Our work involves designing new, innovative solutions to solve the tensions between traditional academic approaches to learning and new, less traditional ones. ~Joanne Munroe “Assessment Incognito: Design Thinking and the Studio Learning FLC”
Back in the day when I taught technical writing, I made students experiment with a genre filled with rules, regulations, and proper formatting. Most of my students were hoping to get jobs with a giant corporation down the highway from my community college, and they hated my class. My evaluations were littered with words from future tech workers who thought what I made them do was a waste of time. Too hippy. Too touchy-feely. Too feminine. Too much like creative writing. Too English major. Too Humanities.
Teaching that class was a nightmare for me, and I avoided teaching it when I could. Like the plague. Eventually online education began to gain momentum and I left teaching technical writing behind for good. Two years after my last tech writing class, I got an email from a former student. He wanted to let me know that he used my Cover Letter Exercise to write his cover letter and he got the job of his dreams.
Mrs. Indrunas, he wrote, it took me awhile to figure out you knew what you were talking about and I know people were mean on your course evaluations. My boss said I had the best cover letter he had ever read. Thank you, Mrs. Indrunas and I’m sorry we were a bunch of jerks to you.
This email charmed for me for two reasons.
1] Mrs. Indrunas is my mother. I kept my maiden name when I married, and this was very always difficult for conservative students at this particular community college. I rolled with the fact that using “Ms.” triggered memories of bra-burning feminist warning lectures from their uncles. Lefty college teachers! Uppity women! Using my first name was disrespectful towards your elders. Funnier still, I wasn’t engaged nor was I married at the time; I was a woman of a certain age living in sin. Scandal!
2] I had no idea what I was doing with that class. No idea. I was two steps ahead of the students all quarter, and I really disliked tech writing. That class was a struggle because I never took a technical writing class as an undergraduate or as a graduate student. To this day, my mouth turns down with a frown when I say “tech writing course.” A friend of mine, who is a skilled tech writer, gave me her entire curriculum so I could get the job. I traded her my English 102 Research writing course, and we both played it off like we knew what we were doing. We would call one another with words praise from our department chairs who loved our “brilliant course design.” Before I even knew the phrase open pedagogy, my friend and I shared content to maintain a paycheck for an acting gig we called teaching.
Teaching cover letter writing skills was soul-killing (Rock on if you love it). I tried to keep myself interested by having students free-write cover letters. Use the templates for formatting later, I advised, but write for as long as you can after you read the job description. Find a job on the Internet that you want right now, open up a document and start writing all of your ideas about how you are the best person for the position. Don’t stop. Just write. Go. Start by describing why they need to hire you. Nobody else. You. Be honest, confident, and creative. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, and formalities. Just write. Go. I modeled the freewrite mode by drafting my own cover letters for teaching gigs that did not involve teaching tech writing. Just write. Go. Make a mess. Clean it up later.
Then after 20 minutes, I’d make them get up and move to the next computer and read the messy drafts of their neighbors. Choose the best five sentences, and delete the rest of the freewrite. Don’t read for full comprehension. Hunt for the five sentences that interest you as a reader. Those five sentences, I told the writers, will be the scaffolding for your letter. Creative students loved this exercise and they wrote like mad. Tech writers hated it, but they did it because I said the exercise was worth points. Several of them tried to hide that they were on MySpace.
By having students reflect and write nonstop, I was hoping to teach them how to unearth their passion for the job of their dreams. How to match their skills with the language of the job description. The more you have to say in response to the job description, I preached, the better the fit is for you. The better you’ll do in the interview. The better your quality of life will be when you get hired. The better your letter will be for your reader. For your future boss.
Make a giant mess describing your dreams about the job, clean it up, find a template you like, and click submit. Boom, y’all. That’s how I write cover letters. This textbook is crap and most of the advice on the Internet is crappier, but I know this works. Try it. Try for the job of your dreams. Make sure your cover letter communicates that passion. Try for the job of your dreams.
If you follow this blog, you know that I have been on the hunt for a new position as an Instructional Designer. If you have posted a job in the last six months and I know/like you, I retweeted your announcement, I favorited it, I encouraged friends to apply—that is—if I didn’t want the job for myself. If I wanted the job, I didn’t advertise to my competitors. I hopped straight to my cover letter exercise.
