Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: Should I Mention I Can Teach Their Electives?

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In my cover letters, when I list which courses I am prepared to teach, should I steer clear of mentioning electives that already are being taught in my area of specialization at the places where I’m applying? The faculty who teach those classes may not want to give them up to a new hire. Or is it seen as an asset for a job candidate to be able to teach courses (other than the core ones) that are already being taught in the department?

As with many things in life and academia, the answer is: It depends. First, it depends on what you mean by “electives.” That’s an umbrella term that covers a variety of courses that students can pick and choose a la carte to complete the credit-hours requirements for a major or a minor — in addition to the required courses.

Electives open to all students can actually be very common and generic, from department to department. In anthropology (my field), for example, most departments will have some version of a course like “Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” It might be called something slightly different or even just “Anthropology of Religion” or “Anthropology of the Supernatural,” but it will exist on the books, usually as an elective. So students can elect to take that class — or “Medical Anthropology” or “Anthropology of Food” or Anthropology of Gender (sadly, I don't think that is a required course anywhere), etc.

Those kinds of electives exist in every discipline, and, despite not being required, are bread-and-butter courses in any discipline. It’s good to mention in your cover letter that you can teach them, especially if they overlap with your specialization.

The more esoteric the elective, however, the more likely it is that the course was developed by a specific faculty member.

If a department offers a course on “Anthropology of Cryptography” or the “State of Intra-African Migration,” chances are there is a professor in that department that —what do ya know — studies cryptography or intra-African migration. That professor has probably shepherded the course syllabus through whatever administrative hoops were required to approve it and get it on the books, and they might feel protective of it. In such cases, it’s best not conclude the teaching paragraph of your cover letter with: “And it will be the fulfillment of my life’s dream to teach your course on cryptography!”

An experienced academic will usually be able to look at a course catalog and intuitively distinguish between “generic” and “sui generis” electives. But if this is your first go on the academic-job market, and you are not sure how to suss that out, here are a couple of ways to think strategically about this issue.

A good rule of thumb is that the more “generic” electives will usually be 200-level courses, and maybe 300-level. The sort of electives where you have to be mindful of stepping on toes will generally be 300-level or 400-level courses. This is not 100 percent true all the time and everywhere, but it is a generalization that applies often enough that you should keep it in mind.

Your goal here is to strike a balance: You want to show that you are a great fit for meeting the department’s pedagogical needs while not coming across as either redundant or as competition to faculty with “their” established courses. Start by doing some sleuthing via the university course catalog and faculty web pages:

  • First, look up who has been teaching a particular course in the department for the last few years. Is it always the same person, or is it taught on rotation?
  • Second, is the course usually offered as a single section, or as multiple sections? Usually course catalogues will have a numerical designation for courses with multiple sections — like AN 300-A or AN 300-01. If three sections of “Anthropology of Witchcraft and Magic” are offered every semester (and that is more likely to be the case at large universities, but not exclusively so), that means the institution has different people teaching it. If a course is offered only in the spring of alternate years, as a single section, then it is probably a course that is “spoken for.”

Ultimately, a sentence about this in your cover letter (probably) won't damage your application, but strategic thinking about how to present yourself as a pedagogical asset to a place you are applying to is important. You do that by asking yourself a variety of questions about your teaching credentials — like the one you’ve posed here. Taken alone, each of those questions won't make or break your candidacy but, taken together, they can paint a picture of someone who will be a good fit for a department, or a poor one.

It is both smart and advisable to think about how to frame “fit” in ways that go beyond the requisite tailoring paragraph in your cover letter. Keep “fit” in mind when you are choosing which syllabi to include with your teaching dossier. And if your advisers and references are willing to tailor their recommendation letters, mention your thoughts on what will “play well” pedagogically with specific departments.

You can find more advice on cover letters by reading previous columns from The Professor Is In on why your covers letters should be no more than two pages, why they should avoid “generic nontailoring,” and whether they should mention the baby or explain why you’re changing jobs.

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