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CV — the very letters strike fear in many a job seeker’s heart. I get around that emotional impasse by thinking of the curriculum vitae as found poetry. Emily Dickinsonian. Haiku-esque. I relish the telegraphic phrases of a pared down and parsed life. A CV walks the line between Gradgrindian fact and Whitmanian catalogues of possibility. In addition, writing an application letter after constructing a CV is considerably easier. You’re simply putting flesh and fashion on good bones.

Like many an extraordinary work of art, an engaging CV slyly warps the conventions of a staid genre into a particular, individualized incarnation. The genre is clearly defined, and, frankly, that makes obsessive worries about whether the “teaching” section should precede or follow the “research” section not worth a lot of time. Only one rule cannot be violated: leave no mysteries. Search committees read your materials not to trip you up, but in the hope that you won’t trip them up with confusing details, unexplained gaps, or inconsistencies across your various documents.

Models abound, and the format varies somewhat by discipline. For example, scientists usually have grants and always list dollar amounts; humanities scholars rarely have grants and even more rarely include dollar amounts (maybe because they’re so small relative to those of scientists). The best way to learn the conventions of the CV in your discipline is to read a good number of them. You can find the CVs of faculty members online, but ask recent graduates of your program to share theirs, which will be more in line with expectations for a new faculty member.

The format of a CV should be as clear and easy on the eyes as possible. Use white space and highlighting to mark divisions and category headings. Use 12 point type. Ask a friend with a strong visual sense to look at the document for its appearance rather than content. Just by looking at the shapes on the page, can a reader comprehend the relationships of the parts to the whole? Are headings for major and minor categories precise and consistent? Don’t get carried away with fonts or decoration, but do include your name and page numbers throughout. In academe, we tend to be reverse snobs (if we’re snobs at all). Most of us prefer simple fonts and plain white paper to flourishes and flax, at least when it comes to application materials.

Usually a CV is organized into categories of information that move from what you consider the most significant information (scholarship and teaching) to less crucial details (service and memberships). This ordering principle is the reason people torture themselves about whether teaching should take precedence over scholarship, fretting that one should vary the order to appeal to the priorities of different types of institutions. The simple and reasonable solution is to prepare two versions of your CV. If a college focuses on teaching in its mission statement, stress your teaching experience. You might even include crisp descriptions of each course in your CV or in an attached summary sheet. I have invited a group of liberal arts professors I highly esteem to meet with our graduate students in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be happy to report their opinions (and welcome yours) on this subject. That conundrum aside, you’ll want to include

  • Your name and contact information: address, email, various phone numbers.
  • Educational history: Note undergraduate and graduate degrees with schools and dates. If you haven’t received your final degree yet, be sure to note the expected date of graduation (or Ph.D. defense).
  • Research and teaching interests (either grouped together or in separate categories). But be honest. What could you teach tomorrow?
  • Dissertation: Most people include the title, the name of the dissertation director, and a three-sentence description that captures the topic, angle, and significance of the project.
  • Work history (usually teaching experience): List relevant positions of responsibility and paid employment.
  • Awards and fellowships.
  • Publications: If you have published your work, excellent. But remember that a stunning dissertation can also win the day.
  • Conferences and presentations.
  • Additional experience: service, committees, volunteer work.
  • Memberships in professional organizations.
  • List the names of faculty members and others who have written letters for you. Include contact information for your university placement service (if they have your letters, etc.).

That seems fairly straightforward, but you can imagine the work that went into a Dickinson poem and a Whitman “list” before they fell into our hands. As you turn the list into your application avatar, consider both general and specific refinements.

You want to avoid several missteps. Do not pad your CV with trivial information. It will only raise questions about your reliability (or delusional tendencies). I repeat: do not create mysteries. If a three-year gap sits between your college graduation and your first year in graduate school, account for that time in your letter if not in the CV. You don’t need to go into personal details, just come up with a succinct explanatory phrase.

Often creative writers note a title “of something they have written” and the name of a journal. I’m left wondering if these 20 items are poems, short stories, or extended articles. If you could be creating mysteries, add a phrase of description (and in this case add page numbers) to guide readers. Be sure that every publication is cited in the preferred format for your discipline; don’t omit any details such as dates or page numbers. Avoid repetition. If your article won a prize, it’s probably best to note the prize when you list the publication rather than noting the award and the article in different categories. Wherever you note the award, avoid mentioning it twice. Also, help your readers understand the trajectory of your career by following a consistent chronology throughout each section of the CV. List your most recent accomplishments first and work backwards from there in each section.

