Each year, my university gives two research fellowships to junior faculty. They come with course releases and research funds, which makes the quest for them rather competitive. When I decided to apply for one in my third year, a colleague down the hall who had won one offered her application to me. She said that she’d used the application someone in her department had written a couple of years earlier, and she thought she’d won because that earlier application pushed her to think about format, design, and content in new ways. I felt that same after reviewing hers. I saw different ways of presenting certain aspects like the schedule for project completion and list of references. When I won, I knew it had a lot to do with what I learned from being given my colleague’s application. If I hadn’t been able to review it, I know my presentation of what I planned to do and how I planned to do it would have been much less effective. I fully believe I would have lost.
There’s a lot of writing that faculty have to do as part of our jobs, and I don’t mean the scholarship we produce or the syllabi we create. I’m talking about the annual reports, grant applications, tenure dossiers, and fellowship applications. You know, the kind of writing we have to do so that we can do the writing we want to do. So why do many of us reinvent the wheel, starting many of these documents from scratch and often worrying that we’re approaching them in the wrong ways?
That’s why I started asking faculty more senior than I am if they’d be willing to share their documents with me and why I started offering my own to those on my junior side. After that experience with the fellowship application, I asked a few people for copies of their tenure dossiers, and they all sent them eagerly, sometimes following up with an email or phone call offering clarifications or a chance to talk about the process face-to-face. The sample documents helped a lot, too. Of course, I’m not saying I followed their exact formatting and style, but if I got stuck at how to present a certain piece of information–whether to use a chart or bulleted list or standard paragraph form–I took a look at how my colleagues handled it while adding my own spin.
And this does not only apply to faculty. A lot of graduate programs already keep files of successful job application materials, and we should be doing more of that. Graduate students can share statements of purpose they used to get into their programs. When they sign a contract for a tenure-track job, they can get the word out that their application letters, dissertation summaries, and teaching philosophies are available. Adjunct faculty might share their own job application letters or any documents or annual reviews they might have to write to keep their jobs year after year.
Some might say that the solution would be for us to post these documents online, that we should make our grant applications and tenure dossiers available on our homepages or blogs. I’m not ready to go there, however. My tenure dossier contains several quotations from external reviewers and others about my work, and they offered the letters that I quoted without consenting to their being made public to the world at large. Sure, I could ask if they’re okay with it now or leave that particular information out. But if I were to post these documents online, I would want them to be complete. Plus, even as I argue that we should make such documents available to those within our immediate institutions, I would have to think more deeply and talk with others more fully about the implications of greater availability. I hope we can do that in the comments.
For now, I’m letting junior faculty at my place know they can have a copy of my fellowship application if they want it, and I attended a couple of workshops last year for faculty going up for tenure to offer some advice and let them know they could see my dossier if they thought it would help. And as I started thinking of the sabbatical application I hope to complete in the next year or two, I asked a few faculty members if I could have a copy of theirs. They all sent it along, and I intend to do the same if I’m successful with mine.
Overall, I look at this as another way we can meet one of the larger goals I have as a professional: we need to make academic processes as transparent as possible. This is my first post for Prof. Hacker and my first thinking on this issue, and I welcome questions and further reflections. It just might make our work easier.
(The photo for this entry is from Flickr user Menage a Moi and is licensed through Creative Commons.)