Good Write, Sweet Prince: Applying at Community Colleges

Meg Files | March 2002

It may be true that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. But I've just read half a zillion applications for one community college position, and many of the applicants looked a lot like royalty, with dreamy vitae listing awards and prizes and honors and publications and degrees and experience. Had the screening committee nothing but c.v.s to go by, narrowing the pool to a dozen for interviews and then a half dozen for teaching demonstrations and then one Chosen One would have been very difficult. Many of the applications would have rated high, I'd hazard, at universities. But lots of the applicants stayed in frogdom when it came to their application letters and their answers to our screening questions, perhaps because they might not have understood the differences and the process. How can your application make it to the throne room?

Know Your Passion (And Do the Math)

Recognize the differences between university and community college teaching. (And think about your own professional goals, beyond your need for a day job.) Where are your passions? University teaching may emphasize research and publications and opportunities to work with graduate students, as well as quality teaching. Community college teachers' work load (five classes of 27 students each per semester at Pima Community College: you do the math) means there's no such thing as a "day" job; the emphasis is on quality teaching of developmental, introductory, and intermediate writing and literature classes to a wonderfully diverse population. Writers may find carving out time for their own work a real trick, after the week's 135 papers have been graded (and by you, not a grader or teaching assistant). If you're still sure you want to apply for a community college position, devote more application space to your passion for teaching, your experience with (or at least interest in) students of various levels and backgrounds, and your student-centered teaching philosophy, and less to an abstract of your complicated dissertation and your scholarship. Instead of including a writing sample, understand that the application letter is your writing sample.

Practice What You Preach

You want to teach writing? Show us you can write. In student writing, we encourage clarity. Go easy on academic jargon while gracefully including the right buzzwords (part of the trick is to mean what you say). Find ways to avoid passive voice without too much I, I, I. Make sense. Don't call meter and rhyme "poetic forms." Rather than a densely academic or overly formal tone and level of diction, go for the natural, graceful voice to which we hope to lead our student writers.

In student writing, we encourage specific support for declarations. Make your answers thorough and specific, and mention sufficient points and examples so as to increase your chances of hitting the right buttons. Go into detail. Perhaps your two sentences are so pithy they say all: but work with us here. It's not enough to say you know various current trends and methodologies: show us. Don't just say you use multi-modal approaches: provide evidence. Don't just say you've read about a topic or taken classes in it: be specific. Multi-cultural? Do more than say you use a Sherman Alexie story in your class or that the literature anthology includes a variety of writers. Do more than list courses you've taught. Your students are required to support their theses, no?

In student writing, we encourage significance. Let your own passion for writing, literature, and teaching show. And as in any good writing, you can't just name it and expect us to believe it. We all know that the writing reveals the writer. Can we hear your authentic voice or only empty, airy vagueness? Who are you? Do we want to share an office with you? Are you stiff? Are you cutesy? (Just a hint: don't begin your letter "Greetings, earthlings.") Are you pompous? Borrowed grandiosity or faked eloquence will ring hollow.

In student writing, we expect proofreading and polishing. Understand that syllabi and curricula are plurals. And yes, comma splices will work against you. References to the literary "cannon" make applications go ka-boom. Appearance counts. Use a standard font and spacing, and don't hand write any more than your signature. Don't e-mail your application.

Spell It Out

It's your letter addressing the job description and your answers to paper-screening questions that will make or break you, not your c.v. or your letters of recommendation. (Do include these, whether we ask or not. Do read between the lines of your letters as you decide which to include.) But don't let your c.v. do the talking. Don't say "refer to my résumé": explain, even though it may seem obvious or repetitious. Let c.v. and letters support but not replace what you say. Spell it out. Address each aspect and criterion of the job description. The committee is scoring you with points, so there's a danger in offering only a couple concise sentences. Give details and provide evidence.

If there are specific paper-screening questions, number your answers to correspond-and then answer each question. Don't make screeners work to ferret out which of your pages match which questions. Remember, again, that they're assigning points. For instance, we gave points from 0 ("Applicant did not provide any information to address the criteria") to 5 ("Applicant provided comprehensive information which clearly demonstrated superior understanding of major issues, the interrelationship of the criteria with various operational areas, and in-depth technical knowledge in the subject area. Approach was appropriate, comprehensive, and credible"). Look at your responses as if you were on the committee. Try assigning points.

