Beyond Research-Teaching Divide

A successful pitch to a liberal arts college needs to involve more than just doing the opposite of what one might do for a research university, writes Christopher Leise.

September 17, 2014

An informal review of recent commentary in higher-education-focused publications — particularly in recent articles focused on career failure — more or less reflects what I was taught in graduate school: placement advice typically divides positions into those focused on research and those focused on teaching. In point of fact, there are marked degrees between the research-first and teaching-first poles, gradations that many graduate students tend to assess poorly. And too few job applicants recognize that when applying for these positions. Graduate faculty with whom I’ve recently spoken also expressed genuine surprise when I explained the reality of my position at a liberal arts college and how people best succeed at attaining a position like mine.

The faculty members of many small colleges enjoy robust support with reasonable expectations for research output. We teach eager, inquisitive students who respect the title of “professor” (even when they do call you by your first name), whose whip-smart input enriches research almost as much as engaging with graduate students can. We also privilege qualities and attributes that applicants rarely know to exhibit in applications, interviews, and campus visits. If you’re early in your academic training and hoping to work at a small liberal arts college (henceforth SLAC), I hope the following narrative will help encourage you to build a broad base of knowledge and forge an innovative, multidisciplinary or cross-period dissertation that resists overly narrow, trendy thinking and instead gives you a wider sense of what your field of expertise is and can do. Similarly, if you’re on the job market applying to this range of institutions (no matter what stage of your career), I hope this will help you craft an application packet that speaks to the hiring committees at a given SLAC, which you should know can often comprise the entire department plus surprising outside members.

By way of context: As of this year, my department will have nine full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty members. We will graduate somewhere between 20 and 30 major students — making us one of the most popular departments in a college enrolling around 1,500 — while also serving as members of cross-disciplinary programs such as gender studies, race and ethnic studies, environmental humanities, and so forth. I am one of two academic Americanists teaching literature; our three creative writing specialists will round out our coverage of American literature as a whole. Because we are few, we all wear many hats. For example, in my short career, I’ve been tasked with teaching surveys of American literature from pre-Contact through to the contemporary moment; introductory fiction courses; the gateway methods course to the major; literary theory; multi-ethnic literatures of the U.S., special-topics courses from the 100- to the 400-level; plus numerous other courses. I have it on good authority that I was plucked from a pile of some 375 applications because I was prepared to teach such a broad range of courses, and I enjoy doing so. Allow me to rephrase: I love it.

How I got here was a deliberate reaction to not understanding colleges and universities in high school. I failed to apply to elite undergraduate colleges and universities and after graduating I did not earn admission to an elite graduate program. (No offense intended to my undergraduate faculty; my peer group simply prioritized bongs over books.) The large state institution where I did my graduate study employs many very impressive faculty members who issue letters of recommendation beneath a nondescript letterhead. From the first day of graduate school, Harvard University’s regal crimson and Johns Hopkins University’s bumblebee robes iconographically dwarfed my forthcoming unremarkable, solid-colored hood. The pressure this created shaped my approach to training for and eventually applying to SLACs.

Caveat emptor: the strategy outlined below frustrated and confused my graduate-school advisers; the advice should be read as mine alone and not as the voice of all SLAC faculties. To earn employment doing the thing I loved — teaching and writing about contemporary American fiction — I decided to take coursework in many periods and on many topics, partly in hopes of finding a project that was at once traditional (so as to demonstrate competence with established knowledge) and unprecedented. I designed a dissertation that prepared me to teach many different courses and to distinguish my work from the trend-seekers and acolytes of superstars. Instead, I focused on things fewer people like very well (the colonial period: hooray sermons!), and complemented those interests with something everyone in my field needs (a comprehensive understanding of multi-ethnic American literatures). Eventually, I wrote a study that considered representations of Puritanism in postmodern American novels, emphasizing continuity in American forms and genres across periods.

My graduate faculty cautioned me against being “neither fish nor fowl,” neither fully expert in early American or modern literature; others said I would “slip through the cracks.” Theirs was not ill-intentioned advice, it simply issued from — as I see it — unacknowledged blind spots in their perspectives. Almost all these advisers graduated from elite undergraduate universities, with scores of specialists on the faculty, into similarly appointed graduate programs. They knew little of the boy with a store-brand B.A. and a mid-tier Ph.D. who was pursuing a job in departments with single-digit tenured or tenure-track lines. Ironically, by failing to attain my professors’ high levels, I saw a different path through the landscape of my field. I realized that while I may never be the strongest thinker in any one specialized discourse, I might be one of a few applicants who could honestly claim adequate expertise in multiple areas to teach undergraduates in a complete and compelling manner.

