After the M.F.A.: A Real World Guide to Getting Hired in Higher Education
Part 1: The Application Process
Michael Wayne Hampton, Assistant Professor of English UC Clermont College
Spalding Alum (Fiction 05)
Once I graduated with my M.F.A. I had no idea how to translate it into a career. I had a vague notion that my degree qualified me to teach college classes, but since I attended a brief-residency program I didn’t have a clue about the hiring process or experience teaching freshmen courses while earning my Master’s degree. After a year of waiting tables, I was fortunate to have a college give me a shot. Now, over seven years later, I’ve moved up from an adjunct, to an annual adjunct, to a Visiting Assistant Professor of English, and finally to a full Assistant Professor of English tenure-track. I never would’ve been able to get this far had it not been for gracious friends who clued me in on what to do and expect. To help those of you interested in getting a college-level teaching position I offer this advice as both a professor who began where you are, and a former member of a Faculty Hiring Committee.
LOCATING OPEN TEACHING POSITIONS
The first thing you should understand is that your local paper and careerbuilder.com don’t help much when it comes to finding teaching positions as all faculty searches are required to be national if not international. To find open positions I’d encourage you to check the AWP’s job section, Chronicle.com, HigherEdJobs.com, and websites of colleges in your area.
The websites above, excluding local colleges, list available positions nationally, so you have to decide if you’re willing to move. The more open you are to relocating the more options you have.
Before applying to any position make sure you learn everything you can about the institution you want to apply to. This will let you know whether or not you’d be happy there, and more importantly provide vital information you’ll need before you go any further. Don’t just do your homework. Take notes. You’ll need them.
When applying to a college teaching position you essentially need three things other than your transcripts: your letter of application, your vitae, and a statement of your teaching philosophy. Each has its own standards which I’ll address briefly.
YOUR LETTER OF APPLICATION
First, your letter of application to a college is much different than a query letter. Rather than being brief and to the point, it should play up all that you’ve done and achieved at length while relating how each qualifies you to teach. Don’t be shy. Sell yourself. You might not realize it, but each of you already have a wealth of experiences to market.
By the time you graduate with your M.F.A. you’ve completed a good body of work in multiple genres. If some has been published stress that. If you haven’t been published, but have submissions out, don’t fail to mention that it’s currently under consideration and name the journals or publishers. This shows that you’re actively writing and engaged in creative and/or scholarly pursuits.
You’ve also completed an extended critical essay (ECE), and this should be written about at length to illustrate that you are a scholar and allow the search committee insight into your literary interests.
Additionally, you’ve given a graduate lecture. This is teaching experience since you lectured on a subject you’d studied deeply to underclassmen to widen their knowledge. If you’ve done any other teaching work, such as after school tutoring or volunteer work that’s writing related, relate the specifics of what you did and how it shaped you as an educator.
You’ve also read widely, so make it clear to the search committee that you have a breadth of literary knowledge that crosses genres to catch the eye of any literature professors who might be on the search committee.
Also mention the craft books which influenced you since many search committee will be made up of professors with backgrounds in composition pedagogy (the science and philosophy of teaching composition) who will want to know the theories and practices shaped you as a writer and scholar. If you haven’t read any composition theorists such as Bell Hooks, Peter Elbow, or Lad Tobin it’s a good idea to become familiar with one. Lad Tobin’s Reading Student Writing, and Nancy Sommers Responding to Student Writers are both quick reads that offer great insight into the practice of teaching writing.
In your letter of application be sure to show an understanding of not only the college, but what type of students they primarily serve. An open-access two-year institution in a rural area will have a much different student body than a large state university. The more you know about their students, the better equipped you are to make the case that you are the best candidate to serve them. I can’t stress how important this is since during the last faculty search I was involved in most all of the over a hundred and fifty candidates showed no knowledge of our college, our students, or what the position required.
Keep in mind that if this is your first teaching job you’ll likely be teaching beginning composition courses. To help your chances I’d suggest stating that your degree is an M.F.A in Writing (it is) rather than your chosen genre as this helps hiring committees appreciate its value. If you list M.F.A. in Poetry or Screenwriting you run the risk of giving the impression that you’re main interest and capability is limited to a single style of creative writing.
Lastly, make it clear that you’re enthusiastic and eager to serve the needs of their students however you can. For example you might want to express interest in volunteering at their writing center or helping out with their literary journal. College’s want to hire eager colleagues who will go out of their way to help their students, their department, and their institution at large.
It helps to see others’ letters of application so don’t be afraid to ask. I’m happy to share mine if you’d like to see it.
I’d never heard of a vitae before I started applying for teaching positions, but it’s basically an easy to read, detailed listing of all your educational, creative, and scholarly accomplishments. Your vitae is important because it’s a shorter read than your letter of application, and some hiring committee members will read the vitae first to sort out candidates who don’t fit the position.
A basic vitae has the following parts: your name and contact information, your educational history with institutions attended and major scholarly works, your professional affiliations (such as the AWP), your teaching experience, a listing of any panels of lectures you’ve given, a brief statement of scholarly and professional interests, a list of publications, a brief synopsis of current project, and the contact information for three references.
While I’ve touched on how to present your work during your M.F.A. to a committee above, there are a few helpful hints I can offer. Be sure to: list your mentors at Spalding; provide a detailed paragraph that address the nature and content of your ECE; include your graduate lecture under a “lectures and presentations” section with a brief, but detailed descriptions; include works you’ve had published or that are under consideration; contests you’ve been recognized in (even if you didn’t win); and any other skills or experiences that relate to and support your teaching ability.
While there is no set format for a vitae make sure that yours is professional, well-organized, and detailed. I’d encourage you to ask your mentors or friends who teach to share their vitae with you so that you have a better sense of how they should look. Mine is available under the “Teaching” link on my website michaelwaynehampton.com
As with your letter of application, consider how you can shape your academic and creative past toward teaching. A graduate lecture, volunteer work, informal writing groups, and after school tutoring all look better than no experience at all.
YOUR TEACHING PHILOSOPHY
Your teaching philosophy is a paragraph or two long statement of your personal approach to teaching, how you engage with students, and what you hope to accomplish with a class. This is a general statement, and should not be subject specific since a hiring committee is interested in your approach to teaching as whole. Are you flexible, or do you believe that fair, set guidelines are required to instill responsibility? Do you approach a class as a whole body working toward a common goal, or prefer to approach students as individual learners? While your teaching philosophy should be true to who you are, it’s important that you present yourself as an advocate for students whose ultimate goal is to enable them to reach theirs.
Colleges hire year-round, but there are often a lot of openings available during the last few weeks leading up to the semester as more section of a given course are added so stay vigilant, and don’t get discouraged.
In the next part of this series I’ll go over the interview process so that you have a clear understanding of what to do if you get the call to schedule a phone interview, then walk you through what you can expect if you get an on campus interview with the committee.