Clearly address each question. If they're asking you about your ability to teach literature, well, tell them. They may be weighting questions, though you have no way of knowing that, so give every question your all. The committee is going to have a scoring key, with hoped-for answers. (You'll be able to second-guess what some of those answers are, but we're looking for more than buzzwords. If your approaches and philosophy don't match ours, then you wouldn't be any happier with us than we would be with you.) Don't combine answers to several questions. If questions appear redundant, examine them to determine what they are separately addressing.

Go For Broke

Give it your all. You have serious competition. If you're half-hearted about the application, give up the effort and go to the movies. And beware: if you're already an adjunct instructor at the college to which you're applying, a weak application could jeopardize that position. Here are additional do's and don'ts:

Cut and paste seamlessly, if you must. On many an application I saw clumps of exact repetitions, with the dried paste obtruding between paragraphs.

Use opportunities to tell us what's special about you and your experience. What conference presentations have you made? How do you stay current in the field? What are your publications? (A writing teacher who actually writes? Oh goodie.) Have you taught in another country? Are you interested in a certain body of minority literature? What ways do you use technology in the classroom and to connect with your students?

Don't wimp out. Rather than "Well, I don't really know but if hired I'll find out," find out first. Rather than "I've had little experience with.," try "I'm eager for the chance to."

Be honest with us and with yourself. Honesty helps. Were you in drug rehab in '73? Okay, if you've got your act together now. Were you fired as a speech writer for a senator because of political differences? Okay, we understand. Were you convicted of sexual harassment? Find another line of work. You were in the Peace Corps? Advance to go.

Be Your (Best) Self

Here are final tips for when you're out of the frog pond and into interview and teaching demonstration territory:

Consider yourself a real candidate. A local adjunct may be the favorite, but the committee will be scoring answers to interview questions and trying for objectivity, so upsets happen.

Follow your mother's advice: Just be yourself, honey. Yes, the committee members are rating and judging you, but they're rooting for you, too. They already like you on paper, and like an audience at a poetry reading, they're prepared to be impressed and charmed and amused by you in person.

Be specific. Don't worry about repeating what you've said on your application. The committee has read a stack of pages three feet high and will experience a little jolt of pleasure at the recognition. More importantly, consider that members are no doubt assigning points to your answers, so do what you did on paper: give them the details.

Most committees will have a prepared set of questions, with hoped-for answers. The committee chair will sheepishly read a little speech of introduction, and members will proceed to ask one question, each in the same order during each interview. (Ignore the tape recorder. Probably nobody will ever listen to the tape.) Conference-call telephone interviews may be trickier than face-to-face interviews because you can't read body language, though they do make it easier to use your cheat sheet, but the process is the same. The committee may not be allowed to clarify questions or to ask follow-up questions, and it's awkward to wind down. Don't worry about filling up dead air. If you understand the committee's restrictions, with that HR person present to ensure equal opportunity, you won't think silence means you're bombing.

Use the chance, when at last you're asked if there's anything else you'd like to add, to tell them what they probably want to know but can't ask. Do you have some minority ancestry or upbringing? Why do you want to leave your current job? Why do you want to move to the town (or stay in it)? Why did you leave your previous job? What's special about the school that attracts you?

Use the opportunity, when at last you're asked if there's anything you'd like to know, to ask questions that show you're familiar with student demographics and the college's mission statement, that probe beyond the obvious. Use the chance to inquire about the college, the students, the faculty. Have you ever known a teacher who didn't like sharing?

Be neat. Is the lining hanging out of your jacket? Is your bra strap showing? (At the same time. are those heels and pearls really you?) Lose props such as Chapstick or water bottle: you won't notice your compulsive employment of them, but the committee will.

For teaching demos, ignore the artificiality of the situation and go ahead and teach. Remember that you're showing off your teaching here more than your scholarship, so don't lecture too much and do make the class interactive.

Pima Community College will be interviewing candidates again this spring. If those seeking community college positions in the Southwest follow all this advice, the ending will be happy indeed.


Meg Files is the chair of the West Campus English Department at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.

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