Having received some encouragement to talk about the hiring side of the job market, I decided to split what I have to say into a couple posts. So if someone has questions, or wants to add ideas, please feel free to jump on in.
To be clear: I teach at a mid-size regional comprehensive university; we call ourselves a liberal arts university, though we also have several pre-professional programs. My department has English majors with several emphases, as well as a very small MA program. What I have to say reflects my experience here and at my previous jobs. I don't, alas, have universal truths to impart. (Except that you should read more Shakespeare!)
The thing I'd like to say to people applying for jobs is that in my department, we're looking for a colleague. We're not looking for the smartest grad student around, or the one with the best academic pedigree. We're looking for a colleague. We expect to mentor our junior colleagues; I've seen some admirable mentoring here. So when I say we're looking for a colleague, I don't mean we're looking for someone who's fully formed as a scholar, teacher, etc. I mean we're looking for someone who is making, or has made, the mental move from student to colleague. That move was especially difficult for me, and I would have denied there was even a move, until I realized I had made it.
Our basic philosophy: colleagiality: We look forward to tenuring every person we hire, and it's pretty rare that we fail. When we fail at that, we talk about what went wrong in our personnel committee meetings, and if/when we have another opportunity, we try to do better. We're not entirely altruistic in this, however, because 1) working with someone who hates it here and wants to leave isn't fun, and going through the necessary steps to not-rehire or to deny tenure to someone is downright difficult, depressing, frustrating, etc. 2) job searches are stressful and time-consuming for us, and 3) if we lose someone (we don't rehire, or they decide to leave), we aren't assured that we'll retain the tenure line, and if we lose a tenure line, that's one less person to share the work of our department.
So when we hire, we're thinking about working with this person in all sorts of ways. We're thinking about mentoring them in teaching and scholarship, working with them in committees, brainstorming in department meetings, sitting in the lunchroom, helping students together, being supportive of life changes, difficulties, and sharing joys. We're thinking about where we want our department to go in the next 20 years, and how our new colleague is going to help us go there, or think of somewhere even better.
I'm not saying we're perfect, not at all. And there's a danger in a department that cares about colleagiality that we could look for people who are "just like us." I don't know quite why, but when I walk around the offices, I don't see that having happened much. I see people who disagree about a lot of things who manage to treat each other with basic respect. I see people with very different life experiences who respect and value each others' experiences pretty well. I can't say that for every department I've been in, but this one does pretty well. We could do better in some areas, of course.
If your letter sounds like you would hate it here (it's cold in winter, small community, regional comprehensive, teaching writing), then we're probably not going to find your application appealing.
Teaching: We teach a fairly heavy load, almost always including a first year writing class. We're up front about that in our advertisements when we do searches. When we look for a colleague, we look for someone who will be able to walk into classrooms during the first week of classes ready to teach. We have lots of people who are willing to share their syllabus for whatever class, willing to show new faculty what's where and such. And we'll mentor new faculty with mutual class visits, discussions, and so forth. But when push comes to shove, we can't teach your classes for you.
How does this matter to applicants?
ABD? If you aren't done with your dissertation by the time you arrive in mid-August (when our contracts start so that we can have endless administrative meetings), then teaching three classes, some probably new preps, and adjusting to a new school/community, etc, is going to make finishing painfully hard. And if you don't finish, our administration won't rehire you for a second year. If you're ABD, make sure you actually WILL be done, and that your letter writers talk about that specifically in their letters of recommendation.
Talking Teaching You need to be able to talk about your teaching convincingly. You should sound like you're a thoughtful teacher who can plan a syllabus, manage a classroom, grade fairly, and give good feedback to students. Since we label ourselves a liberal arts school, you might want to think about what that means to you, and think about ways to articulate your thoughts on the benefits of a liberal arts education. You should be able to talk well about teaching writing courses and courses in your field. Typically, when one of our colleagues proposes a new course, people in my department will happily talk about how "I'd like to take that course!" or "I wish I could take that!" When you're talking about courses you'd like to teach, aim at getting us to wish we could take them.
I'd say that we tend to look favorably on someone with some adjuncting experience or a previous tt job. I suspect R1s look less favorably, but somoene else would have to confirm this.
Scholarly and Creative Activity We're not an R1, but we do require scholarly or creative activity for tenure/promotion. We're serious about this, even though we have a fairly heavy teaching load. (I regularly teach 11 credit hours a semester; my old grad school friend at an R1 teaches 6. My classes are bigger, and I never have TAs to grade or hold discussions. My load includes a writing intensive course with loads of essay grading.)
How does this matter to applicants?
ABD? If you're ABD when you get here, then we're worried that you won't be able to finish. We ALL know how difficult it is to do anything with our load. And if you haven't finished, then you aren't getting a jump on the project(s) that will help you earn tenure; it's like you're starting at a huge disadvantage. You can overcome that; we've hired folks ABD who've done wonderfully, but it's tough!
Talking Scholarship and Creative Activity You should be able to talk about things you'd like to do further work on. You should be able to talk about teaching students how to do research. We want you to be able to sound interesting enough that we won't hate seeing you in the lunch room for the next 25 years, interesting enough that you'll be able to teach students complex stuff well. If you can't explain your work to interested phuds, then you sure as heck won't be able to explain it to our students. Think of yourself as a colleague talking to other colleagues, not as a student trying to impress someone with how much they can say about X or Y.
But what you work on? We're pretty open minded.
However, if you've applied for a job in, say, underwater basketweaving, and all you can talk about in your letter is your dissertation on underwater ceramics and how much you'd like to teach only ceramics classes, then your letter of application is going into the "not really qualified" pile FAST.
Remember, in most English fields, we'll get abundant applications from people who really do love underwater basketweaving, enough that they wrote a dissertation in the field and daydream about teaching special topics classes in underwater basketweaving. If you're a ceramicist, you're not really competing with them for our job. (Now, if the job says underwater artisan generalist, then by all means, go for it!)
Service We don't at all expect that an applicant will have any service experience, but when one does, we notice. We know that our colleagues will be working alongside us in committees, and we want a sense that they'll focus on the work and contribute to solving problems. If you can give us that sense, and everything else in your application letter is where it needs to be, then that will help. It's not a make or break thing so far as I've seen.
One Last Thing We're likely to get a boatload of applications from very fine candidates. Seriously, if you saw us sit around a search committee table trying to narrow down the top applicants to an interview pool, you'd realize how difficult the job is. Some people write just great letters, have fascinating dissertation topics, say wonderful things about teaching, and just sound superb. If there are ten of them, or if there are 50 of them, the truth is, we can only hire ONE.
So, I want folks to keep this in mind. If we send you a fast rejection letter, it's because you don't sound like you fit the position. If we send you a slow one, it's because you sounded like you fit, but others sounded like they fit better. A rejection letter doesn't mean we didn't like you or didn't think you're smart; it means we aren't hiring you.
We regret that we can't hire more than one person. We see so many top notch people apply, and we know the economic suckage that is the reality of academics, and we wish we could change things. We can't. We aren't using large numbers of TAs to cheaply staff our lower division courses and then producing them as PhDs in a glutted market.
But every one of us has received FAR more rejection letters than job offers, and we know how draining and horrible those letters are. People in my department HATE to write rejection letters. Our previous chair wrote especially gracious letters, agonizing over each one. But they were still rejection letters. And no matter how gracious, they suck.
Next up, timing, or, why the heck can't you guys make a decision already!