Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cover letters for teaching schools

On the topic of job materials, Bonnie Kent (UC-Irvine) writes to us reminding us of the important differences between applying to research universities and more teaching-oriented schools:
Philip Howard’s advice about cover letters might be good for people applying to research universities, but it isn’t so good – might even be counterproductive -- for people applying to teaching-oriented schools. Considering that most of the available jobs are in teaching-oriented schools, I recommend that you read this (two-part) article by Terry McGlynn: 
https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2014/01/24/essay-writing-cover-letter-academic-job-teaching-institution 
https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2014/02/05/essay-how-stand-out-cover-letter-teaching-institution
Agreed! Take a look.

-- Jaded, Ph.D.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is there a difference anymore between research- and teaching-oriented schools? It seems to me that teaching-oriented schools just want teaching competence, but, more than that, strong research credentials. With the dearth of jobs, so many highly qualified applicants are trying to get posts at teaching schools, in order to ride out the rest of the recession, that teaching schools themselves appear to weight research over teaching excellence (assuming a competence threshold has been met).

Anonymous said...

The "Teaching School" vs. "Research School" thing is reductive.

I'd say that we should think about teaching jobs (and tailoring cover letters) in terms of at least six different types of places:

1. Elite R1s with a low=teaching load, much of it at the PhD level, and very high research expectations

2. Other R1s with high research expectations and moderate teaching loads, some of which are at the PhD level.

3. R2s: large state universities, possibly with a master's program with a high teaching load and moderate to low research expectations.

4. Elite SLACS with high research expectations and moderate teaching.

5. SLACS and LACS with moderate research and high teaching loads (none of it at the graduate level).

6. Community Colleges. Low research expectations and very high teaching loads.

I don't think you really need 6 very different cover letters for all of these places but I do think that it is useful to tailor you recover differently depending on the type of university/college you are applying to.

To ignore the differences between an R2 and a LAC, for example, is to pass up an opportunity to write a letter that demonstrates your understanding of the type of job you are applying for.

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that teaching-oriented schools just want teaching competence, but, more than that, strong research credentials."

Why does it seem that way to you? Because you follow the hiring practices of small departments?

I teach at what would be called a "teaching college" (a small state university without a graduate program, and a 4/4 teaching load). Yes, we want strong researchers, but we also want strong teachers, not merely competent ones. If my department hires you, you will spend more time working on your teaching than your research, so you need to be more than just competent; you need to be very good. You will be teaching mostly non-majors for lower-division general education courses, and need to be able to reach them.

My advice to anyone applying to "teaching colleges" (whether elite SLACs or lowly Regional State Colleges) is to do the following in your cover letter:

1. Discuss teaching at some length. That's what you are being hired to do. You are not being hired to do research, and occasionally popping into a lecture hall mentor graduate students. You're teaching. Discuss how you approach your job in the letter. And no, simply telling us what you can teach isn't enough. We have your CV. Rule of thumb: spend about as much time on your teaching as on your research. If you can't talk about what you do in the classroom, there's a good chance you're not a very good teacher. (Consider: how would you feel about someone who can't talk about their research? Would you immediately think that person isn't very good at it?)

2. Talk about how you can reach out to non-majors. It's the rare "teaching college" job that will have you working exclusively with majors. So how will you reach the masses?

In short, show that you know something about the job itself. "Teaching schools" are not the little siblings of R1s, where we sit at the kids' table hoping someone takes us seriously as scholars (though certainly those people exist). Don't apply to such programs under the assumption that everyone agrees that this is your "starter job" while you try to publish your way out (though in some cases, that may happen), or that everyone in your program feels that way about the department.

"Teaching schools" want teachers. Show us that you are a teacher.

zombie said...

Unhappy to see that there are jobs posted at Higheredjobs that are not on philjobs. C'mon search committees!

Anonymous said...

"Why does it seem that way to you? Because you follow the hiring practices of small departments?"

Yep--I have tracked colleges offering "teaching jobs" for the last couple of years and, more often than not, they hire candidates with little--or occasionally, no--teaching experience. Granted, I don't have access to things like student/peer/faculty evaluations, but searches on RateMyProfessors.com show that some of these hires aren't favorably rated by their students. (I realize that RateMyProfessors.com has its drawbacks, but presumably, the raters also rang in on student evaluations.)

Anonymous said...

Seriously 6:15? You have been cross-checking the names of people hired with their RMP results?

I'm not angry or anything. It's just not something it would have ever occurred to me to do. What is the point of this exercise?

Maybe others can chime in too. Is this a common practice? I can understand wanting to look up people who beat you for a job where you got a fly-out, but this seems broader than that.

Anonymous said...

"Yep--I have tracked colleges offering "teaching jobs" for the last couple of years"

Care to share your data? It could be very helpful to job seekers reading this blog.

"Granted, I don't have access to things like student/peer/faculty evaluations"

It must be tough to evaluate candidates without their applications. I assume you also don't have access to their application letters and teaching demonstrations.

