional and personable; diction that is precise but not stuffy, intelligent without obscuring meaning; language from a human being who might be interesting to work with.

Letters reflect a personality and a purpose; letters are meant to communicate; letters spring from one unique person and reach out in a human way to other human beings. You know, these are missives, epistles, notes; they live in the same rhetorical town as the Brownings’ love letters, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, Virginia Woolf’s and Anias Nin’s diaries, Thoreau’s Walden, and Michihiko Hachiya’s journal. Remember letters: like a thank you note or a request for a reference letter from your favorite prof, they bring with them the scent of a human heart and a human mind, and we who receive them want to like the people they come from.

Point #2: Cover letters do have a job to do, and like conveying a sense of what’s human about the writer, it’s a job the resume can’t do: explain how this particular position we offer is really suited to you. We on the search committee understand that you want a job, need a job, may even be desperate for the paycheck our business office could eventually send out with your name on it every two weeks. But what we want is what should be important to you.  Again, it’s about your wares: how bad a writing instructor must you be to not know how important audience is.

So address the ad. Remember, if the search committee can’t see how you meet whatever is called “Required” in the ad, they cannot legally hire you and shouldn’t even interview you. For instance, here’s an ad placed on Inside Higher Ed a few days ago (check their job list here http://www.insidehighered.com/career/seekers?page=index.php?categories[714]=true “):

English Faculty position, full-time. Required: Master’s degree in Composition/Rhetoric or English (Ph.D. preferred, with emphasis in teaching writing). Faculty member will teach both College Composition and Developmental English courses.

Desired: Experience in and demonstrated commitment to teaching College Composition. Community college teaching preferred. Knowledge of learning theories, learning styles, alternative delivery systems, and assessment. Experience working with both traditional age students and adult learners. Willingness to teach a diverse schedule. Ability to work cooperatively with other members of the college community. Knowledge of and commitment to the community college mission.

Since your resume makes it evident that you have what’s listed under Required, the letter deals with what’s Desired. So you’d be crazy to send them that all-purpose, stainless steel, cover letter your placement office helped you work up, the one that mentions your brilliant thesis on the burial motifs in Ellison’s Invisible Man and your adjunct work in Enormous U. and the diversity-drenched semester abroad. Those are in your resume anyway, and it’s clearly not what the folks at Chesapeake College are interested in.

Here’s my punch list for this job:

  • Find out what the community college mission is, and how it’s expressed in the mission of Chesapeake College. (You’re an English major, for crying out loud – is anyone better at doing research than we are? So do some.) That’s language that goes into the letter.
  • “Experience working with …adult learners” means you won’t look at the unemployed coal miner who wants into the criminal justice program like he’s a leper. That you believe a crack at college belongs to all people, and you act that way (reference the community college mission). If you talk that talk in the cover letter, they’ll like you.
  • Learning theories and styles: this is a test, designed to sort out faculty who communicate to students with a concern for learning from faculty who are founts, gushing information which students then gulp down using whatever crockery is at their disposal. Much learning theory, particularly that about learning styles, is suspect, and maybe you should say that (gently, for it’s sure to be the pet theory of your first reader that you’ll use the hobnail boots on).
  • Developmental English is another test, and if your resume doesn’t show you have worked with students who struggled at the basics of language, account for this. If you don’t have formal experience, then you tutored a friend or you met individually with a floundering student. You need to prove you can work within the processes by which people overcome years of deficits in their learning to slowly become literate in the academic language of, say, sophomores (yes, sophomores; the bar’s not set that high).
  • “Diverse schedule” = summer, nights, weekends. The idea is that the college will schedule classes when students can come, not around when faculty want to teach. How can that not be a good thing?
  • The reference to cooperating with other members of the community sounds like it originates in a problem the department is having (or had) with someone. Poke around the web site: might it be the tutorial center, writing center, Writing Across the Curriculum people, developmental studies people…? Or are they still fighting the English department’s Civil War: comp people vs . lit people. In your cover letter, be Abe Lincoln.
  • “Alternative delivery styles” = usually means online courses & a CMS system to supplement your classroom courses, so they want proof you acknowledge the existence of the Internet.
  • Assessment: this can be a hot potato among faculty, and unless you’ve had specific, positive experience in doing program assessment for outside agencies, you might want to let this one alone.

Finally, remember that 95% of English faculty got to be that way because once upon a time they were so in love with reading fiction that they wanted to do just that for the rest of their lives. Embed glimpses of your life story in the letter, maybe just one or two times, as you give some support to your claims. Let them know you have a story, a good one.

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2 Responses to Cover Letters for English Faculty Positions

  1. full report says:

    It’s really a great and useful piece of information. I’m satisfied that you shared this helpful info with us.
    Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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