This summer, for what seems like the umpteenth time, I’ve been working with our veteran graduate students in our Summer Job Group. We meet every couple of weeks, peer review cover letters, dossier materials, etc. I’ve backed away from the group a bit in years past for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I think it’s important to have multiple voices guiding the process. It’s a bit like teaching the same course several times in a row–it gets increasingly difficult to remember who knows what, which stories you’ve told and which you haven’t, etc. It can be difficult to hold your own thinking about the process at the same place year after year, even though for each group of students, the advice and anecdotes are new. And in the past few years, there have been some major changes (Interfolio, Skype interviews, et al.) that can have a ripple effect on even some of the tried-and-true pearls of wisdom that I once held dear.
As is often the case, this kind of work makes me all the more conscious of my own verbal tics and habits, and this year, I found one that I emphasized quite a bit to the group, particularly in the context of cover letters. I don’t know that I’d elevate it to the level of fallacy or anything, but my name for it makes it sound like one: I call it “argument by adjective” (AA).
There is a lot of ground to cover in an application letter, and no small amount of emotional investment on the part of the writer. Perhaps more than any other document, the cover letter is a prose representation of one’s self as an aspiring academic, and as such, it’s probably the most difficult site at which we need to balance the competing interests of writer and audience. That is, we want to present ourselves in the best possible light, as quickly as possible, while still ensuring that we meet audience expectations and interests. Perhaps not everyone thinks of it in those terms, but I guess I always have. I’ve been on plenty of search committees, and I can tell when a letter tips too far in one direction (3 dense, 10pt, expanded-margin pages that cite every line on the vita) or the other (someone largely unqualified who’s trying way too hard to prove to the committee that they really do fit the position after all, despite every indication to the contrary).
It’s hard to strike that balance and even more difficult to let go of the letter enough to judge semi-objectively whether one has struck it successfully. One of the things that often happens (for me, at least) is a kind of compression; I might have only 1-2 sentences to describe a project where I would prefer 6-7, and as a result, I’ll really try to pack those 1-2 sentences, and make every word count. When I’m doing this, I have a bad habit of building arguments into my adjectives. So for example, rather than including 2-3 sentences about the various perspectives I’m negotiating as I engage in an interpretation of a phenomenon, I might instead simply say that “my project offers a nuanced, rhetorical interpretation of X.” It’s easy to fall into this–it saves space, and it starts to get at what I feel is the value of my project.
The problem is, of course, that I’m claiming that value on behalf of my project that the letter itself can’t ever earn. And if the people reading my letter are doing so closely, I can’t really blame them for wondering exactly why I’m claiming values that are best judged by my readers. I try not to read this strictly when I’m on committees, but honestly, it’s sometimes hard for me to ignore it. My archetypal example for AA is Dave Eggers’ book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; while I can thankfully report that I’ve never seen AA in a cover letter even approach that level, I do think that we employ that kind of blurby language, albeit more subtly.
It’s not really up to me to decide or to claim that my work is complex, sophisticated, nuanced, compelling, effective, interesting, thoughtful, careful, close, detailed, thorough, or heartbreaking. Heck, it took me almost a month (and a Facebook poll of my friends) to decide to include the word “groundbreaking” when I was writing the cover blurb for my book, and I still feel awkward about having done so. And that’s a blurb.
What I try to do is to treat adjectives a lot like pronouns. In the same that you wouldn’t use a pronoun without first establishing the proper noun to which it refers, I try (hard) to use only those adjectives that are earned within the context of the document itself. That means that if I want to describe my project as nuanced, I need at least an additional sentence that communicates (effectively) that nuance. Or that complexity. Or that thoughtfulness. Or that staggering genius.
Adjectives, I try to remind myself, are for interviews. Nouns and verbs get my foot in the door. That’s the (brilliant) piece of (timeless) advice that I (thoughtfully) re/learned this (delightful) summer.