How to write a Rejection Letter: Do’s and Don’ts

Recently, my students told me that it’s a ritual among college students to post the first letter of rejection they ever receive on their dorm door. It’s a badge of honor, and it creates a certain community among the job searchers, Generation unpaid Internship laughing through their tears.

Now, my door is full. I have so many rejection letters that I could easily provide wallpaper for three two story Hollywood mansions. As I leafed through my collection when I got home, I couldn’t help but notice how awful most of them were. Interestingly, writing a letter of rejection seems to be a lost art, especially in the Humanities, when you could expect better (you got a degree based on your writing, peeps!).

Hiring committees, listen up! You gots it hard, we know. As a matter of fact, you gots it extremely hard (no snark here). If you work at a teaching heavy place, then chances are that you are reading dossiers at 11.30 at night, after the nth committee meeting while eating that cold burrito that you picked up from Chipotle seven hours earlier, in the hope you might get dinner some time. And with two to three hundred applicants to one position, you have to write rejection letters.

Here are a few suggestions:

Timing:

  • Why not send out rejection letters to those who did not get an interview right away? To receive a rejection letter in May is pointless, and quite frankly- tacky. By now -job wiki or not- I know that I am not The Chosen One, your letter just rubs it in.

Content:

  • Keep it short and simple, and as with everything that you write, keep your audience in mind. An example would be: “We had a lot of qualified applicants, blah blah, thanks for playing, best of luck.” Done.

Under no circumstance, I repeat UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, tell me how hard your life is. A few gems to illustrate what I mean:

  •  “Writing a letter of rejection is almost as daunting as receiving one.” No, it is not. You have a tenure track position, have full professorship, in short: a job. You do not wonder whether you should fill out that Walmart Greeter application form, and you don’t calculate how long that 12 pack box of Ramen will last you. So do not tell me about your hard decision, when mine is which credit limit to even further hopelessly overdraw to pay electricity.

 

  •  “The number of qualified applicants made the Search Committee’s decision extremely hard, and we did not make light of our task.”- I am sure that the number of qualified applicants, together with the 70 page dossier you asked for, was overwhelming. Maybe admitting ten new grad students per year did not pay off that well in the long run, hey? Overwhelmed, you just resorted to look for white, male, Harvard/Princeton- maybe Stanford or Cornell- educated, and invited them. So, puh-leaze, spare me tales of how you did not make light of your task.

 

  • “We are impressed with your qualifications, but ultimately issues of fit with our needs require us to eliminate your application from our short list many highly qualified persons.” Just STFU and do not EVER use the word “fit” again. A pair of shoes can be the right fit, a pair of jeans fit. What you are talking about is not whether the jeans fit, but whether your ass looks good in them. Essentially you want to hire Brett Betherton Weatherby IV.” So, keep it professional, which brings us to the next point.

Manners:

  • After a conference interview, do not have your secretary/your recruitment system send a rejection letter that starts with “Dear Candidate.” If you have sat less than two meters away from me, and asked questions that range in appropriateness from “What country does your first name come from?” to “Are you pregnant right now?” and you decide to not invite me, the least I fucking deserve is a badly written email that starts with my first name. Badly written, because, see above.
  •     Actually do send a letter/email of rejection. I am still waiting for a few rejections from two years ago. Yes, I have figured out that they did not hire me, but still. Don’t complain about students starting emails with “hey”- when you don’t even send out emails to let the hoi polloi know they are suckers.
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Numbers Game

