Having recently returned from my field’s annual meeting, where I encountered a number of job seekers interested in the position open at my university, I find myself struck by a few things, none of which necessarily apply to any particular individual with whom I talked, or will talk. In some cases, quite the reverse is true.
That said, I was rather struck both by the eagerness of the people with whom I talked and their complete lack of awareness on a number of fronts. In no particular order, here are a few observations:
This is a job at a regional public university in the south. Trust me when I say everything that would seem to mean and everything it does mean. I’m sorry it’s not a Research I university or an ivy or whatever else you imagined as your dream job. It is, however, a job. And it’s a folklore job, where you get to teach folklore classes at both the graduate and undergraduate level. And it’s tenure track. (And did I mention it’s a job?) So, please, there’s no reason to demur when talking to a member of the search committee about it. Feign the excitement, if you have to. You may actually want this job when you have a chance to think about it. The expression on your face that would make it seem that someone just dropped a dried turd in your hand is one that will stick around for a while.
I know you have just finished up a long program in which you have memorized the hagiography of at least our little corner of the world and probably one or two adjacent fields. You would like to meet one of the anointed: after all, you have been luxuriating in their company during your graduate career, no? It turns out that the anointed are a rather small group and sometimes it’s really just an apparition created by living within the small confines of a graduate program, especially a large program within a small field. Most of the field’s practitioners live far more diverse lives. They may not have been mentioned in any of your classes, but they have still carved out careers for themselves. They may even have succeeded in ways that you cannot yet imagine being interesting but may one day. You should probably get off your high horse and give them the benefit of the doubt. No, really.
The best way to do that is to know something about the place to which you are applying and the key people involved in the search, especially members of the committee in your field: Hi, I’m John Laudun. I haven’t published as much as I would like, but I’ve got a few things out there. I’ve written a fair number of grants, including one from the Grammy folks. Produced a film or two. Written and directed some other film work. Got a book coming out next year. (And an article in JAF.) Won some awards. You know, the usual stuff. And, oh yeah, there’s this whole blog thing which really makes it easy to figure out what I am interested in. (Funny, that.) And the thing is apparently accessible on just about any device you happen to have in your hands. No, really. I’ve even stuffed a fair number of my AFS papers in this thing. You could skim here and know about all you need to know to fake an interest in my work in less than an hour. That’s efficiency right there.
That’s my annoyances all bundled up. What about some positives? What can job seekers, of all stripes, do to make a better impression?
First, write a good cover letter. It’s tricky to know how to spend your time, but I have to assume that your vita is already prepared and your writing sample is, too. You’ve already got your references lined up — you may even have letters of reference on standby in your school’s placement center. That means the time you spend on any particular job is really the time you spend on your cover letter.
Don’t spend too much time in the letter on sucking up to current faculty members: unless they are on the committee, they will probably never know and, worse, suppose someone on the committee doesn’t like them. (It happens, so let’s just admit that and move on, okay?) Skip it. Sure, somewhere in the letter you need to address the strength and investments of the department and how you will add to them, but don’t talk about people. Keep it abstract. Think of it like a literature review: you need to articulate your project — here the portfolio of things which are your research interests, your teaching interests, and your various abilities — in relationship to the extant infrastructure and make a case for what you add. And you’ve got to do it without ever pointing out the gaping hole in the faculty, if only because it could be a sore spot. (Does it seem like organizational life is like navigating a potential mine field? Good, you are a fast learner.)
Remember, in the case of this particular regional public university, you will be joining a Department of English that produces undergraduates and graduates with degrees in English that might also possess a concentration in our beloved field of folklore studies. That means that when you talk about your research, you might want to think about doing it in two parts: one part which is short and sweet and which signals to the folklorists on the committee that you are a folklorist and you know what you are talking about. The second, and longer, part of the section of your cover letter that treats your research should be a version of what folklorists are now calling “the elevator pitch” which means that you are trying to convey to someone who you cannot assume knows much about our field what it is you have researched and why it is important. Think of this like talking to your parents. (Okay, maybe your parents are academics, too. Think of it as trying to talk to my parents then. My father is an architect, and my mother an interior designer: smart people, but even twenty years later they still aren’t entirely sure what I do — okay, maybe bringing in our parents wasn’t such a good idea.)
Here at RPU (Regional Public University) the tenure track job to which you are applying has percentage split of 40-40-20. That means that when it comes time to evaluate you, 40 percent will be based on your research, 40 percent on your teaching, and 20 percent on your service. We are also what used to be called a Carnegie II school, or what is now called “Research – Intensive.” It’s complicated, but what it boils down to is that you really do need to lead with your research and then talk about your teaching experience.