Ask an academic for advice about the job market, and you’ll get some fascinating responses; colleagues from around the country have been wildly generous in answering my graduate assistant’s questions about how she should best approach her search for a full-time position.
1. Aside from the obvious (publications, stellar recommendation letters, etc.), what is it about an applicant’s file that would make you insist on interviewing him or her?
*Superb teaching evaluations
2. What do you consider “important scholarly work” and why? What does it do and how does it do it? Keep your answer to one sentence, please.
*Work that tests and vexes reigning paradigm(s)
3. How can an applicant make his or her letter not sound like everyone else’s but not be disturbingly quirky?
*By writing in the kind of iceberg-crisp prose you are likely to find at the start of each week’s New Yorker– sentences of no more than 15 words–with real verbs–and no jargon.
4. What are you REALLY looking for when you interview someone? I mean, really?
5. Aside from publishing and presenting at conferences, what scholarly activities impress you the most?
*What else is there?
6. Extra Credit Question from Gina: What’s the ONE thing she must avoid saying in the cover letter? What line, phrase, or word makes your eye twitch and your mouth scrunch when you see it on a candidate’s page?
*”My project . . .”
John Glavin, Professor of English and Director of the Gervase Programs, Georgetown University
*I think there are a few things that matter–don’t talk very much about teaching (though you need a few course plans and a few sentences); talk in a fairly focused way about your diss or research project: nobody (or only a jerk) is impressed by wide-ranging stuff, especially as wide-ranging stuff opens one up to invasions of touchy fellas’ (all male academics’) own presumed areas of expertise. I really think the best thing is to talk enthusiastically and pointedly about what you’ve done and know: they’ll either like it or not. A couple of problem, areas: try not to incorporate into your speech tics that are common in scholarly writing–don’t “intervene;”‘ don’t say, “I would argue that”; don’t “intersect” or “complicate” or “make a marriage of” (unless one is talking about sex, which is always a good idea in any scene, interviews especially).
James Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Professor of England, USC
* A consistent sense, from the entire application package, that the candidate would offer something to the institution that is needed, perhaps lacking, and which would complement what others at the institution contribute.
* “Important scholarly work” should disseminate, as broadly as possible, concepts that transform how we think about the object of scholarly study.
* A) Tailor the letter to the institution, speaking in its own language and focusing on any shared values (if it truly is a target for employment); B) honestly communicate what the candidate sees, in/at the institution, that would provide for a rewarding career or work experience…a kind of “at _____ I could offer, do….” approach. Above all, I think an honest communication of who and what the candidate is key here; be clear as to what your focal points are: teaching, service, scholarship (in what combinations, and how so)? PS: so many of us in academia are already so “disturbingly quirky” that is does not pay to try to predict how the “d.q.” will judge others as being distressingly “d.q.”
* A sense that the candidate would fit with the institution and program, and work well with students and faculty: basically, I assess how the candidate’s personal/professional identity might correspond with those of others and the institution’s identity (and our ideas of what it should evolve into).
* This one’s easy: Personally, and with/among my colleagues, I value scholarly work that A) involves and promotes the scholarship of others and is integrative, collaborative; B) scholarly work that is closely tied to teaching, university service, and any other Boyer-ish “integrative” measures; and C) scholarly work that relates to pedagogy and curricular innovation, such as actually designing new programs, methods, courses: there are so many education companies actually copyrighting their syllabi (etc.) that it is becoming rarer and rarer that innovations come from within the university, sad to say.
Chad Stanley, Assistant Professor of English, Wilkes University
* Enthusiasm about one’s project.
* That enthusiasm communicated clearly and with pleasure.
* Thoughtful engagement with interviewers’ questions–not canned, not so quick as to sound canned, and definitely tailored to the question at hand. Avoid the hop-skip to what you THINK is being asked (as in “Oh, yeah, that’s the future-projects question…”) because interviewers can always tell. Listen patiently while the interviewer asks the question; pause, think, and then respond genuinely.
* Maturity of the candidate–how he/she handles the stress of the interview, how she/he handles hostile or even lightly probing questions.
* THE FIT, something the candidate has no control over: Only the interviewers know the make-up of their faculty and are able to do a gestalt prediction about how that candidate will mix with the existing department.
* Worth stressing again: Enthusiasm. I’ve talked to academics outside of English who look for the same quality and say that a candidate who is truly excited about the intellectual adventure of his/her work often has an edge over others with better CVs. This is one of the reasons why departments should never skip interviews.
F. Elizabeth Hart, Associate Professor of English, UConn
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