Thursday, November 1, 2007

I'm Tired of Following Orders, Sticking to the Company Line

Okay, we're still going on this question of what it's reasonable to ask people to talk about in their cover letters. In comments, Inside the Philosophy Factory says, "when an adverstisment asks for an explanation of experince teaching and experience with diversity, the letter should cover that."

Putting aside issues of mission statements and department character and all that crap, this is something else I just don't get. I have a teaching portfolio--one I put a fuck of a lot of effort into--that says pretty much everything I can think of saying about my teaching experience, abilities and interests. It's got my teaching philosophy, descriptions of the courses I've taught and some of the courses I want to teach, a few student comments on my courses and abilities, and (I think) a very readable chart summarizing all my student evals. What else can I put in the letter? What else is there to say?

So a department asking me to talk about my teaching in my letter is going to have a choice to make when they get my application. They can get what they're looking for out of my teaching portfolio. Or, like the departments A Guy on Hiring Committees was talking about, they can toss my application because it has a generic cover letter that doesn't fit their exact specifications. If they think a good way to gauge candidates' interest is by insisting they jump through exactly the hoops they say, it's probably not a place I want to work anyway. I eat enough of that shit as a grad student.

ItPF, am I out of line here?


Anonymous said...

I got a TT job last year, and though I'm on a hiring committee this year, I don't yet even know how my department deals with these issues. That said, I can tell you what I would do (and did do last year).

Insofar as an advertisement asks you to address thus-and-so, if you address that point somewhere in your application materials, just direct readers of your application to the relevant part. If the ad says to address your teaching experience in your cover letter, and you address it in your teaching statement / portfolio, put one sentence in your cover letter that says "for information on my teaching experience, please see the enclosed teaching portfolio." On the other hand, if they ask you to address your ability to deal with a diverse group of students in the classroom, and you haven't done so already in your portfolio, you need to add something - either tweak the portfolio or say something about it in your cover letter.

It's possible that some schmuck won't like you addressing your teaching experience in a "form" document and that you'll miss out as a result. However, you need to avoid thinking that you can intuit what every committee member of every committee will want, and give them something reasonable. Most places will not get offended by a reasonable, easily-navigated presentation of the relevant materials, even if it's not in exactly the format they specified. Think of it as the crap-shoot it is, realize that you'll inadvertently do something to get tossed in the circular file at some places, and move past that--there are other places where people are more reasonable, and where you'll be happier to work anyway. The extra stress and work from trying to do everything just so is frequently unnecessary and keeps you from what's more important, viz. writing your dissertation (sorry to bring that up).

For my own part, I wrote minimal cover letters that said something like this: "I'm writing to apply for job XYZ advertised in the JFP. Enclosed please find a whole bunch of crap." Then a little more if they wanted something that wasn't in the materials I was sending everywhere. I had one statement of research and one teaching portfolio, but my project was only ever going to be pitched as one AOS, so my situation differs from some of yours in that respect.

For reference: my degree is from a program ranked by Leiter, but near the bottom. Also, no doubt I could make my points more perspicuous--but I need to get back to preparing for class!

job seeker said...

Hey, don't worry, it could be worse.

A job in IRAQ was just posted on the chronicle forum:

It's a safe backup...

Anonymous said...

Let the address/ask about the other half of Philosophy Factory's "an explanation of experince teaching and experience with diversity". Most people have a teaching portfolio, but few (I hope) have a diversity folder that they stick in the application packet.

Now, I recognize that the diversity questions have particular purposes, which can only vaguely be divined from the stated explanation. Sometimes it's code for you to tell them things you otherwise would only mention in the form that goes straight to the equal employment office. In my case, I could add the sentence "I'm yet another straight white male, sorry" but I don't bother because that's an odd thing to say in a cover letter, and in any case my name is more or less Thor Aryan, so I figure they'll figure out what I am anyway. Plus my photo's on my website.

But it's the other meaning behind the question that is more interesting. Some people have taught very diverse student bodies, others not, and it's not always obvious from the schools you've taught at. Harvard, yeah, everyone knows what the undergrad body is like there, but how about Colorado State, or Illinois at Chicago, or Northeastern? So I sometimes will add a sentence summarizing demographics of the schools I've taught at, and I think that's reasonable. Is there anything else other people do?

