Music: Rufus Wainwright: All the Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu (2010)
The smell of anxious grads on the job market is thick in the hallways of CMA. Today my colleagues and I dispatched the first wave of what will be many recommendation letters fanning their way out across the land. I sense the mood is more hopeful among us than last year, since the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse—a.k.a. Recession—was unleashed by the
Great Satan Finance Capital. This year the other horses didn’t follow, and it appears many schools now have a sense of what their budgets are (except, er, here in Texas). That there seems to be a little more out there is encouraging, although I know this doesn’t make any of our good folks less anxious. Ya’ll hang in there.
Barry and I were comparing notes about trends we have been noticing in the job ads. As I predicted last year, the calls for generalist positions are up. A number of ads feature a pairing of unusual specialties—usually combos of qualitative and quantitative methodological approaches (e.g., “to teach courses in rhetorical and argumentation theory, was well as interpersonal communication and interviewing). This is a signature of needing one person to cover two or three specific needs because of a strapped budget. Barry pointed out that letters are no longer going to specific folks as much as they are committees, or an EEOC department, or the dean’s office, and so on. We’re not sure what this means. One might speculate this represents a decrease in a department’s autonomy to select their faculty—that when financial times are not so good, higher ups are asserting “quality control.” Don’t know for sure, though.
Anyhoo, my first Rockin’ Ph.D. advisee is hitting it hard this fall and has been asking me very good questions about the process. I thought I would share a bit of what we discussed in the event someone out in the hot blue yonder finds it helpful.
WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS AD MEAN? SHOULD I APPLY?
Ads are written in code, and this in large part because every word in a job ad costs the department money. That is, the codes are less devious than, well, cheap. The problem is that these “codes” differ depending who is writing the job ad. First, there are field-specific codes. In my discipline of communication studies, for example, here are some common ones: “Human Communication” often means more social scientific in orientation, while variations of “speech” signify more of a humanities orientation. “Political Communication” has come to mean something closer to political science; when you see that term, it frequently does not mean “rhetoric”—unless it’s mentioned in the same breath with “social movements.” It’s always good to check the faculty on the department’s website, which can help to pin it down. If the term “critical” is in the job ad, that signifies more a theory savvy humanities desire. If the ad mentions “film,” careful if you primarily identify as “rhetoric.” If the ad says “new” or “social media,” that means “studies what is sexy now, and if you’re dissertating about Wikipedia or Facebook, please apply.” If the ad says “Communication Theory,” that means social science (sorry rhetoric folks), same goes for “Interpersonal Communication.” I could go on, but the best way to know if a job is something you may have a shot at, ask a faculty member who has been in the field for a while.
Second, there are administration and dean codes. The job ad that results from these folks is often mystifying, especially if the dean or person who wrote the ad is from a different field. The ad may say something like, “Such and So Department seeks a humanities scholar to teach courses in communication processes.” There’s just no tellin’; it’s always cool to email the chair of a search or a department head to ask, “I’m writing for a more information about your position. Can you tell me what the department’s vision is for this new hire?” That word, “vision,” can evoke more detail. And, after all, it doesn’t cost much money for someone to clarify a position in email.
Third, there are the codes to be wary of: these are “we don’t know what we want” codes or “we have so many holes in our curriculum, we want a genii!” codes. For example, a colleague passed on this ad, which I promise is a real ad and not something Shaun or I made up for Spectre:
State University—Satellite City (Deadline, Oct. 30)
Assistant Professor, Communication
[Address removed for anonymity]
Ability to teach at both the undergraduate and graduate levels: new media and media convergence; journalism; public relations; research methods; communication theory; interpersonal communication; small group communication; and corporate communication.
Ok, one thing I can tell you is that all of these different specialties have a quantitative side, so this is not a rhetorician friendly ad. But even then, I could not imagine how to advise, say, a social scientist how in the world to apply (much less interview) for such a position. As the colleague said who sent this to me, “and the kitchen sink.” Wow. Just wow.
Finally, there are institutional codes for religious conviction or the desired race or gender of a candidate, and these are more conspicuous. Sometimes an ad may say the position is for someone who studies African American rhetoric, or American Indian rhetoric, or queer theory, and so on. I know of stories in which someone who actually studies such things and was invited for an interview, but then was treated strangely because such areas of study really reflected a desire for a person who identified as African American or American Indian or queer. That’s wrong, frankly, but it happens (this thorny issue demands a post in itself). And if an ad says “Holy Roller University is a religious institution; all faculty must make a proclamation of faith and handle a snake before employment,” then you probably shouldn’t apply if you are not of this faith. However, many religious institutions (e.g. Jesuit) do hire faculty without an expectation of faith (or snake handling, unless it’s Hogwarts). Depends on the faith.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO REQUEST LETTERS?
My Rockin’ advisee asked this before he started. Everyone you ask is different in terms of what s/he expects, so asking ahead is a good policy. You know, “so, how would you like it?” Don’t say it in a dirty way, though. Well . . . a-hem. In general, you want to make it as easy and “fool proof” for your letter writer as possible. Once you secure a “yes” (getting on one knee, bringing cake, or just asking nicely), I recommend the following:
- Make requests in batches of five jobs or more. Try to space the batches out in terms of deadlines. So, for example, ask for letters for the five jobs whose deadlines are in September in late August or early September; those due in October later September, and so on. In general, the daily emails of “oh, and another one” can be very difficult to keep up with for a letter writer (they are probably writing for many people, often for the same positions, so batching keeps YOU together for THEM).
- Send your letter writer two kinds of batches: a hard copy, on which all the job positions and addresses are listed, and then a follow-up electronic copy (for vice versa). On your list, write a sentence or two with the ad text explaining how you see yourself fitting the job—most especially if it’s a stretch. Include any backchannel information you might know, too. For example, the ad may say nothing about the debate team, but if you know they would love the applicant to work with debate (but perhaps they were not allowed to put it in the ad), tell your letter writer.
- Provide pre-addressed envelopes to your letter writer. This step is moot if the letter writer is in another place (so don’t worry about that), but if you’re asking faculty at your university, go ahead and given them an addressed envelope. It saves them time. You might also stamp it too. Many universities and colleges don’t pay for postage on these kinds of things—don’t assume your letter writer will, either.
- Don’t apply to positions for which you have no expertise. If you are a qualitative person, it would not be a good idea to apply to a job that asks for teaching the graduate level statistics class. If I am asked to write a letter for such a situation, my second sentence is usually something like, “although Dashland has no training in quantitative methods, he is a quick study and resourceful.” I say that because I also have a reputation to hold up, and folks looking at applications may not respect me if I paint you too much like a round peg for their square hole.
Of course, these are general guidelines and not rules. Job ads are always coming out late with quick deadlines—and often for reasons that were beyond the control of the department (usually bureaucracy). Letter writers, in general, understand this (especially if you explain it). If possible, though, try to give letter writers many weeks before a deadline.
There’s much more to say, but I see it’s past my bedtime and I’ve a few chores to accomplish before I woo the Sandman. As the job applying season moves along, I hope to blog some more on these issues.
Before I go: there is a Communication and Media Studies Job Wiki here. Anyone can come on and update the status of hires, gossip about who is interviewing where, and so forth. I’m ambivalent about its use for many reasons, but some of you may find it helpful. The potential for misinformation, however, is medium.
Good luck, job seekers!