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How to Write an Academic Cover Letter

 

 

RE-POST: It’s the academic job application season again. That means many of you are either writing cover letters, or reading drafts of cover letters from your students. Either way, we can all learn from the very smart Lai-Tze Fan! It’s academic job season. Her advice on writing a cover letter is SO GOOD. Without further ado…

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Recently, I’ve offered to look over the cover letters of a few people applying to professor positions. The academic cover letter is a unique genre, and getting it right is as hard as the first time you wrote a grant proposal. It is your brief chance to show a search committee what you have to offer–including your existing/future research, your teaching methods, and that you’d be a great colleague. The cover letter is less finicky than the grant proposal (hurray, no citations!), but needs to be both cleaner and even more persuasive.

We all know the precarious futures of young academics, as well as the struggles faced by those who have been on the job market for six months or six years. I don’t judge anyone for going into alt-ac or leaving academia all together; some of the smartest people in my PhD cohort chose not to finish the degree, preferring other paths that I’m sure make them happy, and I am happy for them.

For those who want to stay, I’d like to offer suggestions based on my own experiences, noting that different disciplines may have fine-tuned requirements that I haven’t acknowledged here or even differing advice. As I will state at the end, I welcome additional tips that others in the community have to add. Please post them below!

Some background information: I’ve been lucky and am extremely grateful to have had interviews every season and back-to-back tenure-track jobs. I am not guaranteeing anything– these are just observations I’ve made in applying to nearly thirty jobs (some research-focused and some teaching-focused), serving on search committees, and editing dozens of cover letters for others.

I realize the length of the list is daunting. Think of it this way: after the job season, you’ll have written maybe half a dozen varieties of research- and teaching-focused letters. Let’s say you are an artist: maybe one letter highlights creative practice, one highlights curriculum building, one is suited for a fine arts department, one for social science, and one for the humanities. You now have templates that can be recycled and tweaked for most future job applications, but the first time is usually the hardest.

A lot of these suggestions you may already know. I hope the list may be useful, but whether or not it is, please offer your own advice to other scholars giving the job market a shot. I myself focus on helping young scholars, including women and non-binary people, and especially those of colour like me.

These suggestions aren’t necessarily in order, but I’ve also organized them in a way that, if you prefer, can be followed step-by-step.

Note on terminology: I was trained in Canada, so some of my terminology will reflect this. Other countries and systems have their preferred terms for “tenure” (such as “substantiation”), graduate students (“postgrads”), and various levels of teaching positions (“lecturer” in Canada vs. the UK). Please keep these variations in mind for your own job-seeking needs.

Throughout this document, the word “department” is used, but may also refer to specialized programs, research labs, centres, etc. to which you may be applying.

BEFORE YOU START

The #1 rule

Do not waste the search committee’s time. Don’t give them extra work or extra pages, don’t submit something that is incomplete, and don’t mislead them with confusing information.

Optional: Crack down on social media

The world of academia is small. Scholars that are associated or in close contact with any departments to which you apply shouldn’t be able to see questionable photos on your Instagram or read unprofessional posts on Facebook. Please don’t think that I am suggesting that friends who are academics do not care about who you are; nor would I ever advocate for faculty members to share others’ private information (we have witnessed these breaches of privacy and everyone gets upset). What I refer to is a scholar’s conflict of interest that might put them in a professional bind; maybe they’d even like to help you out, but they may excluded from important conversations because they are a bit too close to a job candidate.

Again, this is up to you! But if you are interested in limiting social media, then you could, for instance, place select people on private/acquaintance lists, have separate personal accounts, or even temporarily deactivate. If you haven’t done this yet, that’s ok: start now and limit visibility on previous posts that are questionable. What counts as sharing too much information you can decide for yourself, but as a rule of thumb, do not publicly criticize your current department and students, nor the department to which you’re applying or its faculty members. You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are also entitled to protect them.

ONTO THE LETTER

2.5 pages max

The cover letter should be 2.5 pages max, even with a signature at the bottom and your school logo/letterhead at the top (if you are currently affiliated with a school, then do use their logo and make it small). The signature adds a personalized touch.

Do your homework

Following the rule of not wasting the search committee’s time, take the time to learn what this department is about. Go online and explore their website, perhaps for 30 minutes per university. Familiarize yourself with their and the university’s research/mission statements. Do they offer their students/graduate students professionalized degrees–which means they want practical and culturally engaged work? Do they offer a more conservative or more experimental approach to their course offerings and/or graduate programs?–or is it a mix? Which faculty members do similar research to yours and in what ways do you offer something different (just figure this out, but never state in the cover letter why you are different from Professor X or Y)? What does their curriculum look like?

Other questions to consider, but which you may not want to address in your cover letter: Are they interested in collectively answering a problem–such as lowering the carbon footprint or greater representation for Indigenous students, cultures, and histories? Are they Hispanic serving? Is there a high number of international students? Is their student body composed of many “first-generation students” (this means something specific in the USA compared to Canada)?

The gist is: find out what they care about and what they’re dedicated to demonstrating to their current/prospective students, and make sure you explicitly state how your research, teaching, and/or service may share some of the same concerns. From what others have said, this method has never failed in making me stand out as a serious candidate in cover letters, Skype interviews, and campus interviews: learn about their goals and respect who they are; write them a letter that is unique to them; do not waste anyone’s time, including your own.

Optional: Write it as a story

While very few scholars have focused all of their work around a central interest, your task is to find a central interest or concern that can encompass many (not necessarily all; do not force it) of your work. The effect of the storytelling cover letter is that it can make you look focused and consistent, and the bonus is that central interests are often expressed in very simple and recognizable academic language: “I work on the representation of LGBTQ+ communities”; “I work on people’s relationship with food”; “I work on youths’ relationship with social media.”

Examples would be helpful, so I’ll plug them in when I can. My own cover letters have noted my interest in many media forms, including photography, print texts, and computational media. My method of tying these together is to state that “I work on storytelling in and across media,” which allows me to include traditional and experimental modes of storytelling. Not only does this narrative justify why some of my publications are on literature and some are on smart phone apps, it also makes it easier for committees to trace my career trajectory from being a literary scholar to a media scholar.

This overarching narrative allows the committee to follow an explicit argument, which many cover letters do not have. Cohesion is key here, so that everything seems to have its place. That does not mean the narrative is even accurate, but it’s the effect you’re going for.

Organize for easy/fast reading

It helps to organize sections so that they’re easy to skim. If you like, you can use headers such as “Background”/”Education,” “Research,” “Teaching,” and “Service” (call them whatever). What I cannot stress enough, however, is to start every section with one overarching sentence that summarizes the rest of the section. The sentence should take a structure like this (let’s say it’s the Research section): “My research focuses on [central concern] through a, b, and c,” where a, b, and c are your main qualities/interests in each area. The rest of the paragraph is up to you, as long as it covers a, b, and c–preferably in order.

The rule of thumb is to imagine that your reader will only read each header and the overarching sentence. What do they need to know? When you’re editing the cover letter, see if a stranger can figure out what you work on and teach just by skimming the letter.

Note: I’ve seen many cover letters that discuss educational background with research or that don’t have a service section at all. My advice here is to appeal to the department to which you’re applying: for example, if they clearly pride themselves on service or community engagement, then do not leave out a Service section!

THE CONTENT

Read the job call

Unless a general description has been used, a lot of what the committee wants you to speak to in detail–especially in your cover letter–is already in the job call, thus revealing exactly what you should focus on. The call will often state what position the job is trying to fill: sexuality studies? Critical race studies? If the job call includes a long list of desired expertise, the first two or three are the main foci, and the rest are perks that you can choose to mention as desired.

Based on these listed expertise, mention in every section you offer (research, teaching, etc.) how you approach these area(s) with specific examples–and here, it is again beneficial to take a look at the existing curriculum. What concentrations do the department or their programs offer?

What’s the difference among cover letters for research jobs, teaching jobs, and contract jobs?

This is possibly the most common question. Unfortunately, research positions, teaching positions, and short-term/contract positions each require unique content. I will try to be specific, but do have a look at the job call and use your judgement to figure out what kind of requirements are asked of you; tailor the cover letter to suit.