I. Hate. Math. If I could tar and feather it, put it in an iron maiden, draw and quarter it and then drench it in boiling oil, it would only abate a minor fraction of the primeval rage I feel for it. Everyone says it’s a practice of logic, but it makes no sense to me. Teachers wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell me why certain things had to happen in a certain way. “Because we do,” parried all my questions about process and rationale. They couldn’t tell me why “x” was “x” instead of “a” or “b.” Unable to draw connections between the why and the how, I did horribly in math.
It was always like this, except for when I met R.Q. Thomas in the 8th grade.
R.Q. Thomas, as he referred to himself, speaking in the third person, told us like all math teachers that we would always need math in life. But, dressed in snakeskin shoes and shiny silk suits, perfectly manicured and coiffed, he gave us relevant examples, mostly from negotiations with his son’s and wife’s requests for extra money and his two “side businesses,” his clothing store and nightclub. Upon learning from my parents that R.Q. Thomas was notorious for his popular night club, “where the shootings always happen,” he naturally soared skyward in my estimation. I hung on to every word he said.
“Two trains leave the station at the same time, but traveling at different speeds, one at 45 mph and one at 60 mph,” he read from our textbook. “How long does it take each train to get to the next station 50 miles away?” He closed the textbook. “Who cares? R.Q. Thomas cares about how long it takes two of his employees to get to the bank with his money!”
He taught us inventory, overhead, economy of scale, how many customers the club had to have and how many drinks each customer had to buy in order to cover the club’s entire month’s rent in one night. He showed us how to make buckets more money just by asking our parents for an allowance increase of only a quarter a week–and providing the math to show that the increase was justified. I got A’s in his class. I knew when to use which equations and why. I figured Geometry next year would be a breeze.
You might have already guessed what I did not know at the time, that R.Q. Thomas was as much of an anomaly as an albino flamingo. There was no mathematical second coming after him. The teachers went back to being dickishly incomprehensible and unapproachable, often disdainful of my apparent obtuseness. Despite the fact that I had picked up four languages by then, I couldn’t understand a thing they said. An Isosceles triangle sounded like an area in the Pacific Ocean that sucked up airplane carriers. It turns out that calculating volume has nothing to do with stereo systems. I already knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but I had no idea how I was supposed to get there. Parabolas, area, diameters, radii and Pi made my life a living hell. Pythagoras was a bastard and Euclid could kiss my ass. Sines and cosines hovered on the horizon, looming like grim reapers of trigonometry.
Every time I asked the teacher to please, for the love of all that was holy and reasonably-priced, explain in some way I could even remotely identify with why we use this equation at this time, I always got the same answer: “because we do.” And then they told my parents that my laziness led to my failing grades.
The fact that every science class I still had to take required math more mind-boggling than I was currently sucking at made my decision for me: I would specialize in the humanities. Screw math and all it’s crappy, crappy teachers. I would stick to languages I could understand.
So I went off and got a PhD in the humanities. Easy, right? Goodbye math, fuck off Euclid.
But R.Q. Thomas was right. No matter what, I needed math. I needed math to understand how the PhD bottleneck in the Humanities developed, when, at what rate, in order to understand why I couldn’t get a tenure-track job.
I needed math to reckon that on average less than 20 tenure-track jobs in my discipline have been offered per year in the last decade, while the number of people on the market is close to 1,000. Calculate the probability of being one of the lucky three of hundreds of applicants to get an interview, much less get the job, just to thrill at the chance to move to Nowhere, Idaho to be an academic Clydesdale (all for the low, low cost of a 5-page CV, a 30-page writing sample, 3-4 letters of recommendation, a teaching philosophy, a diversity statement, $300-400 in plane tickets,  $300 in hotel costs, $50 per diem and $200 in cheap suits, just so you can go to the mad cattle call otherwise known as the MLA conference and be interviewed by a committee while seated childishly on the edge of a bed in one of their hotel rooms), and you realize you have a better chance of winning the lottery or, more likely, being mauled by a tiger.
I needed math to figure out how long it would take to pay off my student debt as a single woman working as an adjunct lecturer–20 years, if I did not continue to go into forbearance because of underemployment. I needed math to figure out how much extra part-time work outside of academia–working as a pastry chef, translating, home schooling–that I needed to cover the rent in the lean years.
