I’ve been following some writing blogs lately, mostly having to do with the world of submitting fiction to literary agents, trying to be noticed within the slush pile. And the general theme of the advice is that you have one paragraph with which to live or die. It’s only that first block that gets you through the eye of the needle, and has your larger material read more carefully.
If you’re one of three hundred applicants for a faculty position, your pitch needs to be just as carefully thought. You can’t start with your intellectual history, you can’t start with the details of your dissertation research, you can’t start by outlining exactly how you became interested in your topic. You have to hit the highlights. For instance, if I were re-writing my applications for my twenty-year-prior job search, I’d say something like:
I believe that I would be an excellent match for your advertised position in cultural geography. For over a decade, both my academic work and popular writing have focused on vernacular adaptations and uses of physical landscapes. My dissertation, an ethnographic study of landscape uses by American teenagers, was completed in 1996 and is currently under revision at SUNY Press for pending publication in 1999 or 2000.
Now, it took me three minutes to write that; obviously I’d tune it up a little. But look what it says:
- I can represent myself with some confidence.
- I’ve read your ad carefully.
- I’ve been doing one line of intellectual work for more than ten years; it’s material that I’m committed to.
- I’ve written for academic and popular audiences; I care about writing itself as a craft.
- I can summarize my general research interests in a single phrase: “vernacular adaptations and uses of physical landscapes.”
- My preferred method is ethnographic, and my preferred community is teenagers, but that’s just a subset of my larger interests that I’ve laid out in the sentence before.
- My dissertation is done, I’m not just ABD… but it was pretty recent, so I’m not stale yet.
- I’m already contracted to be published at book length, not just articles.
Not to brag on my former self, but that’s a 67-word home run. That’s a pitch that gets the rest of the cover letter read attentively. And the rest of the cover letter is basically just an expansion of those points.
The problem is that I only know this now, twenty years too late. Nobody from the inside who’s sat on search committees and had to wade through the slush ever taught me this. Nobody from the inside ever worked with me, red pen in hand, to review my application materials to meet a hiring committee’s way of reading.