"but searches on RateMyProfessors.com show that some of these hires aren't favorably rated by their students."

There's probably a good reason why that information is not part of a standard application.

"(I realize that RateMyProfessors.com has its drawbacks, but presumably, the raters also rang in on student evaluations.)"

True, but satisfied students are generally less likely to go online and post about their experiences than unhappy students.

Anonymous said...

I find it somewhat disturbing that 6:15 has decided that one can determine a teacher's merits as an instructor using only RMP.

Colin McGinn scores very highly on RMP, and as such should certainly be hired by a "teaching college," right? I mean, couldn't teaching colleges benefit from access to the Genius Program?

Anonymous said...

"I find it somewhat disturbing that 6:15 has decided that one can determine a teacher's merits as an instructor using only RMP."

I find it disturbing that someone would infer this claim from my earlier post. I never said that I use "only RMP." What I was really trying to highlight is that if you track these hires and then check on things like their CV (usually publicly posted), you find that a remarkable number of them have little to no teaching experience. Of course, it's possible that the few courses they did teach turned out really well--so in order to gather some defeasible evidence about that, you can check RMP. I included several provisos, so, unlike 8:24, please don't point out that I need to include said provisos.

Derek Bowman said...

How about this for an indicator of how much research matters at 'teaching schools': At those schools with both adjuncts and (junior) tenure-track faculty, is the difference ever explained by the fact that the adjuncts have better research profiles, at the expense of teaching experience?

Anonymous said...

Derek,

That's a pretty simplistic argument. I know plenty of adjuncts are research programs who have superior research profiles to their junior tenure-track colleagues. This has nothing to do with teaching v. research schools, and everything to do with the fact that the only way adjuncts can hold off charges of having gone stale is to publish. Often, adjuncts who are a couple years out of their PhD have to have stronger research profiles than junior tenure-track faculty just to be considered for entry-level jobs.

Could we thus claim that this demonstrates how much research programs care about research, if they allow their adjuncts to have better research profiles than their tenure-track faculty?

ann mosley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derek Bowman said...

@6:54

How could it be that adjuncts have to keep their research strong to keep from going 'stale' if there is a univocal meaning of 'teaching school' on which 1) most jobs are at teaching schools and 2) teaching schools prioritize teaching over research?

If that were true, wouldn't adjuncts need to focus on teaching to keep from becoming stale?

While I don't doubt that there are some adjuncts whose research profiles exceeds that of their recently hired tenure-track colleagues, that's the opposite of the dynamic I've seen at the 'teaching schools' I'm familiar with.

---
To be clear, however, none of this is a reason not to take the advice in the OP. You should talk more about teaching in your cover letter if you're applying to a school that thinks of itself as a 'teaching school.' But don't be fooled into thinking that teaching experience will get you most of those jobs (or even interviews for them) without a strong research profile.

Anonymous said...

This has been driving me crazy for months: does the "S" in "SLAC" stand for "small" or "selective"? Is this usage the same across the board or is it possible that "SLAC" sometimes means "small" and other times means "selective" depending upon who is using the acronym?

Anonymous said...

"How could it be that adjuncts have to keep their research strong to keep from going 'stale' if there is a univocal meaning of 'teaching school' on which 1) most jobs are at teaching schools and 2) teaching schools prioritize teaching over research?"

Because, sadly, research gets your application read and moved up in the pile. Teaching is what gets you hired. Teaching schools don't ignore research; they just don't prioritize it at every stage of the process.

"If that were true, wouldn't adjuncts need to focus on teaching to keep from becoming stale?"

They need to focus on teaching for when they get to campus. But PhDs go stale based on research. (I don't agree with this; I just recognize that it's a trend in the field.)

"While I don't doubt that there are some adjuncts whose research profiles exceeds that of their recently hired tenure-track colleagues, that's the opposite of the dynamic I've seen at the 'teaching schools' I'm familiar with."

There are a great may adjuncts, at a variety of institutions, who have stronger research profiles and/or are superior teachers, to some of their colleagues on the tenure track. The best teacher in my department is an adjunct, and he's been told he will never be considered for a TT job.

"To be clear, however, none of this is a reason not to take the advice in the OP. You should talk more about teaching in your cover letter if you're applying to a school that thinks of itself as a 'teaching school.' But don't be fooled into thinking that teaching experience will get you most of those jobs (or even interviews for them) without a strong research profile."

Exactly. From what I've seen as an applicant to and a search committee member for jobs at teaching schools, research gets you onto the short list. Teaching gets you the job.

Anonymous said...

So here's a question about different kinds of schools that I wonder about and I'll go on and throw it out there since somebody brought up the dreaded S word already:

Is there a difference in how different kinds of schools think about the dreaded issue of PhD. staleness? It seems to me that it's a real worry when it comes to being competitive for R1 jobs (usually staffed by people who were successful right out of the gate who assume something must be wrong with those who aren't). So no matter how much you might publish there's a point where you're SOL for those jobs. But on the other hand if one's actually publishing and getting good teaching evals staleness is much less of a problem when applying to SLACs or maybe even R2s.