First, know the difference. A quick Google search may be enough to tell you if a university is research or teaching intensive; on Wikipedia, my institution is listed as “a public research university.” Then have a look at the website of the department/program/centre to which you’re applying and read for what their undergraduate and graduate programs offer potential students: are they intent on professionalization and internships? Do they stress being trained in critical theory? Very quickly you will figure out what kind of department you’re dealing with. That said, the job call may reflect this or may deviate slightly. For additional information, also see the item “include a summary of your teaching philosophy” below.

Note: if you’re applying to an American university, you can check out their research/teaching classification according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (where, for instance, PhDs are only granted by “R” or “Research”-level universities).

If you are applying to a research-heavy position, the Research section of your letter should take precedence. Make sure you present a comprehensive research pipeline (academic speak for “your next books/projects”) that shows, regardless of whether you are finishing your dissertation or you’ve been on the market for five years, that you can hold your own as a serious researcher. You’re publishing in refereed journals; you’re collaborating as befits your discipline (and maybe it doesn’t); you are applying or at least planning to apply for research grants. Make yourself look like you’re full of research ideas, full of energy, full of action. For more on this, see the item below entitled “present yourself as a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony.”

Note: If your dissertation or another book-length (research or creative) project is being edited or submitted for publication, say so, and also state which presses you will or intend to submit it to.

If you are applying to a teaching-heavy position with some research (such as some 1- and 3-year positions, including limited-term appointments and visiting assistant professorships), the teaching section of your cover letter should use the same amount of space as the research section. It is vital that you do not present yourself as foremost a researcher, but as equally researcher and teacher, or perhaps as a research-minded teacher. Ideally, you will present yourself as someone whose research interests have shaped your exciting pedagogical methods. Here, the “write it as a story” method of cover letter writing is effective, especially in communicating an earnest account of how your research and teaching are intertwined. Make sure that your Teaching Dossier, if requested, offers concrete examples of your experiences. I know many disapprove of sharing free sample syllabi in job applications; how many you choose to share is ultimately up to you, but if you want to do it, then include syllabi for classes you’ve previously taught (if applicable) and mock syllabi that suit the needs of the department to which you’re applying.

If you are applying to a teaching-only position (including full-time, part-time, and contract lectureships and limited-term appointments), your research statement may be no more than a paragraph to explain your background and maybe to offer context to your teaching interests. Simply put, unless a teaching-heavy job call notes that there are some research expectations, this position involves little to no research. Therefore, it is extremely crucial that you do not present yourself as a researcher or even as a teacher who is interested in making the jump to a more research heavy position in the future. Focus on sharing your teaching experiences, especially if you’ve ever worked as a writing instructor, a tutor, a mentor, a course designer, a translator, or if you’ve instructed in other languages, education systems, or countries. Mention any relevant pedagogical training you’ve had that may be an asset. The advice above about including sample syllabi holds; in fact, in many cases, job calls may ask for it

Jobs asking for curriculum and program development

If the job call notes that the successful applicant will develop a new program (graduate, undergraduate, certificate), then speak to your experiences especially in teaching and service in designing courses/capstone projects in this field, developing curriculum changes, and/or participating in meetings and committees where such changes have been made. Following the section above, it may be beneficial to include sample syllabi to show the depth or breadth of your design and development capabilities.

The interdisciplarian

The presentation of oneself as interdisciplinary without seeming “watered down” is a common concern for young scholars who did or are doing PhDs that are interdisciplinary, non-specific, and non-traditional. I would spend no more than two lines making an argument for this, though, as everyone is ultimately interdisciplinary: a full-time faculty member cannot be a one-trick pony who produces one major project. If successful in acquiring a tenure-track position, you would be expected to juggle research, courses, service, and student projects/theses/dissertations from a variety of fields, so interdisciplinarity means flexibility. In your cover letter (and also in potential interviews), do not apologize for your diverse background. Do try to highlight which one (or two) areas in your interdisciplinary work most strongly match the job call, proposing it as an asset that you have all this under your belt–and more! The key is to avoid looking unfocused. Instead, foreground your high aptitude in select areas.

There are a few ways to present interdisciplinary research. You could briefly speak to how your expertise in X, Y, and Z areas allows you to–or, how it is even necessary to–address the current state of [your central interest/concern]. Or, structure this sentence backwards: the current state of [your central interest/concern] requires that your dissertation bring together X, Y, and Z areas.

If you’d like to explicitly state the value of connecting multiple disciplines for your research, have a look at the argument you made in your dissertation literature review that brings together these various fields. The literature review might argue what the connection is, as well as how your approach is unique in bringing these together; however, the cover letter is not the place to persuade the search committee of this novelty. Instead, the cover letter should get to the gist of the results/payoff: summarize, in plain language, what the disciplinary connections bring to your research or how they advance the project.

I’m certain that others have more advice about how to present oneself as an interdisciplinary scholar; please do share your thoughts if you’re comfortable.

Avoid too many details

What a search committee wants to glean from the cover letter is who you are as a general package, not about the contributions of every article you’ve published/submitted and the details of every class you’ve taught. If they want details, they will go to your CV, so only mention major milestones/accomplishments that contribute to an overall argument/story/focus in your cover letter. Lists are your friend. Use plain language and curriculum-esque categories that anyone on the committee, regardless of their expertise, would understand. For example, if you work on fashion in Jane Austen novels, you could say that you draw from literary studies, gender studies, and consumer culture–three areas that are general enough for you to riff off of, discussing how you’ve extended one or more of these to related or future research projects.

If the application calls for a separate Research Statement, Teaching Dossier, or otherwise, then leave these sections (Research, Teaching) short and sweet in the cover letter (again, lists are your friend!), followed by “For more information, please see the attached [STATEMENT].” This means that these sections of your cover letter need to be impactful enough for the search committee to get an idea of what you do and to be eager to look at the separate attachment. If you’re working on a new book or project, give a one-liner on what it’s about or what it’s called, then let the separate statement say the rest.

Note: Unless stated otherwise, Teaching Dossiers should be 20 pages, give or take a few pages. Be strategic in what you choose to include, shaping the Dossier around the job and therefore not including every teaching evaluation or sample syllabus you possess. Pick syllabi that most strongly reflect the department’s current curriculum as well as the general areas they are seeking to fill in their job call. For teaching evaluations, all you need is an average of the scores or the average score of each question. You can always say that originals (evaluations, letters of recommendation, etc., are available upon request).

You’re a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony

You are no longer or soon will no longer be a graduate student. Do not present your dissertation as the only research project in your cover letter; do not treat it as your magnum opus. Instead, extend the dissertation and any other side projects/publications you’ve worked on by explaining how they have led to your current and next research questions or projects. One of the biggest mistakes I see in cover letters for research-based jobs is when an applicant doesn’t list their three- and five-year research plans, which is one thing a research-based institution will ask about if you get a first-stage and campus interview. So let them know early: what is the next book or project going to be? Also mention any grants or projects you’re excited to get up and running.

If you’ve picked the “write it as a story” approach, you could present your research plans as the next step in the story after the dissertation, mentioning in 1-2 sentences the way your next book/project answers questions or extends issues raised by your original interests. Everything comes tied together this way.

Taking this one from Prof. Jennifer Harris at U Waterloo (thanks, Jennifer!): If you’re a scholar who focuses on a single author, “you need to work harder to prove your interests extend beyond that author. Don’t spend all your time [explaining] how innovative your approach to that author–show that this inflects your understanding more broadly.”

Be clear when listing publications and accomplishments

Use numbers to save room and create quick effect. You currently have: X refereed journal articles, X forthcoming, X submitted for consideration; X book chapters, X forthcoming, X submitted; and so forth. Unless it’s a book, you’ve won an award, or there’s a very important co-author, there’s no need to name most or any of the publications; that’s what your CV is for. If you’re comfortable, you can also mention that you have X institutional, association, national, and/or international grants/scholarships won, for a total of $X.

Do not try to “trick” the committee with fancy numbers or misleading organization. A common way this is occurs is when scholars state in their cover letters or CVs that they have “7 publications” when they actually have 2 refereed journal articles, 3 non-refereed journal articles, and 2 book chapters. If you’ve done this by mistake, change it, as unclear organization or formatting makes it difficult for the committee to break down your contributions. And yes, it does matter: for every 1 kind committee member who takes time to look up these individual publications, 9 may toss out the application.

