Thursday, September 21, 2006

Shades of beige vs. fire

Jim Lodz is a friend and colleague, in [Field 1/subfield 3], perhaps 5 or so years older than me. He was a lecturer when I first met him at the University of Paradise. A few years later, he was hired to fill a tenure-track post in the department, and has since received tenure and a promotion to Associate Professor. He is the new editor of THE big [subfield 3] journal. I've mentioned his advice on this blog before, though without giving him a pseudonym.
Hi Jim,

It's been a while since we've talked. I'll be moving in the next month with my family. Rocket has taken a job at the Rocket Central in Rocket City. I'm still working on my own, seeking post-docs, faculty posts, grants. I've got a few articles under consideration, a few more in the works, a feeler out to [Publisher] re: a couple book ideas.

It would be great to catch up with you over lunch or coffee sometime before I move, if you can find the time. I hope you are doing well. I'd love to hear about all your latest projects and progress. Please let me know if you can spare the time.



I would be happy to meet with you, and to update my letter on our behalf. How about an afternoon coffee this week. Tomorrow at 2, the shop here in [town]?

So, yesterday we met. I had sent him a draft copy of my new base cover letter. The first paragraph of which read:
I seek above all a faculty post in a department where interdisciplinarity is prized, at a university where cross-disciplinary collaborations are the norm; where the intellectual climate, provides sufficient training and appropriate respect for the tried and true techniques of our discipline, while endorsing experimentation with novel or unusual methodologies; where students are encouraged and faculty expected to challenge the assumptions of their own education and background, at times even the foundations of their discipline, to follow compelling questions along the avenues, sometimes straightforward, at other times gardenpath, which these questions themselves indicate.
The second paragraph proceeds to articulate several of my leading questions, which motivate my research, then to say:
I have taken these questions and continue to present them to audiences as diverse as first-year non-majors at a community college and graduate students at my own doctoral institution, scholars at international [Field 1] and [Interdisciplinary Field] conferences, well-heeled patrons of the [Prominent Public Event], and the general listening public of the [radio network where I was interviewed on my research a couple years ago].
The third paragraph discusses my research, dissertation, and background. The fourth begins:
Unabashedly excited by research, I take great pleasure in engaging student's minds with the fires that drive my investigations, ever seeking to emblazon their own questions with these flames; taking [aspects of Field 1] out of the realm of the far distant, and directly into the sometimes familiar, sometimes discomforting, experiences of their own lives.
I proceed to articulate a few more specific questions relative to the courses I would likely teach.

Two more paragraphs follow, which outline my specific accomplishments and experience. I plan a paragraph to discuss my current projects which was merely indicated in the draft, followed by a closing paragraph:
If you believe [Your University Here] to be an appropriate venue for my continued efforts, I would be delighted to discuss the possibilities with you. For more information regarding my interests and activiites, I invite you to peruse my website [PRW's URL]. I thank you for your time and interest, and look forward to hearing from you regarding this opportunity.
He suggested that my research ought to be moved up to the head paragraph, and that I might wish to tone down the "self-praise" as in:
My student evaluations attest to the energy with which I teach. My CV attests further to the drive and discipline with which I pursue my research.
But here, perhaps is the key. His comment in the margin to the opening paragraph, quoted above:
Very aggressive. Too aggressive and puts the reader on the defensive.
This I believe is the crucial matter. During our discussion, he contended that one possible tack, and one which he believes to be most successful, is to appear beige (his word, not mine), like the decor of a modest hotel. Fit in. Blend in. Then try to look a bit different.

I smiled, and drew a pie chart, with one slice missing. I pointed to that absent slice: Do you really think I'd get hired in a department that thinks like this?

In my initial consultation with a career coach a couple months ago (I decided to forego the services for now) he described one of my concerns as a dichotomy between marketing and patience. Do I concentrate on marketing myself to appear like what they want, or do I simply have the patience to wait for what I want?

I told Jim that I felt my letters have become ever more beige during the job search, and that it has garnered me less and less attention. My first full year on the market (two seasons ago, when I was in the midst of finishing and filing the dissertation) I received three calls, and one campus interview. This past year, I received one call (no telephone interview, just an invitation to come to campus) and that for a one-term sabbatical replacement post. My hope in scrapping the old basic form and replacing it with a new one is two-fold: 1) to return to it my true voice; and 2) to present myself as a teacher as well as a researcher.

