Should you write it in the first place? You don't have to apply for every job in your field. In fact, fresh out of grad school you shouldn't even apply for a job with a heavy teaching load--4/3 or higher is pretty much the norm in the public "satellites"--unless you love teaching, can speak and write cogently about your experience and approaches, and can realistically finish the dissertation before you start the job. Or unless there's something about the school and/or the location that make that job too attractive not to take a shot at it before it's snapped up. Keep in mind you'll be going up against people struggling to escape the adjunct track or another tenure-track job/place. Unless you can seriously imagine yourself living and working there, save yourself the time, money, and anxiety and focus on the jobs you care the most about.
Do your research. It took me three searches before I landed a tenure-track job. For all of them, even the last one, I was mostly focused on Research I universities and liberal arts colleges, at which I was getting to the MLA interview stage at a decent rate but no further. My three on-campus visits (the first during the second search) were all at public satellites, so by the last one, I kind of figured out how to handle myself in them, and lo and behold, that's the one that resulted in an offer. The irony is that even though the school that hired me was in my home state, I had never heard of it before I saw their job ad. So I actually had done a fairly serious amount of research on the place to help me decide whether to apply in the first place. Which brings me around to the point of this paragraph. Since the "academic job market" has gotten even more competitive while information about universities and departments has become so much easier to get over the past decade, it's imperative to figure out something about your audience before you customize your standard letter. And if you aren't motivated to customize your letter, maybe you shouldn't be applying to a school you've never heard of in the first place.... I can't tell you how many letters by people from top-notch grad programs ended up in the reject bin over the past ten years b/c they were obviously composed with a much different kind of institution than ours in mind--but it's a big number. And an hour or two of research could have made the difference for a lot of these people.
OK, so given how unknowable your actual audience is, how do you customize your letter? It's true, at most a few people from the personnel committee will be reading your letter the first time around, although if it's good everyone will eventually have read it, as will those interviewing you at MLA (several of whom are likely not to be on the personnel committee). The literature searches I've been closely involved in all involved hundreds of applicants, too many for any one person to read. So we would try to ensure that each letter had two sets of eyes on it, and three if there was a serious disagreement between the original pair. In practice, however, unless the letter and c.v. screamed "top candidate," it was unlikely to survive the first cut--narrowing the several hundred down to the 25-50 top candidates for the 8-12 MLA interview slots. In some searches, we asked for a full dossier--evidence of teaching effectiveness, a writing sample, letters of recommendation, and sometimes more--from this pool. Other times, we asked for less. More on that stage later--the key issue now is how to increase the likelihood that your letter makes the first cut. Well, this is where your research on the school/department comes in.
- Clearly you're applying to a teaching institution, so make the case from the start that you're ready to step right in and step up as a teacher. If you must discuss your research early, do so in a way that sets up your teaching paragraph well. A bit on your overall approach (to course design as well as pedagogy) is fine, but well-chosen specifics (like teaching awards, experience with designing your own courses, patterns in your teaching evaluations, the kinds of courses you're looking forward to designing at the school) can help show the personnel committee that you've thought seriously about what you can contribute to the department.
- From looking at the list of faculty and their teaching and research interests, you can make a quick approximation as to what kind of search this is: augmenting a department strength, filling a "coverage" gap or otherwise balancing or diversifying the department, moving the department in a new direction entirely.... You can also get a rough sense of how much hiring they've been able to do in the previous decade. The key thing to look for is how many colleagues in your fields and sub-fields you can expect to have, not least as a quick estimate of the likelihood that the personnel committee will have anyone in them on it. Reminding yourself that you're writing for non-specialists will do you a world of good--not just in describing your research and suggesting how it matters, but also in framing your teaching and the kinds of courses you could (and most want to) offer. This will also come in handy as you decide what other material to send the school and prepare for the MLA interview (if all goes well).
- You can also learn a lot by looking at the requirements of the major and whatever course descriptions you can find (online syllabi, catalog, etc.). Does everyone teach comp regularly or occasionally? What kinds of introductory-level courses would you be expected to teach and how are they organized--as introductions to the discipline, surveys of British and American lit, genre-based world literature courses, criticism- or theory-or "teaching the conflicts"-based courses, or what? On a 4/3, you'll get plenty of opportunities to teach in your specialties, but you'll also be pitching in on the required courses. If the catalog tells you how often the department's courses are supposed to be offered, it'll also give you a pretty good sense of where faculty and student interests lie at that school.
OK, so I know something about the place, the school, faculty, and department...is there anything else I can do to show my interest in a place besides customizing my teaching and research paragraphs? Yeah, since capital-starved institutions--and you can bet that public regional universities fit this bill--rely so much on adjunct labor, the service responsibilities on tenured and tenure-track faculty are very high. So any experience you have in helping create or sustain or improve an academic institution is worth describing. Also, your last paragraph is a good place to drop any hints you feel need to be dropped. Often faculty at public satellites (especially older ones not familiar with any job market since the 1970s) are wondering (with various levels of anxiety, self-deprecation, paranoia, and cynicism) why you are applying for the position in the first place. If you can close with any honest and specific answers to this question, do it.
When we're reading letters and c.v.s, we're not just judging the quality of the candidates in the abstract, we're also trying to figure out how seriously they're interested in us and what kind of colleagues they'd be. We don't want to waste an MLA interview on someone for whom we're just a "safety school" or a "practice run." We want to be in a position where we'd be excited to work with any of the MLA interviewees. Given how much time and energy goes into the search on our side, we don't want a failed search. And given that we're competing with other teaching institutions and often research institutions for our top candidates, we have to be prepared to move down our list quickly if our first offer gets turned down. While a great letter alone won't get you in our top 10ish, it can either open or close the door. Taking the extra three hours to research us and revise your standard letter accordingly is time well-spent. And if you think otherwise, it's better not to send the letter at all.
[Update (10/21/07): undine has joined in.]