On the other hand, you can communicate your understanding of the needs and values of higher education by making subtle, smart distinctions. Giving a talk at the local library is a fine thing to do, but alas, it doesn’t have the same status as giving a talk at your main professional organization. If you have given several talks of various kinds, note distinctions within the category “Presentations” by using subcategories such as “Local” and “National.” If you have only given two talks, grouping them together is fine.

Similarly, if you have published several book reviews, an encyclopedia article, and one full-length article, you might use subcategories under “Publication” such as “Article” and “Shorter Works” or “Reviews.” The easier it is for committee members to grasp your information the better. Imagine a weary committee suddenly realizing that your “Publications” section, which seemed to include five articles, really refers to four short entries and an article. That is not a good thing for others to have to figure out. Moreover, that very committee might have been impressed if they’d seen the same details, but without the sense that the facts had been slightly, even if unintentionally, obscured. Similarly, if you have received honors, fellowships, or grants from organizations outside your university, distinguish between internal and external awards. No mysteries.

When it comes to your teaching, step back from your immediate experiences and think about your discipline at a national level. Course numbers from your institution are meaningless elsewhere; so are vague titles such as “Literature.” If you have taught such courses, offer a descriptive title. Clearly indicate whether you were the instructor with full responsibility for the course or an assistant to a professor. Both are valuable, but different experiences.

On the other hand, if certain aspects of your work really do break with convention, be inventive! A couple of our graduate students interested in literature and environmental studies have undertaken discipline-defying place-based research and teaching. They’ll want to communicate how innovative their work is. In recent years, I’ve been stubbornly adding the category “Public Scholarship” to distinguish what I consider work in the public humanities from too often devalued categories like “outreach” and “service.” While most readers probably ignore that category, I’m confident it will catch the attention of like-minded scholars. I hope these unique graduate students will also take a little poetic license with their CVs.

In my invented category, I sometimes add a phrase of description because the projects it holds aren’t likely to be easily recognizable to colleagues. When projects do require clarification, remember that concision is the hallmark of this genre. The accompanying letter (the subject of my next column) lets you flex your descriptive muscles.

For all the rigidity of the CV genre, imagine yourself as a poet in your final revision. Can you substitute a concrete, sense-quickening noun or verb here or there that brightens institutional gray with a flash of color? In the short paragraph describing your dissertation, can you substitute one of those flat, leaden Latinate verbs with a more precise verb? Why are we so wedded to I examine, I interrogate, I utilize — and when did we decide utilize was a better word than use? Simply by replacing verbs in passive voice with active verbs, you can energize even a phrase and improve clarity at the same time. Consider the difference between “The outcome was predicted” and “I predicted this outcome” or “Charles Darwin predicted this outcome.”

Finally, ask several people to read drafts of your CV. Be sure to choose a few people who don’t know much about you. Consider trading materials with a job seeker in another field or even another discipline. That way you can help each other to locate confusing details, seeming inconsistencies, and potential mysteries. Double check to be sure all of your materials are completely consistent. (Did you tuck the title of your dissertation into your CV two years ago before you updated the title in your new application letter? Do all the dates of your activities match up?) Be certain that all contact information is correct, both your own and that of your referees. Then proofread and proofread again. The document should be free of errors.

The fantasy that great poetry is written in a flash of genius (or in a state of intense inebriation) is an invention we’ve held onto far too long. When I have to produce prose in administrative genres — like a CV — I derive immense comfort by imagining Emily Dickinson writing, crossing out, ripping up, and clearing the bramble of words until she produced lines that can startle the dullest reader into awareness of a mind — bold, curious, impish, in process.

I know that’s a high bar to set for the lowly CV — especially when Dickinson herself protests, “How dreary to be somebody!/ How public, like a frog,” which is exactly what creating these application materials can feel like. Still, such thoughts didn’t stop her. Maybe that’s why I find those lines and their glimmer of sustaining humor and self-awareness of far greater use when I head into a challenge like the job market than either Byronic ambitions or angst.

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