To some extent it's a question of courage. Do I have the courage to put myself out there, aggressively me, knowing full well that it might turn off quite a few committee members, in the hope that what might emerge is an offer to come and serve fully as the scholar I am? The threat of course, is that it will turn off enough people that I won't make it to a single short list.

What makes a stand-out truly remarkable? What is it about some candidates, or some letters, that prompts committee after committee to invite them to campus? What does it take to excite enough committees to receive multiple offers? What shines so brightly that makes them want you? Or is it really the case that I need to appear as just another shade of beige?


Ahistoricality said...

You don't have to look beige. Heat and light are essential. But you also can't look like you're going to set the institution on fire....

If you're applying for the job, you need to make an argument that you're a good fit for the institution, rather than what that intro does, which is put the onus on the institution to make itself a good fit for you. If you're not sure about the institution's qualities living up to your standards, they'll say, why did you apply and what did you expect?

There's nothing wrong with having your own voice, and being clear about who you are academically in the letter: really, it's the only place you can, until they actually meet you. Having your own voice is fantastic: yelling, however, is unnecessary.

Greg said...

I agree totally with the above comment. Aggressive letters have a much higher likelihood of getting tossed.

I question the idea of having a base letter at all at this point, especially since your field is so clearly not amenable to generalities. You do not want to be beige or aggressive--you want to explain exactly why you are perfect for *that* place.

ArticulateDad said...

Well, said then, Ahistoricality. It's important for me to understand how my voice comes across. Stentorian arson is out. Got it.

And, just a little note: my comments here are no way intended to infer that those who have the sort of job I covet are by that status somehow more beige than I. My interest here is to take nothing away from any else, their accomplishments, their successes, but rather to find a means to achieving some of them myself, and hopefully to blaze a trail for those looking on in the wings, that they might find the means as well.

ArticulateDad said...

Thanks for your comments too, Greg. I must confess, there is a sense of despair in all this, a feeling that I'm playing a game, whose rules I don't understand, all in an effort to be accorded the favor of an audience. As you've said, it is a pitiless job market. Finding a way to maintain my own dignity, remain true to my own vision, without seeming callous or insensitive to the needs of my colleagues and their departments, is the task at hand.

trillwing said...

I really like the coach's question about whether you want to appear to be what a department wants or whether you can wait for what you desire. That's definitely something to keep in mind as I launch onto the job market. I'm impatient AND not always terribly good at marketing myself. Not good, eh?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I agree especially with Ahistoricality's comment. Instead of saying, "I want an institution that looks like X, if you think you're this I'd love to meet with you," how about pitching it as, "I want to work at your university BECAUSE it looks like X [assuming that X is in fact what the institution looks like, or close to it]"? This still allows you to select for a place that meets your needs - if an institution doesn't see itself in that light, in terms of what you're looking for, they won't be interested in you. But if they do, they will, and you'll have put it in terms of what's desirable about their job, rather than in terms where they have to prove to you why you should work there.

On another note, "unabashedly excited by research" makes it sound like you expect someone to criticize you for being excited by research. If you sent this to a teaching school, it would come across as code for "likes research better than teaching, won't want to stay here," and if you sent it to a research school, I think the reaction might be, "what, he doesn't think *we're* excited by research?"

The coach's question is a really important one here. Unfortunately, as the job seeker you're not in a position to convince the committee what their department should want - they've decided what they want, and you want to convince them that this is you. Of course, sometimes they really *haven't* decided what they want, and they don't always agree, and so on, so it's obviously not easy.

(I hope this doesn't feel like I'm jumping out of the woodwork to nitpick - I do read regularly, but don't always feel I have much to contribute.)

ArticulateDad said...

Thanks, Trillwing. Yes, I guess we're in this together.
New Kid, thanks for your remarks. They clarify some of the comments in greater relief, and give me a nice approach for editing and revising. While I think there is merit in Greg's suggestion that I simply plan to write an individual letter for each institution, I need to organize my ideas in a "base letter" even if much of it gets edited or rewritten (or dropped) for individual postings. I guess while it's important for me to keep in mind just what my ideal job would be, I need to also remember that my task is to get an interview, meaning I need to look like what they are looking for (as best I can figure it). And if I don't really look that way, then I should really not be applying anyway.

Lilian said...

Oh, well... just the things to read while I'm contemplating the writing of my own letters :)

I like this part of your comment above: "I must confess, there is a sense of despair in all this, a feeling that I'm playing a game, whose rules I don't understand, all in an effort to be accorded the favor of an audience."

I feel like that too.