The Rhetoric of the CV

Brian Taylor

April 04, 2012

When you send in your job-application materials, you're not just assembling separate documents to fulfill the requirements of an ad. Those documents are part of a larger rhetorical whole, and together they form an argument for the viability of your candidacy for a particular job.

In a fall seminar at George Mason University, "Preparing for Careers in the Academy," I worked with advanced doctoral students to help them think about the larger message they were sending in their application materials. We all know that the tenure-track market in many fields is tough, and that the odds of success are long. But rather than just rant about the state of academe, or belittle candidates for seemingly tilting at windmills, it's important that we help those who want to pursue a tenure-track job.

I wanted students in the seminar to understand that each of their documents should be crafted meticulously, paying close attention to the rhetorical choices they are making. Other elements—lthe organization of their documents, the inclusion or omission of certain kinds of information, the use of white space—were equally important in building a case for themselves.

It is perhaps easiest to think about issues of rhetoric when considering a candidate's cover letter or statement of teaching philosophy. But I would like to focus on the unsung hero of the job application: the curriculum vitae.

The CV has a reputation for being purely utilitarian in nature and, as such, has less glamour than other application materials. I don't think I am going too far, though, when I say that the CV may be the most frequently and closely read of all the documents that candidates send. For search-committee members who often must assess 100 applications in a short time, the CV offers the kind of holistic picture that few other documents can match. And it is always among those materials made available to other members of the department or to attendees at a job talk. In some cases, it may be the only part of the application available to those groups.

Because of the frequency with which the CV will be read, then, it is important to note with care not simply the kinds of information that go into it, but also the order of information, the organization of facts, the section headings, and all the other seemingly minor details.

In each section, and in the document as a whole, candidates must make an argument that moves from the most important evidence to the least important. All of that together makes up the rhetoric of the CV.

"It's always best to start at the beginning." Glinda's advice to Dorothy as the young Kansan begins her voyage through Oz is equally applicable to writers of CV's. Of course you will need to have your name, e-mail address, and other contact information up front, but I am more interested in the first real section of the CV, which is usually called "Education" or "Educational Background."

Here is information that search committees will definitely want to see: your degrees, in descending order; the dates on which they were conferred: and the title of your dissertation or final project. If you have not yet defended your dissertation or finalized your creative thesis project (for M.F.A. students), you should include a specific defense date.

If you are not yet at the point where you can set such a date, you should probably rethink your entry into the academic job market. It requires an investment of so much intellectual and emotional energy that, honestly, you would be doing yourself a disservice by applying for jobs before you are realistically ready to do so.

Never include your graduate school GPA or the scores you received on your comprehensive examinations. Doing so amounts to a significant rhetorical blunder, because you are emphasizing your role as a student rather than as a future colleague. Don't worry: The rest of your materials will demonstrate your intellectual prowess. There is no need to undermine your candidacy by overtly calling attention to your grades.

The importance of section headings and white space. Typically, the next two sections on a CV should be "Research" and "Teaching," because they contain the strongest evidence of your qualifications for the position. For a variety of reasons, including the conventions of the genre and the importance of establishing your credentials, I recommend that the research section come first. If you feel strongly that your teaching section is more important, it is certainly possible to make a case for that, but a lot depends on the type of college to which you are applying.

The research section is the place to list your publications, your creative work, and/or your grant activity. Strive for clarity. It is best to have separate subsections with clearly labeled headings for each kind of publication that you have: books, peer-reviewed journal articles, peer-reviewed book chapters, other kinds of peer-reviewed writing, book reviews, encyclopedia articles, other types of academic writing, and so on.

If you are in a discipline in which grant writing is common, you will want to add subsections addressing grants you have been awarded, or on which you have worked with someone else. If you are in the arts, you should provide subsections for different types of shows or performances (for example, solo shows versus group shows in the visual arts), but you will also want to include any curating, jurying, or directing you have done, as well as any written work you have published, if applicable.

The purpose of dividing everything into subsections rather than lumping all of your information together is to allow the white space to speak for you. This is true of the CV as a whole.

The white space assists your argument by separating your credentials into discrete, precise units that, in turn, contribute holistically to the rhetoric of the document. It helps those who are reading your CV quickly to take in all of the information and to put the pieces together to form a picture of your candidacy.

Section breaks perform another important rhetorical function: They show the search committee that you understand the landscape of your field and can distinguish among different kinds of publications or creative work. Too often, candidates provide only one section for their publications and list everything under the sun there.

Doing so implicitly argues that you believe a peer-reviewed article has the same scholarly impact as a book review. That, of course, is not true, and I am sure that you do not actually believe it, but the rhetoric of your CV is suggesting that you do.

Another mistake candidates make is to indiscriminately include work that is under submission or in progress in the same section as their published work—or worse, as the only entries in the publications section. I have seen otherwise promising applicants hurt their candidacies by doing that. Such work should be clearly labeled and placed in a subsection called "Under Submission" or "Work in Progress."

Search committees will very likely view any attempt to label such drafts as publications to be a disingenuous attempt to pad your CV. At the very least, such a move suggests that you do not understand important scholarly distinctions. Once an essay has been accepted by a journal, or a book by a press, you can list it as a publication with a forthcoming date. If it has not been accepted, it needs to be clearly categorized that way.

Much the same can be said for the teaching section. It will enhance the rhetorical power of your CV to have individual subsections highlighting courses for which you were the instructor of record, for which you were a graduate assistant, or for which you gave guest presentations (if applicable).

Combining all of those teaching experiences into a single category is as problematic as combining unpublished work with publications. For teaching-oriented institutions, in fact, it may even be worse.

What to do with everything else. At this point, you will need to provide sections for your other information, and the order now becomes more variable. In general, you should have details about conference presentations, academic service, honors and awards, professional societies, teaching interests, research interests, and references.

Organize those according to your strengths. For example, if you have a large number of relevant awards or a very prestigious honor, move your "Honors and Awards" section to a prominent position. If, on the other hand, you only have one award, perhaps you should place that section near the end of your CV.

I would suggest privileging sections on presentations and on service (both to your university and to your profession), but—again—it depends on the candidate and the institution to which you are applying. You should be thinking about how you can present yourself in the strongest way possible.

Some final thoughts. I am aware that an essay like this might seem fruitless to the many people who have—within these very pages—issued diatribes about the state of the academic job market and invectives about the supposed pointlessness of attending graduate school, particularly in the humanities and the arts. I cannot, on my own, open more tenure-track jobs in universities across the country. But I can help graduate students to have a detailed and nuanced understanding of the job market and to prepare their applications in a way that gives them the best chance for success.

Indeed, that is something we all can do for the future professoriate, and I believe we are obligated to do so.

Joshua R. Eyler is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an affiliate associate professor of English at George Mason University.