Name dropping may be a waste of space

Don’t make the letter about other scholars you’ve worked with, because the committee is potentially interested in you. Talk about you. There’s a small exception to this: if you’ve worked with a person who is very important to the field that the job call is seeking, it may be worth to quickly mention the collaboration. What I’m critiquing is name dropping to excess or mentioning names that won’t mean much to some members of a (likely interdisciplinary) committee. Don’t waste space with this.

On the subject of name dropping, do not mention members of the faculty that you’d like to work with or who you are inspired by (this is more likely something to do during a campus interview if you and a faculty member are getting along, but even then, avoid being overly presumptuous). It is possible for you to engage with or collaborate with some of these people if you get the job, but until you are successful, you cannot know about internal politics in the department. I don’t mean to be unkind, but naming current faculty who interest you is actually a tip for graduate school applications; doing so in an academic cover letter might suggest that you still think of yourself as a student instead of as a potential colleague.

Include a summary of your teaching philosophy

Unless the job call is completely administrative, the cover letter should have a teaching section. The length of the section will vary depending on what the position is looking for, but even if a separate teaching dossier is requested, your cover letter should still state what kind of teacher you are.

In plain language, include a brief summary of your teaching philosophy that is founded on your interests and experiences. For instance, following the “write it as a story” technique, I say that my research on digital devices has led me to think about the ubiquity of popular media for today’s undergraduate student; therefore, I train students to think about digital cultures and technologies both in the classroom and in their lives, aiming to extend their critical thinking to everyday situations.

Back to stating what kind of teacher you are. Ideally, you are the kind of teacher who fits easily into a department’s existing curriculum (and if requested in the job call, also their future plans). It is not helpful nor your place to propose reinventing their wheel; instead, state your teaching areas/interests so that they complement the department’s offerings and concentrations. If you are applying to a department that is slightly different from or more specific than your training, shift the language into their court. For example, if you did your PhD in media studies in a social science department and are applying for a media studies position in a humanities department, words such as “communication,” “policy,” and “technology” can be replaced with “rhetoric,” “system,” and “media.”

Finally, ask others to read it over

It doesn’t hurt to exchange letters and get the insight of others. (:

 

There is a comment section below. Please add your own tips and suggestions, including anything you think I’ve missed!

Lai-Tze Fan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo, conducting research in the Critical Media Lab. She is also an Associate Editor and Director of Communications of electronic book review. For more information, visit https://laitzefan.com

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advice · change management · community · equity · ideas for change · saving my sanity

Woman, interrupted: a guide for men

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It’s a new school year and, if you work in a college or university, that means another year of meetings. Woohoo! I’m in a lot of meetings and I think a lot about how to have a better meeting. One of the things that makes some meetings really dispiriting are unwanted interruptions from male, and male-identified, colleagues who stop women from speaking.

We already know that men often interrupt women in a meeting. It is a “universal phenomenon.” And we have a lot of good thoughts and suggestions for what women should do when men interrupt them. It’s got a hashtag, #manterruption, and there’s even an app to track it. The current global interruption rate is 1.4 times a minute.

But there is surprisingly little help for men who interrupt women. We know what women should do when they get interrupted. But men shouldn’t be left out. There should be a guide for them too.

Never fear! Hook & Eye is here to help! Here’s a friendly letter for your male colleagues and mine:

Dear Male Colleague in a Meeting,

It’s really great to see you here! Collegial process is so important and I am so grateful that you have taken the time to come to this meeting. Having your depth of experience and expertise at this table, or in this room, makes all of our work better. I know you know a LOT. It might sometimes (often?) happen that you have the urge to share your knowledge urgently even though someone else is already talking. Maybe the other person who is already talking is a woman? Especially if the other person is talking is a woman, please, I beg you, pause for a moment and consider withdrawing your desire to interrupt and ask the following questions:

  1. Do you really need to do this? Can this point wait until the speaker has finished talking?
  2. Is this an unwanted interruption? That is, does anyone else want you to interrupt?

You might ask, how can I tell if this is an unwanted interruption?

Good question! I’m so glad you asked.

Consider: will this interruption help the speaker clarify or further her point? will this interruption upset and destabilize the speaker so that she loses her train of thought and has trouble continuing to make her point? would other people at the meeting want me to interrupt?

Not sure? That’s good. I work in the liberal arts where embracing uncertainty is one of the cornerstones of intellectual inquiry.

Here’s a quick and easy way to get some answers: ask someone, preferably a woman. Pass them a note. Whisper in their ear. Send them a text or DM. If you’re really organized, before the meeting, arrange for sign that you can make to a colleague, preferably a woman, who will be in the room and she can tell you if your interruption will be welcome.

Ok, you’ve checked and this interruption really would be welcome. Great! But you still shouldn’t be the person interrupting. You still have to withdraw.

Ask a colleague, definitely preferably a woman, to do it for you. This is a terrific way to triple check that the interruption really is wanted. And to make sure that you’re not another dude preventing a woman from speaking.

I know, all this takes time. The meeting is moving fast and you want to interrupt because this point is urgent. You’ve got to trust me on this. It’s not so urgent that it can’t wait a few moments so that you can be really sure that this is a good move.

Thank you. Welcome back. Let’s have a great year of meetings and let’s try for no more meetings where men interrupt women.

being undone · emotional labour

Crying at Work is Work

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I cried in a meeting. I wish I hadn’t. Now I am thinking about about that.

Over the years, I have sometimes had a quiet little cry in my office or in the bathroom or, once when I was a visiting speaker and couldn’t find a bathroom quickly enough, in the back of a building behind a dumpster. I did not feel badly about those occasions. I needed a few moments to have a lot of feelings and those quiet, private moments of crying were the most efficient way for me to center myself again and go back into the room with those feelings nicely channeled towards whatever work I had to do in that room.

But this time was different. It was in a meeting with others. And I regretted it. It was uncomfortable for me and, I’m pretty sure, for the people in the room with me.

Has this happened to you?

Even the most cursory search will show that there is no shortage of internet wisdom about gender and crying at work. Make no mistake, it is gendered. Olga Khazan summarizes research by Stephanie Shields and Leah Warner, “The Perception of Crying in Women and Men: Angry Tears, Sad Tears, and the “Right Way” to Cry“:

Men who teared up were viewed more positively than any of the other groups—either gender of full-on criers or women who teared up. (It made little difference whether the women cried or teared up)… The subjects also thought the women’s tears were less genuine.

Popular discussions (such as this one, but there are lots of others) of gender and crying in the workplace often circle back to Mika Brzezinski who wept when she was fired as co-host of a morning show on MSNBC. She is very clear about regretting having cried and adheres to the classic formula of equating emotional control with power:

When you are in control of your emotions, you are communicating that you are in control. Being in control of your emotions gives you much more power at work … much more control over any situation … and much more dignity. I suggest never, ever, ever crying at work.

This advice is the exact opposite of what Hook & Eye has advocated in the past. Margaux Feldman’s brilliant 2015 post, “There’s No Crying in Academia,” is a manifesto for making public the labour of feeling in the work that we do:

Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering.

In a follow-up post, Tanis MacDonald writes movingly about working while in grief and the importance of showing our students “that grief forges its own pedagogical model.”

Here’s the thing. I agree with Margaux and Tanis (yes, all the feels and all the feels in a way that embraces how the work of feeling is central to the work of thinking), but I secretly want to agree with Mika. I would much rather not ever, ever cry in a meeting or a similar kind of setting where there are others in the room who are not crying.