With relatively little teaching experience, I decided to risk what has been called the “VAP trap,” a visiting assistant professor position, which I now know many SLAC hiring committees understand as the equivalent of a postdoc. We are cautious about appointing inexperienced teachers to three-year contracts: that represents three-quarters of a student’s very important and expensive experience. That visiting job gave me two years’ full-time teaching, plus a bevy of lifelong friends. It was a hard time, as I finished an edited volume, and wrote a brand-new article that helped expand my dissertation into the early stages of a real book, all while teaching a 4-4 load. Yes, I do think success requires this kind of hard work and sacrifice.

Of course, I know luck plays a role in any appointment. Nevertheless, a certain set of my choices put me in a strong position relative to my competitors. My graduate-school iconoclasm and unusual research agenda contributed to that advantage — for while many extraordinary specialists had applied to the position, their dissertations projected an image of a narrow or inflexible instructor. Now, from the other side of the interview room, I see how overspecialization disqualifies most of the brilliant people with whom I’ve spoken about filling our SLAC’s open positions. Many can talk in great depth about content that simply cannot fit in our curriculum, while demonstrating little ability to do what we at SLACs privilege: connect those ideas across periods and disciplinary presumptions. These candidates can answer difficult questions, but rarely pose the kinds of challenging queries I constantly impress my students to devise.

Another advantage in applying for my current job (which came by accepting my visiting position) was that I developed a clearer understanding of the college and university terrain. For one, I learned how to see small departments’ needs and gaps, thereby arming me to write directly to issues that did not necessarily announce themselves in job postings. Is a history department relying on its Latin Americanist to cover its Canadian history offerings? Mock up a syllabus that will lighten that load, and remark on it in your job letter. Additionally, I learned how important are first-year programs for undergraduate-focused liberal arts institutions. Almost every job advertisement for these schools asks candidates to explain how their backgrounds prepare them for such distinctive programs; these are imperatives, not suggestions. So, too, are diversity statements. Ignore them at your peril.

Writing specifically to each institution is laborious and time-consuming, but so are department and college service, as well as other parts of full-time working life. If tailoring a letter to my institution exceeds your time-management abilities, then that suggests you may find the labor of small-college faculty governance too great to suffer gladly. Worse, it might leave me with the sense that you regard yourself as better than us. That would be fine: you may be better than us, but we feel no students exceed ours; therefore, no one is above teaching them. Failing to acknowledge that means failing to understand SLACs.

Over my “VAP trap” time, I hope I learned how to give voice to my cover letters. Many graduate student letters (and some by established faculty) are tremendously dull, providing scrupulous and superfluous details about a research agenda that, if I cared to know well, would be intelligible from a writing sample request. I don’t mean to overly downplay the role of research in our hiring. My colleagues have no interest in conducting another search in six years’ time, so we need evidence you’re on track to publish enough good material for tenure. But when small colleges hire, my experience shows that they hire people who have expertise their department lacks. It can be difficult for a Renaissance specialist to gauge a contemporary Americanist’s relatively minute (however important) intervention into a field, but he will read your material and vote on your appointment nevertheless. So, too, might a biologist.

Thus, strong letters are those that help us see a potential future colleague in front of a classroom, sharing a coffee with one of our students, and seated around our department’s meeting table (yup, we fit around one table; it’s probably not the room-filled affair you may have attended in graduate school). The best letters tell us more than what you think; they help us feel why you care about sharing those ideas with undergraduates in a classroom as much as with peer scholars in journals and books. Such letters exude enthusiasm for teaching without getting mired down in tedious assignment examples; they indicate your ability to model the research process, or (better) how you actively involve undergraduates in your research agenda.

I know how many of you are feeling: you can only control so much about how committees perceive your preparedness for a position. My successful run at the job market came during arguably the worst period for hiring in recent history — the Modern Language Association Job List was released that year just as Bear Stearns collapsed and the stock markets plummeted, and every college and university endowment along with it. It seemed a posting was retracted every other day; after years of sending out 70 to 80 applications, I think fewer than 30 of my appeals remained viable by the end of the season. I believe success came when my application materials spoke directly to the departments who interviewed me, because it was a third kind of letter, bridging the research-teaching divide. Rejecting the overly simplified binary, I tried to represent an ideal SLAC teacher-scholar. The contents of my cover letter demonstrated I knew the job to which I was applying and that I wanted that job (not just any job); it proved that my background prepared me to make the many contributions necessary in a liberal arts community for 30 years or so.

(Email me in January, when my tenure case is decided, to see if they think that was a good choice.) I hope this helps you do similarly well.

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Christopher Leise is an assistant professor of English at Whitman College. Co-editor of essay collections on William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, he has written essays for such publications as Studies in the Novel, African American Review, MELUS and Philological Quarterly. He is completing work on his first monograph, which considers the historiography of colonial New England in contemporary American fiction


Christopher Leise

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