• April 18, 2014

To Whom It May Concern: Reading Job Applications

Deadlines in our job searches usually fall in mid-November, and by the time that you read this column our committees are well into reading and evaluating the applications.

Initially we ask candidates for a letter, a vita, and a short description of their dissertation. If we like what we see, then we ask a candidate for more background materials, but before I get to that, let me start at the beginning, with the job letter.

The job letter represents what Star Trek fans would call "first contact." It motivates search-committee members to look at the vita, and it sets the tone for how we read the short research description. Our job applicants, with advanced degrees in English, are all accomplished writers: They routinely construct and deconstruct literary essays with ease. Some of them write and publish poetry and fiction. But most of our applicants haven't had much practice writing job letters, and writing a good one is no easy task.

The academic job letter is an odd genre that contains an uncomfortable mix of elements. In content it is part intellectual autobiography, part academic transcript, part probing and analytical exploration of ideas, part list of accomplishments. In style it mixes exposition, narrative, and theory-speak with the blaring hype of a toothpaste ad and the quiet concision of a lyric poem. It is an impossible combination to execute with grace, and we accept the fact that most job letters fall into the category of a horse designed by a committee.

When I read letters, I want to give every applicant a shot at showing me what he or she can do, so I try to finish every letter that I start. But I'm not immune to the frailties and distractions that beset any reader, and when I'm faced with working through several hundred applications in a short span of time, I remember the advice I give my students: It's the writer's job to keep the reader reading. Sometimes the applicant needs to motivate me to move on to the next paragraph or turn to the next page.

Every once in a while there's a job letter with a fatal flaw. My attention flags when it's not immediately clear which of our several vacancies a candidate is applying for; when it's evident that the candidate's expertise does not match the field where our opening lies; or when the candidate does not meet the minimum preparation we require: a completed Ph.D. in the field, or other appropriate terminal degree, by the time employment is to begin at the start of the next academic year. I also stop reading, or seriously pause, if the candidate's letter seems to speak to someone at another institution. I fully expect candidates to apply for many jobs, but if they forget to take out references to a different chair of a different department in a different city, I may move along.

Misspelling my name is not a fatal flaw (my students regularly butcher my name without penalty as well). Nor is failing to run the spell checker (I forget to do that too). On the other hand, I work in a discipline that hyperfocuses on the text, and letters written in an offhand fashion and without rhetorical skill don't further the candidate's chances. Nor do cliché, jargon, and long, ungainly nominalized phrases. We conducted one medieval literature search a while back where I remember thinking, if I read one more letter about "writing the medieval body" I will scream. There's nothing wrong with writing the body, but once it's been done, it's time to move on. We're not looking to hire a prose replicator, but someone whose work stands out above the crowd.

I shy away from applicants who "intervene in conversations," "interrogate hybridity," or "mourn alterity," but who provide no examples to convince me that they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. There is nothing wrong with theory or with jargon: We need and want to hire faculty members doing smart work, and smart work requires specialized language. We expect the "subaltern" to speak, but we also expect her or him to be able to write in ways that move us forward, not back or sideways.

A good job letter summarizes the candidate's professional life in a way that allows me to see whether there's a good match between that person and my department. I want letter writers to tell me just what difference their work has made, what is interesting, innovative, field-changing, about their scholarship. I want to know what the applicant has learned about teaching that will benefit our students, that will help me to be a better teacher. There's an old showbiz saw that advises performers to leave the audience wanting more. The successful job letter leaves me wanting more.

Beyond the job letter, we ask candidates for a CV and a one-to-three-page description of their dissertation. With applicants who have had the Ph.D. for a while, we ask for a description of their current research project (as a department stressing both research and teaching, we always expect there to be a current research project). After reviewing the initial applications, we then ask the candidates who interest us to send letters of reference and a writing sample.

Candidates place great faith in their letters of reference. Search committees tend not to. I admit that letters of reference can provide us with useful information: They tell us if a candidate is working efficiently, participates in the life of the department and the profession, and has a positive impact on students.