Then I sat down and did the math, the Real Math. Having given up reaching for the tenure-track brass ring until I felt like I’d been stretched on the rack, I “resigned” myself to being a lecturer, a negative integer. In order to have the greatest amount of job security in a profession with unlimited variables, from the budget to the enrollment to the personal whim of the department chair, what did I have to do, and how much of it?
The white board in my mind filled up quickly. A=see, B=be seen–and liked, C=conference presentations,  N=number of classes taught per semester, I=interdisciplinary, E=stellar evaluations and S=service. I taught across the curriculum in freshman and sophomore comp, writing in the sciences, film, literature, culture and foreign language. I advised students, gave seminars, trained teachers, acted as club adviser and cast votes in committees. I taught, produced, wrote, graded until my fingers bled, made myself a hot commodity.
Naturally, I did not bother factoring in quality of life or free time.
Depending on the semester and year, the coefficients change. In the fall it could be (7A + 4B) x 2C/20EI + 6N = guarantee of job offer. In the spring it could be 7B + (4C x 2 S/10EI) +3N.
But no matter what equation I created, it always equaled the same: burnout. I left the country for a year to recover–twice in the span of eight years. But even then, because I honest-to-god love teaching, I had my eye on the prize, creating a calculus that would convert my lateral moves into CV mojo, tilting the scales as much as I could.
Because, in the end, being a lecturer is a game of probability, in which she with the best poker face and card-counting skills is the winner. It’s game theory.
But, as before, the logic makes no sense to me.
Take for instance my latest problem. I solved the equation of desirability in the lecturer marketplace. Having parlayed myself into a lean, mean, interdisciplinary instructional machine, I am now in high demand. Four schools want to hire me next semester for a total of seven classes. The simple math is encouraging. 7N= Money, Money, Dollar Dollar Bill Y’all!
But then it gets tricky. Three of the classes are scheduled at the same time. Two of the classes have too high a personal cost per unit, each paying half as much as one class at another institution, and requiring three times the work. I would end up grading a total of 200 4-page essays in one semester, totaling almost 1,000 minutes, for about $1,000 a month. And that doesn’t include class time (T=4,800 minutes) or prep time (P=960 minutes).
Dump the two low-paying classes, and negotiate the scheduling of the others, right? But then there’s still five courses left, which, when compounded with interest over time, equal, once again, burnout. And I am now too old to start building seniority all over from the beginning if I want to retire with a pitiful pension by the time I’m 70.
And did I mention that only two of the four schools offer health insurance? Did I mention that one of them is–you guessed it–the one with back-breaking work for minimum wage, the one for which you need the health insurance the most?
Did I mention that, because of the previous burnout, I have no job security anywhere, that all my previous semesters of hard work (a total of 42 in 14 years–wrap your head around that for a minute) no longer counts because I left for one year and no one told me about taking a leave of absence? (You try keeping up with the lecturer handbooks for four institutions, grade 800 papers a semester and manage three different preps all at the same time. Go on, see how well you learn the bureaucracy.) The equation gets more and more confusing and out of reach with each day.
So now we get into conditional probability. If numbers are lower in the following semester, what are the chances that I will get offered as much work then? If there is little or no work in the following semester, how much do I have to pre-emptively work in order to cover that loss? What are the chances that I turn down work at one of the places that offers health care and never get offered a course there again? What are the chances that the other places will consistently employ me and pay enough money in the long run so that affording health care is no longer one of my greatest worries? What are the chances that some chair will take my “sorry, I can’t” as a personal affront and try to blacklist me all over town? What are the chances that these schools will ever regard me as more than disposable, when hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed PhDs are standing in line behind me, desperate to take my place?
There is work and money to be made–for now. But I can’t take half of it. I now face a famine in the middle of a feast.
I stand at the station, looking at four different trains, with no idea of their end destinations, the routes they will take to get there, nor the speed at which they travel. And there is not enough whiteboard to work it all out. Despite all my efforts, I am involved in a numbers game that I can’t understand. And even if I did, I still wouldn’t win.
Maybe it’s time for me to look up R.Q. Thomas and get a job at his nightclub.

