Job Applications Can Do Everything but Fake It
Dedria Humphries | September 2007
There was no putting it off. I needed to start reading the applications for our position. Ever mindful of my back and the long hours I clock sitting at the computer or with a book in my hand, I stood up to my computer on the high desk. At the college’s HR site, I logged into the application queue. Eighty-seven applications waited.
The position applications are hydra, many headed. They are like those of Linfield College of Oregon, which posted a position announcement in the AWP Job List in March 2007. Linfield called for a letter of application, c.v., college and graduate school transcripts, statement of teaching philosophy, twenty-five page writing sample, and three letters of recommendation to be considered for its tenure-track professor of Creative Writing, Prose.
After reading application six, I’m in a rhythm. I read the cover letter, resume, application, and statement, in that order. The two prose pieces--the human voice--usher me in and out of the applicant’s desire, and bracket the strictly informational. The prose fashions a story, or part of a story, into an experience. This is important because, bottom line, I am a reader. Search committee members, human resources, and hiring officers are all readers who crave a good read as much as the next person, maybe more because we read a lot.
The search process itself is a story. Kurt Vonnegut outlines several common story types in his book, Man Without a Country. The search process is closest to “Boy Meets Girl,” which, as Vonnegut describes it, “needn’t be about a boy meeting a girl.” He writes, “It’s (when): Somebody, an ordinary person, on a day like any other day, comes across something perfectly wonderful: Oh boy, this is my lucky day”...“Shit!”...And gets back up again.” There is rise and fall of action.
The luck of the Boy Meets Girl position application story is spying the vacant position calling for creative writing credentials. As a reader, I want the story to stop right there. The application takes liberties when it delves into the shit, and tries to write the happy ending about how lucky we the search committee are to find him. That part of the story is the search committee’s. It is an interactive story, after all.
Vonnegut explains why delving into the shit is a bad idea in his marketing tip on page 25 of A Man Without a Country. “The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick...” That goes double for search committee members. We’ve all been poor students, and sick people cannot help teach the classes that need to be taught. As a search committee member, I (and most business letter guides) want the cover letter and resume/c.v. to start with the good fortune, the degree, the basic qualifier for the position, and then to move on.
The Cover Letter
The cover letter develops story the way I teach it in my creative nonfiction course. It is memoir or essay. Unlike some fiction, nothing much need happen, but how many times at the Iowa Writers Workshop did I hear, whose story is this?
In cover letters, as in most memoirs, the answer is obvious. The story belongs to “I.” Job applications are first-person stories. The narrator/character is nicknamed “I.” (It must be; remember when Senator Bob Dole used the third person to refer to himself? He became the butt of jokes.)
The essay can do story. The essay, writer Annie Dillard is oft-quoted as saying, can do everything fiction can do, everything a poem can do, everything but fake it. Readers like me, who, around application fifteen, start to long for my bedside novel, sure hope so.
Characterization is among the foremost techniques of story. People love people. Details make the character come alive. “I, a fiction writer...” Three words which also tell something essential. The important thing a reading search committee member can gain from the position application is perspective on the applicant’s experience. This means the applicant, in writing the application, stepped back and viewed their experience as another would. That is tough, but creative nonfiction scholars do offer us help in understanding this.
It is the writer’s duty to characterize “I.” Think about who that is. Constructions abound in making that pronoun less obtuse. As a former journalist, I have an ingrained interest in what is going on in the world. My classroom chatter is based on real world concerns. In my case, “I” is the former journalist. Take every opportunity to characterize “I” in story, flash fiction, not novel.
The Iowa Writer’s Workshop taught me that a reader needs information in order to get the story. The same as any audience, I, the search committee reader, needs information to get it. The c.v. is the basic informational tool. It’s the backstory. It provides the information about “I’s” experience that the reader needs to sense the depth of where “I” has been. What happened and where is scene. Under publications, for instance, titles are not enough. What the heck is that? Linfield College, for one, wants to know it’s significant. Use the c.v. entry to set the scene.
“Paint.” Sundry: A Journal of the Arts, 2001. St. Clairsville, OH. My first fiction publication, “Paint,” is a dialog set in Detroit between a Chaldean store owner and a customer. It is patterned on Jamaica Kincaid’s “Gal.”
Even if the scene is a well-known one such as Ploughshares, provide a few words of description about the significance. Characterize the experience in carefully selected words.
In completing the college/company issued form application, information must be true. Everything that goes on the cover letter, resume/c.v., application, and statement has to be the complete truth. Not a little true. All the way true: particular places, particular times with particular people. Doing particular things. False statements can subject a person to prosecution and dismissal.