It’s not because I believe that I have ceded power or that the people in the room will think less of me. After going over that meeting in my head a few times, I wish I hadn’t cried because crying took so much out of me that I couldn’t get back. There was so much feeling in that moment, and I’m not ashamed of that, but I also wish I could have felt a little less. Feeling so much took me away from me.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite moments (I’ve written about it before in my academic work) in Rei Terada’s  Feeling in Theory, where she talks about the zombies in George Romero’s films as being “notably undivided about their desires.” As a “well-known counterillustration,” she offers the case of the replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner:

In the film … the explicitly sentimental moment for the replicant played by Sean Young—the one time she cries—is the moment when she discovers that she’s a replicant, whose memories are not her own. We assume she had feelings before, but reserving the sight of her tears for this occasion dramatizes the fact that destroying the illusion of subjectivity does not destroy emotion, that on the contrary, emotion is the sign of the absence of that illusion. (Terada 2001: 157)

“Unlike replicants,” Terada argues, “zombies don’t experience themselves as though they were someone else” (Terada 2001: 157). There is something noble about the zombie’s undivided desires, the clarity of it, that I would like to replicate but I know that I can’t maintain it. I can’t feel without division. The best I can do is to recognize that the expression of intense emotion — let’s call it crying in a meeting for now — is a deeply alienating moment where I am experiencing myself as though I were someone else. It is not fun to feel this way but it is a discomfort that I have to hang on to because I want to be alive to the difficulties and the deeply divided desires at the heart of all the good fights that I want to keep fighting.

 

 

appreciation · research

On Being Published and Having No Idea, Again

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Almost two years ago here, I wrote about being published and having no idea. A lot of you wrote to me after that post and told me about your stories of this happening to you too.

I don’t know about you, but IT’S HAPPENING  TO ME AGAIN. AND AGAIN.

tl;dr –> Giant humble-brag. My essays are getting reprinted in supercool anthologies! And I am so happy and honoured to be in these books alongside my idols! But! Ummm! It’s weird not to know about until a friend happens to see it somewhere and tells me. Ends with serious discussion of Publishing Agreements. Also, why you should probably try to publish in journals owned by a university press.

A couple months ago, a super-smart grad student who is also a friend was working at the library and DM’ed me with a pic she took on her phone of an essay of mine in the newly published Diaspora Studies Reader. As my post from two years ago notes, I knew that one of my essays would be reprinted in this reader and I was excited about it. I knew about it because the editors had contacted me because Wilfrid Laurier UP owned the copyright to that essay (it first came out in this awesome volume) and WLUP wanted more money than Routledge wanted to pay and so the editors wrote to ask me to help with the negotiations. I was really happy to do so. As a scholar and a critic, I am just so happy to be read.

But I didn’t know that this other essay would also be in the Diaspora Studies Reader. And I didn’t know that the essays would be edited down for length. So much so that the grad student who sent me the pic, and who also teaches that very essay in her courses, did not recognize it. She was so surprised to learn that the anthologization of this essay came as a surprise to me. She said,  I didn’t know that’s how this worked.

I didn’t either.

And then, a couple days ago, a friend wrote to congratulate me on being included in the new Photography Cultures Reader. I didn’t know about this one either. Even before I searched my inbox for a note from Taylor and Francis (they own Routledge who is, coincidentally, also the publisher of this volume and the Diaspora Studies Reader — not saying that there is a pattern here or anything… ) I knew that there wouldn’t be one.

Here’s the thing. I am thrilled to be in these anthologies. Completely tingly-all-over thrilled to have had my work read by the amazing editors of these anthologies and be chosen for inclusion. These are people whose work shapes the field and, by choosing my essays for their anthologies, they are saying that I have a real part in shaping the field too. And, honestly, there is no way to get over the thrill of seeing one’s name in a Table of Contents that includes the work of people you’ve idolized since grad school. When I was in budding scholar, I would never have dreamed that my writing would be in a volume alongside the work of the people who had so profoundly shaped my thinking.

I have written to some of the editors of the anthologies that I mention in the 2017 post, and these more recent ones. Understandably, they thought the press was handling all the permissions. And, to be fair, the press did handle them.

I looked up my Taylor and Francis agreements. I have a few from over the years and they all say the same thing: I gave T&F the right to republish my articles in any form in any time in the future in any part of the world. Here’s the relevant section from a recent agreement that I signed with T&F last spring:

t&f2018

I don’t know about you, but by the time I get to this stage of publication, I am happy to sign anything. I’ve survived at least one (and sometimes two) rounds of peer review, the soul-searching revisions process, copy editing, finding five keywords which is always way harder than it should be, writing the abstract which is also way harder than it should be, and writing my 100-word bio which is also often weirdly hard to do. So, yep, I’ll sign. What would you do? Has anyone ever gotten to this stage of an academic publication and decided not to sign? If so, I would LOVE to know.

So, every time I published an essay (each one of which, as you know, involves a huge amount of research and sweat and tears and time) in a journal or edited volume owned by T&F, I gave the publisher the right to republish it, in any shape or form, anywhere, anytime. I know this sounds very naive, but I never thought about this when I signed those agreements. It honestly never occurred to me that my work would get anthologized. Or that the publisher would do it, several times now, without sending me a note (I’ve stopped dreaming of a desk copy). How silly of me.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up two other agreements that I’ve signed over the last few years. They are totally different than the T&F one!

The Johns Hopkins UP agreement that I just signed for a piece in Postmodern Culture clearly says that I make the decision to republish: “In any re-publication of the Article that you might authorize you will credit the Journal as the original place of publication.”

My agreement with ESC: English Studies in Canada, also published by Johns Hopkins also puts the permissions for future use in my hands (as long as I acknowledge that the article came out in the journal first): “… the author may use all or part of the article for educational or research purposes, in a work under his/her authorship, or editorship subject only to full acknowledgment of its original publication in ESC.”

I also looked at TOPIA since I am co-editing it. The TOPIA agreement also gives the author the authorization to republish but the journal, published by University of Toronto Press, asks for $75: “The journal retains joint rights for the Author’s republication in any other publication venues. The Author will arrange for reprint payments of $75.00 to be paid to the journal for reprint of an article previously published in ​TOPIA, a​nd will ensure that the previous publication by ​TOPIA is properly credited.”

We are more aware than ever before that we need to have a robust conversation about academic publication and the circulation of that work. I suspect that I am like many other academics in that I don’t care that much about the ownership of my writing. I don’t really need to own it. Or I am very happy to exchange ownership for seeing my work circulate. I want my research to be out in the world and am so grateful when I get to share it by being published in a serious journal edited by people I admire and am even more grateful when that essay is given a new life in a smart and beautiful anthology about the field that is also edited by people I admire so much. The question is really about how work circulates rather than ownership. They are not the same thing but often amount to the same thing. And in terms of ownership, that conversation is going to involve not just the author and the publisher, but also the peer reviewers and editors whose often invisible labour makes all of this publishing possible.

So we need to talk a lot more about this. UCLA’s negotiations with Elsevier, which I am following with keen interest as someone who peer reviews her fair share of papers, are just the latest variation of this conversation. My experience with being anthologized is another small piece of this much larger conversation. In the meantime, look at your publishing agreements and maybe, maybe, maybe consider sending that awesome new article of yours to a journal published by a university press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

heartbreak

Lying Low, Feeling Chilled

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You guys, it’s happening again. A silence. Scarier than the thinning of the divide between the world of the living and the dead from which comes this season of otherwise delightful spookiness, there is this silencing of feminists whose voices I want to hear.

There’s a lawsuit (actually more than one — but a recent one hits closer to home since it is sort of in my field) out there naming a lot of women and accusing them of talking too much. I don’t know them. I can’t claim to know anything about the claims being made. But I know that, when this suit dropped, my social media fell silent. I got notes from friends telling me that they have been advised to lay low for a while, to choose to be quiet, to not draw attention to themselves. They haven’t been named. But they might be.

I am heartbroken about this. I don’t have anything smart to say. I just wanted to register that this is happening. That there is a silencing effect at work and it ripples out far beyond those who are specifically targeted.

Last spring, I was asked to speak on a panel about social media and my profession. I found myself going back to those remarks because I feel all over again some of what I felt then.

Some time last year, someone I admire was badly trolled and she shut down her social media and stopped writing publicly about a lot of things like feminism and the academy. She asked her friends and allies to stand down and disengage and that really did seem like the best course of action. Trolls don’t deserve our time and they thrive on our attention.

At the time, I thought that losing this voice was a huge loss but I didn’t think it was about me at all.

I was wrong. I stopped blogging.

It wasn’t direct. I didn’t think to myself, a friend has been targeted and I don’t want that so I won’t write anything.

