I brought home two classes' worth of comp drafts today in addition to the lit papers I got on Friday and have only barely touched, and was feeling so run down that I fell asleep for an over-two-hour nap while partially sitting up, drafts scattered about me like snow. Instead of facing them, however, I will write a blog post about what I did this weekend, which was serve on a search committee.
Now I'm not sure if this search is going to a) make or b) be allowed to stand, as it turns out the HR website wrongfully closed the search a couple times before the deadline and candidates got locked out (and also the JIL deadline was accidentally set far out into the future, so they are debating opening it once again), but even if it doesn't go any further I learned several interesting things about how applications look from the other side of an electronic search committee.
First of all, whatever program this HR place uses, you go to their site and sign in with a password and you click a couple buttons and blorp! you download everything as one big pdf. This is very important, job candidates. It is all one big pdf. I guess I could print out all the separate documents and stack them in the order I want them, but that to me seems like a waste of doing it on the web. But while the material for each candidate was all together, the individual documents were in some random order each time. I just started reading wherever and in whatever order because of this. I am not getting paid to do this, but am the "adjunct faculty member" or whatever pressed in to service for this committee, so I at least am not going to take the time and effort to do a really thorough job as opposed to a basically decent one.
This means you should consider what's going on at the very top of all your documents. I am reconsidering my choice to omit a "from" header on my cover letter, as I found out it made a big difference in the ease of filling out our grid (more on that later) if I had the name of the candidate rather immediately rather than scrolling to the bottom of the cover letter and then scrolling back up. But the HR gremlins might not even put your cover letter on the top! If the cv or teaching philosophy was first in the pdf packet, I started reading that first. A nice header labeling what I was looking at and who it was from really helped me out.
Secondly, that first paragraph of the cover letter is actually kind of a deal-breaker. I have discovered that it should not simply state "Hi, I'm applying to your job from the MLA JIL," but it should sum up all the specific dealbreakers from our ad. Because when they did list off all (or maybe 4 of the 5 things) I was all happy and excited and read the dissertation paragraph etc. with a happy "ooh, how well could this person fit in to the department" whereas otherwise I started reading with a kind or sour "ehhhh, is this person really a Blankety-Blankologist? I mean, this project is nice and all, but if this person doesn't have the field experience listed in the ad then I am just getting all excited for nothing." It changed my tone and attitude toward the rest of the materials.
I think my letters have a generalized "Ohai JIL I am awesome" paragraph but it could be tailored more to the key words of the job ad, I am now understanding. Or maybe not, since with many of the jobs I am expressing an interest rather than a hard qualification.
On a side note, if you have ever applied to an English department that had cannibalized about a half a dozen other departments and is now called the department of languages, theatre, communication and journalism, that's basically the department I am in. And we are asking for a specific, weird specialist position that I am confused why it's even in an English department, which is part of the problem with the specificity of the job ad and our reliance on a candidate grid. If the job ad insists on active journalism experience and proven experience running a student paper or mentoring student reporters, you gotta have that as experience, not as an interest, sorry. At least, that's what I saw --- I will report back if that was the consensus of the committee.
Because we had quite a few candidates, who, to continue my example, studied journalism in literature or the rhet/comp of journalism, rather than had boots-on-the ground experience in journalism-ology. (Shut up. It is too a word!) For my perspective, I look at that and go, pffft, a lit person! Dude, I'm a lit person; we have plenty of those. What assurances can you give me that you can supervise the student journalists and run the entire internship program and the publication and the credentialling and teach the upper-division "how to be a journalist" class and the "how to teach journalism in the high schools" class? This job is all about doing the technical stuff that not just any old professor can do, or wants to do. So there need to be assurances that you, the candidate, can do all that. Grad classes in the area are good and all that, but what got an extra star and comment on my grid (broken down by key phrase in the job ad) were graduate level pedagogy classes in the "mentoring future Blankety-Blankologists" category.
(Side note number 2: Yes, we insist that you will teach composition as part of being a professor here. But that doesn't mean we are impressed by comp teaching experience or grad comp pedagogy classes. Those are kind of a basic norm everybody has these days --- at least, since our candidate pool consists only of people from middling-to-low public schools, pretty much all of our candidates have been teaching the whole way through. Again, I was looking for experience teaching majors or running the internship program, which some of our candidates had. Some of our candidates are asst. profs looking to move and have not only taught the majors classes, but masters' level "how to teach this major" pedagogy classes. If you feel you truly are a Blankety-Blankologist, you should try to get some of this upper-level teaching experience. If you aren't really a Blankety-Blankologist and were throwing your app in here as a "stretch," well, what I've seen is that stretching doesn't really work. Not with the grid system.)
And so, the grid:
When I was a grad student I served on a search committee for an immensely popular English field, and it was a very valuable, eye-opening experience. I learned a lot. But at a fairly highly ranked doctoral-granting institution, we had very open parameters within the basic time and place of this field. I only got to see the long shortlist --- I think about 50 apps? --- and we read for strength and interestingness of the project, followed by how well the candidate used the ad to anticipate the direction the department wanted to go in. We considered the polish of the project and how close it was to finishing, and how much of a publishing powerhouse that person might be.
With a grid for candidates, we have a box to fill out for name, PhD completion date, field or fields of the PhD, teaching experience (I subdivided for each of those levels as well, since as you can see from above that seemed particularly important) and experience in ____ (about 4 or 5 different qualifications we asked for.) The projects I thought were strong and interesting did not necessarily end up with high scores on the grid, nor, god help us all, did the applications with better writing skills. It felt much more like what I was told hiring for community colleges goes (and what I have been able to mimic more successfully over the years of applying to community colleges). There is also a box for "red flags" and it will be interesting to see what other people put in. I marked the people who weren't done here --- one of whom was really obscure about completion date who I think is still near the beginning stages of the dissertation. I also marked one application that was so lacking in affect or any sense of human style that it stood out in an odd way.
I don't know if this really applies to straight-up Shakespearean or Victorianist or English Generalist type jobs; maybe interestingness and quality matter more when pretty much everyone has the same types of qualifications. But I could not do this job as it is listed in the job ad. I do not have the specific, graduate-level training for it. So for a job that has to cover some specific skills that none of the other people in the department actually do, the qualifications are a must and there is no ability to "stretch" or "express interest" or "be interesting" to make up for a lack of fit.
I could also talk about place and references to the place we are in in the country because I found it very weird. I think I will wait until the committee meets --- which I guess based on today's email is not happening until January now? --- to find out what other people think about that, and whether or not my initial emphases and assumptions are correct.
Til then: candidates, get your name out there! And by out there, I mean on that top half-inch to an inch or so of every page of the application.