Now this is just me trying to sort out the mound of wildly conflicting advice I've gotten from very smart people who are trying to be helpful. Anyone with some actual experience hiring being hired or just eavesdropping on a hiring committee want to weigh in on this?

Anonymous said...

Hi 9:04

My impression here is that staleness applies only if you have not been publishing (or publishing well-enough to earn tenure at the institution you are applying to) post-PhD.

If it's been three or four years since your finished and you have yet to publish a peer-reviewed article then (again, my impression), you'll be seen as stale by most places.

I take it that staleness is a proxy for: do we have evidence that this person can get tenure at my institution?

Thus you might be stale to an R1 (because even if you have been publishing, the publications might not be enough in quantity and/or quality to earn tenure) but not stale at an R2 or a SLAC.*

*I've always interpreted the "S" in SLAC to stand for 'selective.'

zombie said...

I always took the S in SLAC to mean small.

zombie said...

"If it's been three or four years since you finished and you have yet to publish a peer-reviewed article then (again, my impression), you'll be seen as stale by most places."

That's worse than stale. I think you'd be seen as unhireable by almost everyone (maybe not community colleges?). Teaching schools still want productive scholars, even if the emphasis of their work is teaching and not publishing. You can pretty well forget getting a job at any research university if you haven't published anything in 3 or 4 years.

3 years is your tenure half life, since you'll be expected to go up by your 6th year. Not publishing anything in that time is a good indicator that you're not going to get tenure. (It happens, and it means another search for a department, if the line isn't lost entirely. No one wants to take that risk.)

Anonymous said...

"If it's been three or four years since you finished and you have yet to publish a peer-reviewed article then (again, my impression), you'll be seen as stale by most places."

Three-four years post-PhD without a publication and you don't look stale, you *are* stale.

Anonymous said...

It was true in the past - and is certainly still true in many places - that failing to publish means eventually failing to earn tenure. However, we may be witnessing the end of that, at least for many programs.

2 years ago, in my current program (a small regional state school with no graduate program), a colleague went up for tenure. This colleague had not published for the previous 4 years (after only publishing a couple short notes in the first 2 years on the job). Similarly, the colleague stopped attending conferences after 3 years on the job. This colleague had decided to stop engaging in research.

This colleague was told explicitly that, while in the past he would have been denied tenure, the department was supporting his tenure application, because the university had (and still has) a hiring freeze for tenure-track lines. The chair - and some (but not all) members of the department - agreed that keeping a less than satisfactory colleague was better than losing the line. Ideally, we would have not tenured this person, and re-hired the line. But with the hiring freeze, we wanted to keep the position.

I can't imagine mine is the only program that has operated in such a way.

Anonymous said...

12:51 is right. A similar thing happened at my department. If we had let this person go, we were told we would lose the line forever. So we kept them -- given our large program we couldn't afford to lose the tenure line

zombie said...

In my university, tenure is not approved only by the department, but also by the administration, and they would not approve someone who had not published at all. We lost a few people a couple years ago for just that reason. Although we are not under a hiring freeze.

zombie said...

12:51 and 1:22, I think the more relevant issue here is, in a world where your department was hiring, would you hire someone who had not published in 3 or 4 years?

Anonymous said...

12:51 here.

Yes, administration also must approve tenure applications. But we are now - in many places - working with a professional administrative class. At my university, our president, provost, and dean have each spent more than 15 years in administration, and none of them have published in that time. I cannot speak to other universities, but here, administration only blocks tenure cases if they deem the teaching or the service to be insufficient. They trust the departments to evaluate the merits (and amount) of research.

And yes, we would - and do - hire people who have not published in 3-4 years. We have hired straight form graduate school, and have hired (at least) 2 people who had not published before they graduated. That said, when we have considered applicants who have been out of their PhD programs for more than a year, we do expect publications.

Anonymous said...

Hi 12:51/9:03

How would you characterize your institution? R1? Selective liberal arts college? R2? Non-selective liberal arts college? Community college?

In my own department, (a SLAC), it would take 4-6 publications to be approved for tenure without major issues(the department has, in the past, approved faculty with fewer than four publications but had such a tough fight about it with the university-wide committee that they won't ever do this again).

Anonymous said...

5:17,

As I noted in my first comment, I work at "a small regional state school with no graduate program."

"In my own department, (a SLAC), it would take 4-6 publications to be approved for tenure without major issues"

We have - within the past decade - tenured 2 people without any publications. Their teaching and service were deemed to be sufficient for promotion. (One of those colleagues directs an interdisciplinary university program.)

"(the department has, in the past, approved faculty with fewer than four publications but had such a tough fight about it with the university-wide committee that they won't ever do this again)."

There is no university-wide committee for promotion at my college. The decision goes to the dean after consideration by the department.