Instead, whenever it was my turn to post, and when the posting deadline came and went, I told myself that I just didn’t have anything to say that week. Or that there were already so many other important things about feminism, and especially about #metoo, being written on other blogs that I just wanted to pause and listen and really hear the things that other women were saying. Or that I was tired. Or that I had to focus on my real work and just couldn’t spare the time to blog just at that moment.

All of this was true.

But I also never said to myself, and could not admit until many months later, that losing that voice, also meant losing something of my own.

It is one of those many situations where we “won” but winning that battle meant a very specific kind of silencing that bled into larger silences.

Not saying publicly, Hey! Back off. That is my friend and warrior and co-conspirator and you suck and all the other things I wanted to say, not saying those things, affected my ability to say anything.

These blog posts demand a kind of honesty and it felt increasingly disingenuous and dishonest to write about anything without also writing about why losing one voice made my own feel more and more fake.

What happened chilled me. It wasn’t immediate but I can see now that it did.

I feel it happening again.

The weather is turning. I am cold again.

I will buck up and find a sweater. Of course, there’s a lot for us to talk about that has nothing to do with lawsuits and the weather. For now, I just want to say, I am feeling a little quiet but I am here, full of raging solidarity for all the good feminist fights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

emotional labour · heartbreak · peer review · risk · workload

Academic Roadkill

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We are so lucky to have a guest post from the inimitable Linda Morra. Here she is, thinking hard about how the “grievance studies” hoax hurts:

I’ve thought quite a lot about roadkill recently, probably because of the long stretch of drive, from Montreal (where I live) to Sherbrooke (where I teach). Today, it was a deer; a couple of days ago, it was a raccoon and a cat. I consistently think about how these animals were simply foraging for food, innocent of their imminent violent end—one that was just veering around the corner and bearing down on them, as the result of a vehicle on an entirely different trajectory. I feel for these animals – I sometimes even foolishly weep for them.

And today, this week in particular, I identified with them.

I am not actual roadkill, very obviously. But, when I read about the latest version of the Sokal hoax, which produced and found publication for sham essays that spouted left-wing ideology, I felt like I was thrown to a curb. They were out to prove that the social sciences and humanities are not undergirded by proper research, but rather by left-wing ideology. Apparently, seven of twenty of the latest Sokal hoaxes were accepted. Seven. That’s one third. It saddens me to think that either the editors or peer reviewers weren’t doing their job, and that it has, as a result, cast suspicion on the entire field.

On some levels, I think the hoax serves as an important reminder of how some of us failed in our responsibility by allowing such articles to find publication. How different are we from, say, some very right-wing American news station, if we simply allow left-wing ideology to stand, rather than allowing real and meaningful scholarship to undergird the ideology? Than well-articulated, defensible points of view? Aren’t we just producing fake news too?

Perhaps some of us are. But here is why I felt like roadkill: many, if not most of us, aren’t.

As Lily Cho pointed out, we invest substantial voluntary time—and often unrecognized, at that—in peer-reviewing. We are the ones who invest countless hours in reading and vetting papers for scholarly journals and manuscripts; we also train students, both graduate and undergraduate about what real scholarship means and what it looks like; we try to build meaningful connections and address injustices, locally and globally. I and others often do this work with very little recognition or reward—neither public, nor institutional. We do not take up time in a spotlight as a means of advancing ourselves or our careers, and, for many of us, there is no other reason to make such an investment. (For a moment, at least, I’d like us to reflect upon how, conversely, these three academics used their time, as a point of contrast. Seriously—didn’t they have better things to do?)

There is no reward, particularly, for vetting a manuscript or an essay for a journal—not at my institution, anyway. But I still do it, at regular intervals, and try to provide feedback with care—looking up sources to make sure what has been presented is accurate and to check claims that are being made. Some of the claims are not properly historically grounded—the writer might try to apply recent theoretical or ideological trends anachronistically. I check that tendency. Others simply pretend that no other academic has done the research before—and “disappear” other critics in the process in order to elevate their own scholarly ego (more of that in another blog post). Usually, I and other peer reviewers do our best to catch these kinds of errors, because we know we have a standard to maintain. We may not always succeed—but we try.

Why do we do this? Because peer-reviewers are, in fact, gate-keepers. There’s no point in claiming we are not, because we ultimately determine what passes muster and what does not.

And this is not an issue of control, as some of my own colleagues have suggested—because that would render us no different than any major news outlet that lays claim to ideology as news rather than factually-based research. We do it out of a sense of personal and communal responsibility. And responsibility means accountability. And accountability works on multiple levels: from the individuals who write the articles, to those who serve as peer reviewers, to the editors themselves.

That’s why I feel like roadkill: I and others have been inadvertently injured too. The recent Sokal hoax may have shown us where the weakest links in our chain are. The perpetrators themselves engaged in an unethical intellectual exercise to prove that ideological politics have supplanted scholarship, or at least that very little scholarship undergirds the ideological politics being championed—in the very realm where it shouldn’t do that.

But, in the process, they harmed the credibility of many good academics, who are committed to their work and to maintaining scholarly standards—which may now seem like no standard at all.

 

Linda Morra is a Professor of English at Bishop’s University. She has tried to research and publish meticulously about archives, especially those related to women writers in Canada, including Sheila Watson, Jane Rule, and M. NourbeSe Philip (in Unarrested Archives, UTP 2014). She is extremely grateful to her peer reviewers and editors, who have invested time in providing critical feedback that has helped to shape and improve her scholarly work.

academic publishing · emotional labour · feminist communities · peer review

Sokal Spare Me: Hoaxes and Anti-feminism

So here we are again. Somebody (three of them this time) thinks that they are so smart and clever. They are going to show the academy, and especially the feminist, queer, and racialized academy, that it doesn’t know anything.

All it shows me is that these three people — and I am purposely working on forgetting their names because I am a professional and I hope to give their real work a fair shake if I ever came across it, which is more than they deserve, but I am nothing if not an actual professional even though I feel a lot of rage at this particular moment — have shown a profound disdain for the gendered labour of academic journal editing and peer reviewing.

When I say that peer review and journal editing is gendered work, I mean that it is largely (if not wholly) invisible, underpaid or not paid at all, and almost entirely thankless.

As I wrote in my Love Letter to Peer Reviewers Everywhere, peer reviewers rock my world. I see their work everywhere: “in that book that changed the course of my dissertation, in that first article of mine that saw the light of printed day, in that other article that I taught in my grad seminar that re-oriented the entire discussion for the better, in all these journals that I read when I get a chance, marveling at all this marvelous work out there.”

They make all that happen. They make my world smarter, brighter, and just plain better.

I peer review anywhere between five and ten articles a year. It takes weeks of time that I never have. No one will know that I did it except the editor of the journal who can’t reveal my identity anyways. I do it because someone else did it for me and because I know that this completely invisible and thankless labour is a crucial part of sustaining our work as scholars.

Like most scholars at my age and stage, I serve on the editorial boards for three or four major journals both in Canada and internationally. This also takes a lot of time that I never have.

I was the co-editor of an academic journal for three years. It just about killed me. I just agreed to step back into that role because the current editor asked and I respect him so much and he is overwhelmed by the work and I know exactly how overwhelmig it is. It is the main cultural studies journal in Canada. If we don’t do this, there wouldn’t be a publication venue for a lot of amazing cultural studies work. As editors, we do not get paid for this work. I don’t get course release or a stipend. There may be the tiniest crumb of prestige but it is frankly outweighed by the reality of the work — hundreds of hours fielding angry or nudging emails while shepherding manuscripts through the peer review process while the authors are anxious and mad at me for not getting their work turned around more quickly.

Others have pointed out that academic journal publishing is a good faith system. This hoax takes advantage of the deep generosity of a community of scholars in order to score a stupidly cheap point. It does not show that the journals, fields, and disciplines that it targets are fraudulent. It shows that these three people had so much time on their hands, and so little regard for their peers, that they are happy to waste the time of people who are trying to make space and give a platform for new scholarship.

This hoax comes across as anti-feminist not because of the content of the articles but because its very form is premised on scorn and derision for deeply gendered labour. It misunderstands power. It mistakes peer reviewing for gate keeping. It mistakes the journal editor as a disciplinary figurehead. I don’t know of anyone who agrees to peer review something because they want to keep someone or some thinking out of the field. And journal editing is, honestly, an extravagant convergence of caretaking and traffic control.