Search committees vet real people and their real experiences. My husband likes to ask, what do they call the last medical student who crosses the commencement stage? Doctor. Not a student of Stu Dybek’s? There are only so many of those. But don’t sweat it. They can’t all get jobs, can they?
I’m happy to speed read (taking notes, of course) through the informational pieces to the statement. I want to meet my main character wearing the flesh of prose. What is the applicant going to do now? Gratuitous wild exploits? I welcome them as long as they advance the story. At my college, the story focuses on the mission of the community college and the applicant’s view of it. Linfield Colleges wants a statement of teaching philosophy. It’s an assignment put together to tease out suitability of the applicant to the institution or program. It can be a true story, if the conflict is between two good things. Search committees are not looking for people who can bring conflict. But it touches me more as a character sketch, since I want to be sold on the applicant. I’m looking for a good teacher, who will bring good fortune to the program.
In my mind’s eye, I see applicants notating their experience to find the parts of the story that will expand their story. Linfield College’s announcement asked for a demonstrated proficiency as a teacher and reader of student fiction, and creative nonfiction, and a significant publication record. The reader in me hopes this end piece completes the ideas introduced in the cover letter, and ties together the information in the c.v., and the form application in a satisfying ending that makes sense. The statement is an answer to “why?” with examples.
“If you want to reveal someone’s character, actions speak louder than words,” writer Philip Lopate advised in his essay, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” “Give your ‘I’ something to do. It’s fine to be privy to all of “I’s” ruminations and cerebral nuances, but consciousness can only take us so far in the illumination of character.”
In terms of process, the applicant’s notes on their experience might be my students pass. Three went on to MFA programs. The department chair spends no time taking student complaints about me, my class, my conduct, or my grading. Four students applied and two won scholarships to attend writer’s conferences. Comments legible on student’s work. Returns student work at the next class meeting. Meets class on time every time. Knows every student’s name. Gets to class early for friendly chit-chat. Uses the textbook and supplements readings with recent literary journals excerpts. Scholarships were to the high caliber conferences such as Wesleyan Writer’s Conference and Yosemite Writers Conference. A section of the statement might shape up this way:
I believe my students deserve all the encouragement that I, a published fiction writer, expect from my teachers. Since before graduating from college, I have spent part of every summer at a writer’s conference, among them Wesleyan, Rope Walk, and Goucher. I bring conference brochures to class to share, and via the in-class computer teaching bunker, use the internet to visit the writer’s conference site. I talk my students through the site, telling them war stories, but also showing them what information they need, especially scholarship information, and where to find it. Several of my students have attended the same conferences I have.
Students must be shown that real people populate the literary world. The dead masters are fine, and we dialog with them across time and space in the text. But for conversation, for what is happening now, I need to show them some alive writers and where to find them and their work. This is also good advice for weaning them from the artificial environments of the internet.
The search committee reader thinks, ah, a writer who has strategies for plucking the scales from young writer eyes. The writer called attention to her best practices, the use of institutional resources, (that’s why they are there), and most importantly, characterized their own actions as a writer. This is a teacher who walks into class with opportunities for students. This teacher opens doors. Their statement shows and tells. The writer’s job is to take details and make the experience into something. Fact is stronger than fiction, not to mention more interesting and more powerful when done right. This is where creative nonfiction comes in.
The goal is what Barry Lopez writes about in his essay, “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction.”
“It is in creative nonfiction we try to divine from what we have done, who we have known, what we have dreamt, and how we have failed, an order to our lives...But how do we look at ourselves in order to best inform our readers that who we are matters, and is worthy of their attention?”
That is the question for creative writers seeking to write their way into a job. The answer is the position application. We search committee members want to read and know who this person is. As a colleague of mine said, “I have to live with this person for twenty years.” We want to know the next new faculty member laughs and loves their work and will do the best job possible--will be a credit to the department. We want to know that he or she is a person.
Reading position applications is more than a search. It’s an experience, a reading experience. My reading during the search resulted in invitations to conduct the interviews. Among those invited was the applicant whose twelve-page c.v. proved tedious reading and aroused questions about her ability to select pertinent information. I called her Ms. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. What a character.
Dedria Humphries is a professor of writing and published writer who teaches creative nonfiction at Lansing Community College in Michigan. Her writing on careers has been published in The Black Collegian magazine, and The New Physician: The Journal of the American Medical Student Association.