Unfortunately, many letters of reference present what one of our veteran searchers calls a "general testimonial." They have lots of positive adjectives, with the odd superlative thrown in, but such testimonials give us little in the way of detail, no specific examples of achievement in research or teaching to let us see the candidate as a potential colleague. Sometimes, it's true, a phrase like "best student I've had in 30 years of teaching" catches our eye -- especially if that letter writer doesn't say that about everyone, or if one of the search-committee members knows the referee personally. Even so, such statements need detail to back them up.

Some job candidates seem to think that it's better to have a big-name referee writing a brief paragraph than a lesser-known mentor who can provide a detailed and nuanced account of their strengths. But given the choice, our search committees prefer the latter. We also prefer that candidates waive the right to see their letters of reference. That's not because we want letter writers to have the chance to trash their graduate students with impunity (no letter writer does that, anyway), but because letter writers who know that the candidate has access to the letter usually verge toward the lukewarm center. Their letters tend to be shorter, and they provide much less positive detail, which in turn makes their reference worth even less.

While letters of reference have a weaker rather than a stronger overall effect on advancing someone's candidacy, our search committees do put an extraordinary amount of emphasis on the writing sample. We begin by specifying to candidates the kind of writing sample we want them to send us. Some applicants for a beginning assistant professorship have already published short pieces while they were graduate students, perhaps a book review or an essay in a newsletter. That's great, but it's not what we want to see. We look for a chapter- or article-length piece, something long enough to allow candidates to show off their best work to the committee.

If it's a published article in a high-quality, peer-reviewed journal, fine. But most beginning candidates don't have that kind of publication. What we get, then, is a chapter from the dissertation. In this case, we prefer that it not be the first chapter: A later chapter confirms that the writer is likely to finish the dissertation before joining our faculty, and it shows us that the candidate is able to think well beyond the planning stages of the work.

At this stage in our deliberations, the writing sample provides the single most significant measure of a candidate's intellectual ability and research potential. A strong writing sample can shore up a candidate whose interview does not go well. On the other hand, a strong interview never trumps a weak writing sample. Finally, the writing sample can serve as a predictor for a candidate's ultimate tenurability. We find, when searching at the assistant-professor level, that being tough at the hiring stage results in greater success six years down the road, when it's time to make a tenure decision.

A number of our candidates provide, or ask if we want to see, their teaching portfolios. The idea of a teaching portfolio is a wonderful one. I've actually conducted a number of workshops both at my own institution and at a number of professional conferences, about the value of a teaching portfolio for professional development, and, to a lesser extent, for assessment. I must say that while we place a lot of emphasis on successful teaching when we do a search, we get more useful information about that teaching from a candidate's vita -- showing the courses he or she has taught -- and the interview, if things proceed to that stage, for it's at an interview that candidates have the opportunity to teach us what they can do.

Once we've read through all the materials, I ask each member of the search committee to rank those candidates for whom we've requested references and writing samples. Typically we work with three categories: (a) definitely worth an interview; (b) may be worth interviewing; and (c) do not interview. We then meet as a committee, go over the individual rankings, and talk about each candidate. We go back and forth, comparing and commenting, and eventually we arrive at a list of applicants to interview at the Modern Language Association conference.

Our goal is roughly 10 interviews for every search, although we move this number up or down depending on the depth and strength of the candidate pool. Our decisions are influenced in large part by the writing sample, the one best indicator of a candidate's ability to do significant, field-enhancing research, and to write it up.

We find, looking back over our recent history, that candidates who barely make it into the "definitely worth an interview" group are not candidates we wind up hiring. Nonetheless, we want to interview the full range of finalists to ensure both fairness in the search and our own confidence as we determine whom we will recommend for a job offer.

Job candidates rank their success first by the number of dossier requests they receive, then by the number of interviews they garner at the convention. In my next column I'll talk about how we conduct job interviews, and how we prepare our own graduate students for that rite of passage.


Dennis Baron is chairman of the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is writing a regular column this academic year on how the academic job search process works from the hiring side of the table.

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