So, spare me. Spare me this thinly disguised contempt for gendered labour. Spare me this willingness to waste time we never had.

 

advice

How to Write an Academic Cover Letter

 

 

RE-POST: It’s the academic job application season again. That means many of you are either writing cover letters, or reading drafts of cover letters from your students. Either way, we can all learn from the very smart Lai-Tze Fan! It’s academic job season. Her advice on writing a cover letter is SO GOOD. Without further ado…

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Recently, I’ve offered to look over the cover letters of a few people applying to professor positions. The academic cover letter is a unique genre, and getting it right is as hard as the first time you wrote a grant proposal. It is your brief chance to show a search committee what you have to offer–including your existing/future research, your teaching methods, and that you’d be a great colleague. The cover letter is less finicky than the grant proposal (hurray, no citations!), but needs to be both cleaner and even more persuasive.

We all know the precarious futures of young academics, as well as the struggles faced by those who have been on the job market for six months or six years. I don’t judge anyone for going into alt-ac or leaving academia all together; some of the smartest people in my PhD cohort chose not to finish the degree, preferring other paths that I’m sure make them happy, and I am happy for them.

For those who want to stay, I’d like to offer suggestions based on my own experiences, noting that different disciplines may have fine-tuned requirements that I haven’t acknowledged here or even differing advice. As I will state at the end, I welcome additional tips that others in the community have to add. Please post them below!

Some background information: I’ve been lucky and am extremely grateful to have had interviews every season and back-to-back tenure-track jobs. I am not guaranteeing anything– these are just observations I’ve made in applying to nearly thirty jobs (some research-focused and some teaching-focused), serving on search committees, and editing dozens of cover letters for others.

I realize the length of the list is daunting. Think of it this way: after the job season, you’ll have written maybe half a dozen varieties of research- and teaching-focused letters. Let’s say you are an artist: maybe one letter highlights creative practice, one highlights curriculum building, one is suited for a fine arts department, one for social science, and one for the humanities. You now have templates that can be recycled and tweaked for most future job applications, but the first time is usually the hardest.

A lot of these suggestions you may already know. I hope the list may be useful, but whether or not it is, please offer your own advice to other scholars giving the job market a shot. I myself focus on helping young scholars, including women and non-binary people, and especially those of colour like me.

These suggestions aren’t necessarily in order, but I’ve also organized them in a way that, if you prefer, can be followed step-by-step.

Note on terminology: I was trained in Canada, so some of my terminology will reflect this. Other countries and systems have their preferred terms for “tenure” (such as “substantiation”), graduate students (“postgrads”), and various levels of teaching positions (“lecturer” in Canada vs. the UK). Please keep these variations in mind for your own job-seeking needs.

Throughout this document, the word “department” is used, but may also refer to specialized programs, research labs, centres, etc. to which you may be applying.

BEFORE YOU START

The #1 rule

Do not waste the search committee’s time. Don’t give them extra work or extra pages, don’t submit something that is incomplete, and don’t mislead them with confusing information.

Optional: Crack down on social media

The world of academia is small. Scholars that are associated or in close contact with any departments to which you apply shouldn’t be able to see questionable photos on your Instagram or read unprofessional posts on Facebook. Please don’t think that I am suggesting that friends who are academics do not care about who you are; nor would I ever advocate for faculty members to share others’ private information (we have witnessed these breaches of privacy and everyone gets upset). What I refer to is a scholar’s conflict of interest that might put them in a professional bind; maybe they’d even like to help you out, but they may excluded from important conversations because they are a bit too close to a job candidate.

Again, this is up to you! But if you are interested in limiting social media, then you could, for instance, place select people on private/acquaintance lists, have separate personal accounts, or even temporarily deactivate. If you haven’t done this yet, that’s ok: start now and limit visibility on previous posts that are questionable. What counts as sharing too much information you can decide for yourself, but as a rule of thumb, do not publicly criticize your current department and students, nor the department to which you’re applying or its faculty members. You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are also entitled to protect them.

ONTO THE LETTER

2.5 pages max

The cover letter should be 2.5 pages max, even with a signature at the bottom and your school logo/letterhead at the top (if you are currently affiliated with a school, then do use their logo and make it small). The signature adds a personalized touch.

Do your homework

Following the rule of not wasting the search committee’s time, take the time to learn what this department is about. Go online and explore their website, perhaps for 30 minutes per university. Familiarize yourself with their and the university’s research/mission statements. Do they offer their students/graduate students professionalized degrees–which means they want practical and culturally engaged work? Do they offer a more conservative or more experimental approach to their course offerings and/or graduate programs?–or is it a mix? Which faculty members do similar research to yours and in what ways do you offer something different (just figure this out, but never state in the cover letter why you are different from Professor X or Y)? What does their curriculum look like?

Other questions to consider, but which you may not want to address in your cover letter: Are they interested in collectively answering a problem–such as lowering the carbon footprint or greater representation for Indigenous students, cultures, and histories? Are they Hispanic serving? Is there a high number of international students? Is their student body composed of many “first-generation students” (this means something specific in the USA compared to Canada)?

The gist is: find out what they care about and what they’re dedicated to demonstrating to their current/prospective students, and make sure you explicitly state how your research, teaching, and/or service may share some of the same concerns. From what others have said, this method has never failed in making me stand out as a serious candidate in cover letters, Skype interviews, and campus interviews: learn about their goals and respect who they are; write them a letter that is unique to them; do not waste anyone’s time, including your own.

Optional: Write it as a story

While very few scholars have focused all of their work around a central interest, your task is to find a central interest or concern that can encompass many (not necessarily all; do not force it) of your work. The effect of the storytelling cover letter is that it can make you look focused and consistent, and the bonus is that central interests are often expressed in very simple and recognizable academic language: “I work on the representation of LGBTQ+ communities”; “I work on people’s relationship with food”; “I work on youths’ relationship with social media.”

Examples would be helpful, so I’ll plug them in when I can. My own cover letters have noted my interest in many media forms, including photography, print texts, and computational media. My method of tying these together is to state that “I work on storytelling in and across media,” which allows me to include traditional and experimental modes of storytelling. Not only does this narrative justify why some of my publications are on literature and some are on smart phone apps, it also makes it easier for committees to trace my career trajectory from being a literary scholar to a media scholar.

This overarching narrative allows the committee to follow an explicit argument, which many cover letters do not have. Cohesion is key here, so that everything seems to have its place. That does not mean the narrative is even accurate, but it’s the effect you’re going for.

Organize for easy/fast reading

It helps to organize sections so that they’re easy to skim. If you like, you can use headers such as “Background”/”Education,” “Research,” “Teaching,” and “Service” (call them whatever). What I cannot stress enough, however, is to start every section with one overarching sentence that summarizes the rest of the section. The sentence should take a structure like this (let’s say it’s the Research section): “My research focuses on [central concern] through a, b, and c,” where a, b, and c are your main qualities/interests in each area. The rest of the paragraph is up to you, as long as it covers a, b, and c–preferably in order.

The rule of thumb is to imagine that your reader will only read each header and the overarching sentence. What do they need to know? When you’re editing the cover letter, see if a stranger can figure out what you work on and teach just by skimming the letter.

Note: I’ve seen many cover letters that discuss educational background with research or that don’t have a service section at all. My advice here is to appeal to the department to which you’re applying: for example, if they clearly pride themselves on service or community engagement, then do not leave out a Service section!

THE CONTENT

Read the job call

Unless a general description has been used, a lot of what the committee wants you to speak to in detail–especially in your cover letter–is already in the job call, thus revealing exactly what you should focus on. The call will often state what position the job is trying to fill: sexuality studies? Critical race studies? If the job call includes a long list of desired expertise, the first two or three are the main foci, and the rest are perks that you can choose to mention as desired.

Based on these listed expertise, mention in every section you offer (research, teaching, etc.) how you approach these area(s) with specific examples–and here, it is again beneficial to take a look at the existing curriculum. What concentrations do the department or their programs offer?

What’s the difference among cover letters for research jobs, teaching jobs, and contract jobs?

