The Dreaded Letter

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Two weeks ago, I found myself facing the (now terribly familiar) blank screen and blinking cursor, trying not to panic at the task at hand. Finally, I had to write my academic cover letter… a summary of my entire graduate research, teaching, and service history, which would also forecast my research, teaching, and service for the foreseeable future. No pressure.

I’ve known that this would be my season to go on the academic job market for some time now. Of course, my years at graduate school have helped me to hone my already well-practiced abilities in procrastination. I’d managed to put this off for months, even using the excuse of working on my dissertation to avoid starting this daunting task. But… at long last, I finally had to write the letter.

Over my years of attending job-market workshops and brown bags in the English department, I’d managed to rack up quite a collection of templates and models for letters, so I knew the major components: a research summary, where I would condense my 150+ page and unfinished dissertation into 150 words. A teaching paragraph, where I would try, in about two sentences, to give memorable examples of the unique classroom activities and pedagogical approaches that I could bring to [RANDOM CITY] University. A “kitchen sink” paragraph, where I’d wedge in mentions of service experience, committee membership, future research, and other random information that won’t fit neatly anywhere else, and try to make it all seem coherent. And, I had to keep it under two pages… a challenge to one who does not count brevity in writing as one of her virtues.

My first draft was little more than a CV in letter form. Throughout my time as a graduate student, I’ve tended to define myself academically in terms of my transcripts and teaching history. I find it a challenge (and not a little bit scary) to write about who I might become in another department, at another school, as an actual practicing scholar outside of the familiar world of WMU. So I stuck with what I knew, plugging the sections of my CV into those three standard paragraphs. After looking at this first try, our department’s graduate advisors made several things clear to me: Be honest. Tell the hiring department what I would bring through describing what I have done. Write the letter as though I am already one of their colleagues. And be sure that the letter isn’t just a less spare version of my CV, but a flowing, unified narrative of my “scholar-teacher-self.”

Newly inspired to reinvent (and rewrite) myself as an exciting and coherent “scholar-teacher-Ilse,” I made new connections between my research and my teaching. My dissertation focuses on environmental readings of medieval Anglo-Saxon literature; thus, I wrote that my teaching emphasizes an “ecological” interdependence between reading and writing, writing and discovery, lecture and discussion, instructor and student. I wrote about the germination and growth of motifs, tropes, and themes from a classical source through medieval, early modern, and contemporary literatures, and across cultures as well. I conceptualized my committee service, guest lectures, and future research projects as necessary contributions to foster growth and intellectual exchange within my department and in the wider world of Medieval Studies. As I re-envisioned and revised my letter, the place of the individual within the environment—whether it be a natural environment, learning environment, or academic environment—became the guiding and unifying theme around which I organized my past, present, and future work. Finally… I had two pages, six paragraphs, and one cohesive narrative of my environmentally-focused, medievalist “scholar-teacher” self. Well done, self!

Days later, I took my new letter to my academic advisor for her input. Her advice: “this is a good start. What you need to do is to make it less of an expanded CV and more of a narrative.”

Sigh. Back to revising.

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