I've been on a job hunt the last few months. I'm up to 49 applications so far, and I don't plan on stopping soon. The market is exceptionally tight, but I'm learning a lot by trying to improve each application I submit. I'll readily admit the first few I wrote... well, let's just say they were a learning experience. Even recently, I've produced some documents which didn't do anything for me. I'm not clear on why I wrote them, and I didn't use them to demonstrate what I bring to a campus.
As a result, I'm feeling like a student again, but with a slightly better toolbox. I'm back to a moment all students face. Here's this thing everyone says is good for me: if I do it well, what I get changes life for the better. I'll be in a position where I can more easily help myself and others. But a lot of what I'm being asked to do seems pointless, if not mindless.
So I've found myself thinking about the general problem more than "How do I write an amazing statement about my teaching philosophy?" The problem is that I need more value from the process itself, not only a result. Further, this is not a conversation I can have with just anyone. A few prominent voices in my life are apt to panic, and when panic strikes, immediately blame me as the cause of it. If I speak to them about the situation, I'm both delusional for applying to so many places AND I'm not trying hard enough.
How to assess value, then? One thing that's clear to me, that's weird to say because I am privileged enough to be able to search for a job I want. What's clear: I live in a country where Donald Trump, Jr. is considered employed. When I think about the implications of that—"employed" acting as a synonym for success, for a kind of trust ("I don't have to think about you/doubt you")—I can see a moral value in really trying for a job that matters. The value of doing the applications well rests on building a record of accomplishment and arguing that even more can be accomplished. This is not simply advertising for oneself or one's wealth. And the moral value is not invalidated by a job market in extreme disrepair. The focus is on the future, not present comfort.
Still, this answer works for me now. I have an idea of what I've done and can offer. But what if I had less experience? What if I were a student again? In those cases, it is imperative that applying builds skills I need. But that raises the question of what skills are needed.
Writing application after application has resulted in a stack of documents with assertions of what I do and demonstrations of how I've done things. You're thinking duh, of course. But until it was time to hunt for a job, I didn't think much about putting a portfolio together. I might present on practices which work for my classes or blog about the material I taught. That's not the same as grasping I have a strength or skill. It's certainly not the same as being able to talk about either.
So I've turned to other resources to better understand what it is I actually do. One of them is How College Works by Dan Chambliss and Chris Takacs. The book is absurdly good: most of it is students talking about what worked for them at Hamilton College. Hearing their voices helps me better understand what my students have tried to tell me. A lot of times, I can see when students got more out of an assignment or felt more comfortable in the classroom. I can see markers of progress in my class. Still, how can I be sure I'm helping them get what they need from college?
For that last question, I need a sense of the whole. How does college work? Chambliss and Takacs don't mince words: "what really matters in college is who meets whom, and when" (16). Friends, mentors, extracurriculars which are a career unto themselves—in short, what they call the "college community"—are nearly a "prerequisite" for getting anything out of school (39, 4). This doesn't mean to make my classroom a social club, or to try and mentor everyone. It does mean to be aware that small decisions can be incredibly fruitful. Attending a meeting of a club with students after class has power. So does asking your students about their other classes or future plans. I knew a professor who had a student for all 4 years of undergrad and only asked them about their plans in the latter half of their senior year. Needless to say, the student was underwhelmed.
It's eye-opening to realize I have value because of what I take for granted. I'm of this mindset: Of course you ask your students how they're doing and what they want. Why else would you teach? It's also eye-opening to realize that this may not count for anything when job hunting. There are simply too many people competing for too few spots. Thus, the question presents itself again: How else can I realize value from this process?
Quite by accident, I found something I needed years ago.
I want to use LinkedIn better so I can make those posts which can be read in an NPR voice. You know the ones. The ones which tell a story that could be on Marketplace or This American Life.
Thus I sat and watched one of those LinkedIn Learning courses, Morgan Ingram's "LinkedIn Creator Posting Strategy." There's no way I would have appreciated this earlier. I'd have treated it like I would any corporate training video.
But when you're on a job hunt and wondering what really counts, Ingram's command of the basics speaks volumes. For example, he wants to get a definition of a personal brand out there for people who've never heard of such a thing. So he starts talking about The Rock, and how success in wrestling turned into success in Hollywood. The example is perfect: The Rock is nothing but branding, and extremely personal branding at that. Because it's wrestling, yeah, there's some talk about how you're going to design the face/heel you play, but the vast majority of what you do is up to you. The neat thing is how having a thoroughly silly persona–calling people "jabronis," telling opponents to drink "shut up juice," and of course dropping an elbow as a finisher—turned into cultural relevance for over two decades.
On the one hand, what The Rock did is uniquely his. On the other, it's gotta be possible to get a bit more out of what I say and do, especially on this job hunt. I have to demonstrate some personality with regard to an end, not just fill out applications hoping I don't say the wrong thing. Ingram eventually follows his example of The Rock with this question: What do you want to be known for?
I'm sitting in front of my computer, watching this video geared toward sales professionals, and realizing this is exactly the question I need to ask. And its not on my mind at all. I'm being asked about my teaching philosophy, research agenda, student success, what my syllabus and assignments are like—I'm being asked to prove I'm "better." But better than what? For what reason? Better so the committee can make a decision.
I mean, I get it. At some point, someone has to get hired. Ingram's question, ironically enough, shows the limits of the process. There's only so much I can get from applying for all these jobs. What I want to be known for by definition transcends these things. It's an important lesson—if not the most important lesson—to pass on to students. School doesn't demand so you lean on it for praise. We're only doing our job when our students value themselves, no matter what.
Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014