This is possibly the most common question. Unfortunately, research positions, teaching positions, and short-term/contract positions each require unique content. I will try to be specific, but do have a look at the job call and use your judgement to figure out what kind of requirements are asked of you; tailor the cover letter to suit.

First, know the difference. A quick Google search may be enough to tell you if a university is research or teaching intensive; on Wikipedia, my institution is listed as “a public research university.” Then have a look at the website of the department/program/centre to which you’re applying and read for what their undergraduate and graduate programs offer potential students: are they intent on professionalization and internships? Do they stress being trained in critical theory? Very quickly you will figure out what kind of department you’re dealing with. That said, the job call may reflect this or may deviate slightly. For additional information, also see the item “include a summary of your teaching philosophy” below.

Note: if you’re applying to an American university, you can check out their research/teaching classification according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (where, for instance, PhDs are only granted by “R” or “Research”-level universities).

If you are applying to a research-heavy position, the Research section of your letter should take precedence. Make sure you present a comprehensive research pipeline (academic speak for “your next books/projects”) that shows, regardless of whether you are finishing your dissertation or you’ve been on the market for five years, that you can hold your own as a serious researcher. You’re publishing in refereed journals; you’re collaborating as befits your discipline (and maybe it doesn’t); you are applying or at least planning to apply for research grants. Make yourself look like you’re full of research ideas, full of energy, full of action. For more on this, see the item below entitled “present yourself as a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony.”

Note: If your dissertation or another book-length (research or creative) project is being edited or submitted for publication, say so, and also state which presses you will or intend to submit it to.

If you are applying to a teaching-heavy position with some research (such as some 1- and 3-year positions, including limited-term appointments and visiting assistant professorships), the teaching section of your cover letter should use the same amount of space as the research section. It is vital that you do not present yourself as foremost a researcher, but as equally researcher and teacher, or perhaps as a research-minded teacher. Ideally, you will present yourself as someone whose research interests have shaped your exciting pedagogical methods. Here, the “write it as a story” method of cover letter writing is effective, especially in communicating an earnest account of how your research and teaching are intertwined. Make sure that your Teaching Dossier, if requested, offers concrete examples of your experiences. I know many disapprove of sharing free sample syllabi in job applications; how many you choose to share is ultimately up to you, but if you want to do it, then include syllabi for classes you’ve previously taught (if applicable) and mock syllabi that suit the needs of the department to which you’re applying.

If you are applying to a teaching-only position (including full-time, part-time, and contract lectureships and limited-term appointments), your research statement may be no more than a paragraph to explain your background and maybe to offer context to your teaching interests. Simply put, unless a teaching-heavy job call notes that there are some research expectations, this position involves little to no research. Therefore, it is extremely crucial that you do not present yourself as a researcher or even as a teacher who is interested in making the jump to a more research heavy position in the future. Focus on sharing your teaching experiences, especially if you’ve ever worked as a writing instructor, a tutor, a mentor, a course designer, a translator, or if you’ve instructed in other languages, education systems, or countries. Mention any relevant pedagogical training you’ve had that may be an asset. The advice above about including sample syllabi holds; in fact, in many cases, job calls may ask for it

Jobs asking for curriculum and program development

If the job call notes that the successful applicant will develop a new program (graduate, undergraduate, certificate), then speak to your experiences especially in teaching and service in designing courses/capstone projects in this field, developing curriculum changes, and/or participating in meetings and committees where such changes have been made. Following the section above, it may be beneficial to include sample syllabi to show the depth or breadth of your design and development capabilities.

The interdisciplarian

The presentation of oneself as interdisciplinary without seeming “watered down” is a common concern for young scholars who did or are doing PhDs that are interdisciplinary, non-specific, and non-traditional. I would spend no more than two lines making an argument for this, though, as everyone is ultimately interdisciplinary: a full-time faculty member cannot be a one-trick pony who produces one major project. If successful in acquiring a tenure-track position, you would be expected to juggle research, courses, service, and student projects/theses/dissertations from a variety of fields, so interdisciplinarity means flexibility. In your cover letter (and also in potential interviews), do not apologize for your diverse background. Do try to highlight which one (or two) areas in your interdisciplinary work most strongly match the job call, proposing it as an asset that you have all this under your belt–and more! The key is to avoid looking unfocused. Instead, foreground your high aptitude in select areas.

There are a few ways to present interdisciplinary research. You could briefly speak to how your expertise in X, Y, and Z areas allows you to–or, how it is even necessary to–address the current state of [your central interest/concern]. Or, structure this sentence backwards: the current state of [your central interest/concern] requires that your dissertation bring together X, Y, and Z areas.

If you’d like to explicitly state the value of connecting multiple disciplines for your research, have a look at the argument you made in your dissertation literature review that brings together these various fields. The literature review might argue what the connection is, as well as how your approach is unique in bringing these together; however, the cover letter is not the place to persuade the search committee of this novelty. Instead, the cover letter should get to the gist of the results/payoff: summarize, in plain language, what the disciplinary connections bring to your research or how they advance the project.

I’m certain that others have more advice about how to present oneself as an interdisciplinary scholar; please do share your thoughts if you’re comfortable.

Avoid too many details

What a search committee wants to glean from the cover letter is who you are as a general package, not about the contributions of every article you’ve published/submitted and the details of every class you’ve taught. If they want details, they will go to your CV, so only mention major milestones/accomplishments that contribute to an overall argument/story/focus in your cover letter. Lists are your friend. Use plain language and curriculum-esque categories that anyone on the committee, regardless of their expertise, would understand. For example, if you work on fashion in Jane Austen novels, you could say that you draw from literary studies, gender studies, and consumer culture–three areas that are general enough for you to riff off of, discussing how you’ve extended one or more of these to related or future research projects.

If the application calls for a separate Research Statement, Teaching Dossier, or otherwise, then leave these sections (Research, Teaching) short and sweet in the cover letter (again, lists are your friend!), followed by “For more information, please see the attached [STATEMENT].” This means that these sections of your cover letter need to be impactful enough for the search committee to get an idea of what you do and to be eager to look at the separate attachment. If you’re working on a new book or project, give a one-liner on what it’s about or what it’s called, then let the separate statement say the rest.

Note: Unless stated otherwise, Teaching Dossiers should be 20 pages, give or take a few pages. Be strategic in what you choose to include, shaping the Dossier around the job and therefore not including every teaching evaluation or sample syllabus you possess. Pick syllabi that most strongly reflect the department’s current curriculum as well as the general areas they are seeking to fill in their job call. For teaching evaluations, all you need is an average of the scores or the average score of each question. You can always say that originals (evaluations, letters of recommendation, etc., are available upon request).

You’re a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony

You are no longer or soon will no longer be a graduate student. Do not present your dissertation as the only research project in your cover letter; do not treat it as your magnum opus. Instead, extend the dissertation and any other side projects/publications you’ve worked on by explaining how they have led to your current and next research questions or projects. One of the biggest mistakes I see in cover letters for research-based jobs is when an applicant doesn’t list their three- and five-year research plans, which is one thing a research-based institution will ask about if you get a first-stage and campus interview. So let them know early: what is the next book or project going to be? Also mention any grants or projects you’re excited to get up and running.

If you’ve picked the “write it as a story” approach, you could present your research plans as the next step in the story after the dissertation, mentioning in 1-2 sentences the way your next book/project answers questions or extends issues raised by your original interests. Everything comes tied together this way.

Taking this one from Prof. Jennifer Harris at U Waterloo (thanks, Jennifer!): If you’re a scholar who focuses on a single author, “you need to work harder to prove your interests extend beyond that author. Don’t spend all your time [explaining] how innovative your approach to that author–show that this inflects your understanding more broadly.”

Be clear when listing publications and accomplishments

Use numbers to save room and create quick effect. You currently have: X refereed journal articles, X forthcoming, X submitted for consideration; X book chapters, X forthcoming, X submitted; and so forth. Unless it’s a book, you’ve won an award, or there’s a very important co-author, there’s no need to name most or any of the publications; that’s what your CV is for. If you’re comfortable, you can also mention that you have X institutional, association, national, and/or international grants/scholarships won, for a total of $X.