Some schools go so far as to ask for views about diversity, or approaches to teaching diverse classes. That's a minefield as far as I'm concerned, so while I try to address everything in a job ad, I often will skip those questions. What can you say? "I think diversity is great"? That's what everyone will say, so it provides no useful information to separate candidates. Anything more than that, and I feel I'm saying something comparable to "some of my best friends are black", in other words something that sounds offensive even when (or because) it's intended to be sincere, and because of taboos people generally don't talk about these things. It's only the Archie Bunkers who do.

Jon Cogburn said...

PGOAT- You'll probably have to eat feces up and until you have your tenure contract in hand. And then after that you'll still have to eat feces as part of the political machinations necessary to protect people junior than you (students, adjuncts, instructors, non-tenured tenure track) from the perfidy, ignorance, and laziness of others in the organization. If you are still willing to do it for the well being of those with less power, then you haven't sold your soul. Otherwise, there is the real danger that the guy with tenure at the end of the process (in some profound Kantian way) isn't really you.

This is just the rule I think; there are certainly exceptions. However, the world destroys people who would rather make a point than make a buck. The key is to do what you have to to make a buck (usually for others) while retaining your integrity. Again, I think the only way to do this is via helping those with less power than you (and there are many ways to do this that don't involve eating feces, such as actually being a useful mentor by helping people rewrite papers).

In any case this blog is a pretty good start at fulfilling the relevant imperatives.

Anonymous said...

It is possible to write a decent diversity statement. I read one once. (Similarly, it is possible to write a good teaching statement. Or a good statement of interest when applying to grad school. I've read exactly one good example of each.) True, the friend who wrote it had the advantage of being gay. But he also talked about going to high school in a town with a large population of migrant Hispanic workers -- something that might not have been obvious from his Ivy-esque education. So it's possible. I'm just really glad that I don't have to do it.

-- That Guy

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Since you asked...

The problem is that it isn't always clear how we should interpret a teaching portfolio, nor is it easy to sort out many of the portfolios I've seen.

So, the letter could say something like,

"As my enclosed teaching portfolio explains in detail, I have 3 years teaching experience, 2 of them at XX College the most diverse community college in the state. I also fulfil X, Y and Z stated requirement, as my CV and requested transcrips can verify" --

The thing is, the committees I've been on have worked very hard at writing an ad that actually states what we need to see from a candidate. Due to the number of applications, the initial review is very quick... if it isn't clear that you meet our minimum qualifications (and you'd be suprised at who thinks they can teach philosophy... ), and then if it isn't clear how you meet our preferred qualifications, we aren't going to go reading the tea leaves to figure it out.

The purpose of the letter is to give a hint as to why you are qualified -- and if the hint is "see page 4, paragraph 2" -- that is sufficient.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

also ---

When answering the diversity question, remember that there are a variety of ways it can be successfully negotiated... while still being a white male :).

1) I taught X population at my school.
2) I went to y school, which is very diverse
3) I cover a, b, c (religious, cultural, gender, age) diversity issues in my class
4) I have taught both older and younger students.
5) I have taught recent immigrants
6) I was an immigrant
7) My experience living abroad was...
8) I was a non-traditional student during x period.
9) I speak 3 languages
10) I was involved in X student activity/committee/public event, which was involved in diversity issues on my campus.

What we were looking for, and what helped more than one person be hired, was an explanation as to how you handle diverse populations in one classroom. That diversity is often a wide-range of preparation for college... in other words, how do you challenge the prepared students and help those who need more assistance?

Anonymous said...

From an ad that just appeared in the Chronicle today: "Candidates should also demonstrate an ability or interest in teaching in a multicultural, multiethnic campus."

Other people have commented on this site that departments debate the wording of these ads carefully, so candidates would do well to attend to what they say. "Demonstrate" seems stronger than "discuss", it's more active. What do the poor mofos from Harvard and Minnesota do if departments feel their grad teaching experience isn't sufficiently diverse. You can't demonstrate ability if you haven't had the opportunity to display it. And demonstrating interest seems almost impossible, except for those philosophers with glass heads, where you can read their belief box directly.

Eduardo said...

Wow--I love this blog. Just discovered you. Have to go back now to writing--over and over--things like, "To the Search Committee:" "My experiences as a child slave make me think I'd just love to teach at a school like yours with a 7/6 load."