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Academic Types: The Dedicated Professor

The sub-species of the professor, the “dedicated” professor (Professora dedicata), is prevalent in all areas of the land of Academia, but thrives in Small Liberal Arts Colleges. This species is found in both genders, male and female, it is however more prevalent among the female population. Therefore, the female pronoun shall be used henceforth.

The dedicated professor is characterized by her steadfast belief that she is making a difference in those young students’ lives. Whether no one but her can see this difference, and what exactly the nature of this difference might be, still remains a topic for discussion. Yet, this discussion will never happen, because PD has managed to attain a sacrosanct status among both the student body and the faculty. Dare to criticize a PD, and more than one eyebrow will be raised, several heads will shake, and if you are truly in trouble, fingers might be wagged at you.

Believing that everybody has a good core, and that it is her job to bring this core to the surface -even if it is hidden under a layer of privilege, nastiness and narcissism, the dedicated professor sets out to do her job with joy every day. She loves to teach, often classes with ten more students than the fire department code allows in the room, but who cares about rules, when you can educate, no, cultivate young minds? (for those minds sure as shit are a wasteland).

As she is so absorbed in her mission (since that is what it really is, and not just a job), attention to worldly vanities, such as outward appearances, cannot be paid. The PD therefore makes the Amish look like models at the Paris Fashion Week. Her posture rivals that of the hunchback of Notre Dame, the price for reading and grading all that student work. But who cares when you live the life of the mind? The dedicated Professor is single, because her love for students and teaching could not be second to anybody. This gives her time to happily write individualized two page commentaries on essays and lab reports. That her handwriting is indecipherable, scraggly and makes Egyptian hieroglyphs look like Times New Roman in comparison, does not matter. She also seems completely oblivious to the fact that one, maybe two students will actually take the time to improve their work, whereas the rest will be content with the A- that she reluctantly gave them. Moreover, the students will measure every other professor’s grading against the pamphlet the dedicated professor wrote. And seriously, lazy French Professor, why did you not include a two page description why verbs ending in –ir follow a different conjugation pattern? PD will happily spend Saturday and Sunday in the lab to prepare demonstrations for students, and meet with students at 11 p.m. the night before midterms, since there was no other time for the student to meet with her and who would she be to turn down a learning opportunity? The dedicated professor on occasion sleeps in her office, since she really wanted to grade those essays right away.

Administrations love dedicated professors. Since they are so busy “making a difference” and “caring” they forgot having an opinion a long time ago. Hence, if student tuition is raised once again, or a few of her fellow professors don’t get tenure under shady circumstances, or she suddenly is teaching a Freshman Seminar with 45 students, there will be little protest from the dedicated professor. On occasion, upon hearing something outrageous, she dedicated professor will let out a barely audible “oh no!” followed by a deep sigh, before she goes back to grading those papers. And essentially, she does not understand those of her colleagues, who complain about cuts in higher education, labor practices that put 19th century English coal mines to shame, and entitled students. What is there to complain when you have the best job ever????! Administrators will fuel this stance, and happily give her 0.5 % raises, since she will leave all her money to the college anyways, potentially in a fund for dedicated professors. The dedicated professor is put up on a pedestal, a role model all other faculty members should aspire to be.

Students love the dedicated professor, too! Who else puts up with your narcissism, understands that you have to go to Zumba practice before you can meet with her, and will gladly slap an A on a paper, in which you finally spelled “alliteration” properly? (or the professor’s name for that matter). “She really cares,” they will write in their evaluations, fondly remembering the time she gave them an extension when they had to appear in court for drunk driving (all slander anyway, and got resolved since daddy knew a judge).

While the dedicated professor might look dainty and in need of protection, she has a weapon that is sharper than a Samurai’s katana: Lovey-dovey language. She loves teaching the students, she cares, she is dedicated, she makes a difference, she is enthusiastic, she doesn’t have a job, she has a vocation, she wants to inspire students to be the best they can be, she is mindful of the students’ life experiences, she wants to leave a positive impact, oh and above all nurture a love of learning. This gets regularly used against her colleagues. You decided to spend Saturday and Sunday with your kids, instead of grading those papers? Clearly, you do not care about education. You dared to use the same lecture on mitosis twice? Your enthusiasm to make a difference in the lives of students used to be higher, my friend. You shudder at the thought that students come to your house for extra study sessions? You obviously have not heard of a holistic approach to teaching. You do not answer emails after 8p.m. – you do not care. You dare to ask to be paid more for the work you do? That is just greedy; you should do it for the love of teaching.

The dedicated professor therefore, is one of the most dangerous species found in the land of Academia. Everybody at some time had a DP, and everybody remembers this highly compassionate teacher, thinking that everybody should be like that. The DP becomes fictionalized in movies (e.g. Dead Poets’ Society, Precious, Dangerous Minds, Freedom writers, Mona Lisa’s Smile), suggesting to the rest of the population that educators need a pat on the back, a tearful thank you at graduation and the occasional Hallmark card that says “those who care teach,” or a similar platitude.

The best thing to do if you encounter a Professora dedicata, is feeding her vanity, er, humility, and slowly retreat. Tell her how amazing and inspirational she is, and then let her go back to grading.

You, on the other hand, run!

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