Do not try to “trick” the committee with fancy numbers or misleading organization. A common way this is occurs is when scholars state in their cover letters or CVs that they have “7 publications” when they actually have 2 refereed journal articles, 3 non-refereed journal articles, and 2 book chapters. If you’ve done this by mistake, change it, as unclear organization or formatting makes it difficult for the committee to break down your contributions. And yes, it does matter: for every 1 kind committee member who takes time to look up these individual publications, 9 may toss out the application.

Name dropping may be a waste of space

Don’t make the letter about other scholars you’ve worked with, because the committee is potentially interested in you. Talk about you. There’s a small exception to this: if you’ve worked with a person who is very important to the field that the job call is seeking, it may be worth to quickly mention the collaboration. What I’m critiquing is name dropping to excess or mentioning names that won’t mean much to some members of a (likely interdisciplinary) committee. Don’t waste space with this.

On the subject of name dropping, do not mention members of the faculty that you’d like to work with or who you are inspired by (this is more likely something to do during a campus interview if you and a faculty member are getting along, but even then, avoid being overly presumptuous). It is possible for you to engage with or collaborate with some of these people if you get the job, but until you are successful, you cannot know about internal politics in the department. I don’t mean to be unkind, but naming current faculty who interest you is actually a tip for graduate school applications; doing so in an academic cover letter might suggest that you still think of yourself as a student instead of as a potential colleague.

Include a summary of your teaching philosophy

Unless the job call is completely administrative, the cover letter should have a teaching section. The length of the section will vary depending on what the position is looking for, but even if a separate teaching dossier is requested, your cover letter should still state what kind of teacher you are.

In plain language, include a brief summary of your teaching philosophy that is founded on your interests and experiences. For instance, following the “write it as a story” technique, I say that my research on digital devices has led me to think about the ubiquity of popular media for today’s undergraduate student; therefore, I train students to think about digital cultures and technologies both in the classroom and in their lives, aiming to extend their critical thinking to everyday situations.

Back to stating what kind of teacher you are. Ideally, you are the kind of teacher who fits easily into a department’s existing curriculum (and if requested in the job call, also their future plans). It is not helpful nor your place to propose reinventing their wheel; instead, state your teaching areas/interests so that they complement the department’s offerings and concentrations. If you are applying to a department that is slightly different from or more specific than your training, shift the language into their court. For example, if you did your PhD in media studies in a social science department and are applying for a media studies position in a humanities department, words such as “communication,” “policy,” and “technology” can be replaced with “rhetoric,” “system,” and “media.”

Finally, ask others to read it over

It doesn’t hurt to exchange letters and get the insight of others. (:

 

There is a comment section below. Please add your own tips and suggestions, including anything you think I’ve missed!

Lai-Tze Fan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo, conducting research in the Critical Media Lab. She is also an Associate Editor and Director of Communications of electronic book review. For more information, visit https://laitzefan.com

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emotional labour · ideas for change · voice

Push some buttons

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push some buttons

It’s been a rough week for feminism. Maybe you found yourself in tears on the bus or the train on the way to work. Maybe you thought about how much it cost for one woman to stand up and say something true and how that courage was mowed over by by belligerence and cowardice. Maybe you are mad all over again and again and again. Maybe things keep happening that push too many buttons.

It’s been that way for me.

Time to take back some control of this whole button-pushing business.

Time to go back to Cathy Deng’s brilliantly simple question: is a dude talking?

Go here and starting tallying: are men talking too much?

I’ve been in a lot of meetings lately. Probably you have too. And have you noticed who’s been doing a lot of the talking? You guessed it. In every kind of meeting — one-on-one in my office, small committee, large committee, massive faculty council and senate meetings — I couldn’t help noticing that one kind of voice kept dominating the floor. The two exceptions, for me, were the meetings I chaired.

Maybe it’s too simple to break things down along a binary of whether or not a dude is talking. What, after all, about race, class, sexual orientation, and ability? Good question. In the spirit of evidence-based inquiry, bear with me (and Deng), let’s just try to measure the dude vs. not dude thing. Just for a few weeks. Or even just one week. Tell me what you find.

Really, do tell me. In the comments below or, if you prefer, via email at lilycho [at] yorku [dot] ca. I’ll tally and report back.

And do submit your results to the on-going Gender Avenger tally.

Let’s push some buttons.

 

administration · balance · feminist communities

Chairing While Feminist

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Image via from ‘The re-appropriation of sensuality’ Emma Haugh in collaboration with Aileen Murphy and Holly O’Brien, Dublin, 2014

Oh, hi! It’s been a while but Hook & Eye is back. We started talking in August about blogging again and there was a brief moment when we flirted with the idea of putting the blog on hiatus for a year. We all seem to be juggling more than ever. This blog is a labour of love and, sometimes, there is only so much love and labour to go around. The idea of a long, long, long pause shimmered.

But then we remembered how much we care about the blog and you who read it and feminism in the academy and we talked ourselves back into this blogging habit. We’ll post a little less than before — once or twice a week. But we are back and here to stay.

One of the big things that changed for me is that I became chair of my department. I’ve been chair for 67 days (but who’s counting). I didn’t go into the gig thinking that I would be a Feminist Chair. I mean, sure, I am a feminist. And, ok, I’ll be dept chair for a while. In fact, I was acting chair a couple years ago for a spell so I had a glimmer of an idea of what would be involved. Still, I didn’t expect that every single day on the job so far would make me realize how much feminism matters to how I can do this job and how I will survive it.

There will be a lot more from me this year about feminism and academic administration. For now, a few things about chairing while feminist that I’ve already noticed.

There will be tears, mostly yours. They will be for reasons that you can’t talk about. These suck. I now get to know things that I can’t un-know.  And I’m not to talk about them because respecting confidentiality and being professional often means not being public when people behave badly.

And there will be tears for things that you can talk about. This week, I lost a colleague. She died. She told me on Friday that she was ill and that I would need to hire someone to cover her courses for a while. She talked about possible candidates so that there would be a smooth transition back into these courses when she returned. On Wednesday morning, when I was covering one of her courses because I had not yet hired anyone, she passed away. I wept. And then I had to attend to the job posting for her courses. That felt like all kinds of wrong even though I know she cared a lot about those courses and would not want her students to miss a single day of class.

Men will question your decisions. I really didn’t think it would be so stark. I don’t even get to make that many decisions (longer post to come on the weird combination of power and powerlessness that is being an academic department chair). But it just kept happening. I would decide something. And then a guy would decide that my decision wasn’t very good and tell me in no uncertain terms. At first, I thought it was just me being sensitive. But it happened so consistently. Always a guy telling me that I was wrong or suggesting that I surely didn’t mean to disagree with him, surely I didn’t mean what I said I meant, or something like that. It was hard not to see a pattern after a very short while.

Kinda a downer, so far, I know. BUT! there are some pretty rocking things about chairing while feminist.

You learn to make decisions and stand by them. You know what? It feels great to make decisions knowing that they are good decisions based on impeccable logic and a commitment to genuine equity and just stand firm. After a while, it won’t be surprising when those decisions are questioned and challenged. After a while, it becomes a lot of fun to see how these decisions totally stand up to all kinds of tests. It’s like a secret super power. You think quietly, bring it on. I am standing firm.

You might cry but you figure out it’s totally ok. I remembered that once, many years ago, in a meeting with a dean about a difficult thing (sorry to be so vague– see above about things that you can’t talk about) the whole idea of crying came up. I admire this dean. At one point, she said, you know, if that thing had happened to me, I would have cried. I’ve come back to that moment. She has probably long forgotten it. But it still means a lot to me to remember that it actually makes sense to have a quiet little cry about some of the craziness.

Other feminists have totally got your back. This is the best. What a gift to work in a historical moment when more feminists than ever are also at work at every level of the academy. Sure, the old boys network is still in place. But there is a whole other community now. It is so powerful. It is impatient with the machinations of old boys. It sees right through that stuff and calls it out. It makes all of our work across the institution better and richer.

To all the feminists who have carved out so many difficult paths for the rest of us to follow, thank you. Know that your labour, and the love that you poured into it, is still a visceral and real gift that feminists thank you for every day. You make chairing while feminist actually awesome.