When I saw Amy Collier’s tweet about her Instructional Designer position; I did not favorite or retweet. I jumped up and called my husband immediately. Hey, would you want to move to Vermont if I got the job of my dreams?
Are they hiring for a director at the Community College of Vermont?
Um. No. Amy Collier is hiring an Instructional Designer at Middlebury College.
You mean, liberal arts Breadloaf School Middlebury? Did you say Middlebury?
I know, right? I think I have a snowball’s chance in Hell, but really, dream with me for a minute. I’m serious. Would you move to Vermont?
Dude, I can already Feel the Bern. Is she one of the federated wiki people? Wait, this is the woman who left Stanford you keep talking about, right? Middlebury is beautiful. I can already taste the Harpoon on tap, and the road riding is…
I cut him off. Right. Her, yep. I gotta go.
Then I sat down with my magic typewriter and my cover letter exercise. I was ten pages in—single space—and I made myself stop and clean it up. Deleted a ton.
And then I stared out the window. What was I thinking? I checked Twitter and everyone I love in EdTech was favoriting, tweeting, joking with Amy about this job. I don’t stand a chance, really. I stared out the window some more.
Then, for some unknown reason, I remembered something my grandfather used to say about playing the lottery. You gotta play to win, Alyson. You gotta play to win. He loved Conway Twitty and whenever we stood in front of the juke box together, he always played “It’s Only Make Believe” and for some reason, I heard this song in my head.
Truly. It’s only make believe that I’ll get this job, but yep, you gotta play to win. So I clicked submit. If anything, I thought, I’ll just show Amy that I think her work is radness embodied. High-five, lady leader, you bring it! My application was just a message that I’m watching with interest what she’s up to, and of course, I was fascinated with how their hiring of Amy connected to the e-Literate case study on Middlebury College.
Hot damn, I thought, when Amy announced she was leaving Stanford for Middlebury. I read the press release about her position on the Middlebury website. Good for her. Good for EdTech. Good for teaching. Good for learning.
This is where it gets interesting.
When she contacted me for a phone interview. I thought, awww, she’s so nice. What a sweet gesture. I’m kind of new to the field, so this is encouraging. I must be the wild card candidate. The interview questions she sent me were serious business so I gave up going to a bike race. I needed to get my thoughts together. How can I add it my CV that I got a phone interview with Middlebury College?
Then I made it to the next round of interviews. Me! What?! I think I pulled a muscle dancing around the house like Thom Yorke.
We used appear.in and my face appeared in a small box with the interviewers. The chat box read, “Write something nice.” I almost typed, “Please hire me and I’ll work my arse off to make everything Amy is planning come true. #HireMe”
I didn’t write that, of course, but I loved that virtual space for interviewing. It made me think of how I could teach teachers how to use it, and we could get out of using the hellscape we call Blackboard Collaborate for synchronous meetings. What a brilliantly simple interface for collaborating online! I could see all of their faces as I talked. I could see them smile and laugh.
When it was over, I went into the mister’s office, and he had several sites about Vermont on his computer. Bookstores, real estate, cinemas, bike routes, the Middlebury website–he clearly believed I had a chance and he was doing some research. I couldn’t hear your words, he said, but your tone sounded really calm. It sounded like it went well. Check out this cycling route. It goes right past the Breadloaf School. They own a ski resort, have you looked at this?
I just stared at him. Yes, I think it went really well, and no, I haven’t looked into anything beyond research for the job. I was very freaked out by his confidence. That I had a chance as a finalist. He was in full on planning mode like a salmon swimming upstream to his home, back to his beloved New England.
I saw the interview as a normal conversation with interesting people and it helped me get it together for dLRN. My paper up until this point had been/is a giant pile of nonsensical creative nonfiction disguised as research. I thought, I’ll keep working on this paper and I’ll wait for the ding letter. The no. Not yet.
It’s almost one year to the date that I didn’t get a job I really wanted, so I told myself not to dream. Don’t head into make believe. Middlebury College. Me. No way. Not yet. Not ever.
If you’re reading this and you may think I have a confidence problem. I don’t; I’m just a pragmatic realist. Her applicant pool must have been amazing, and I knew the competition would be fierce.
Let me use a few examples to clarify what it felt like to dream about getting this job.
If you are a punk rock lyricist, it’s like Joe Strummer calling you up for input on a song. “What do you think about that Coca-Cola and rice line, luv? Is it good?”
If you are a musician, it’s like David Bowie asking you for fashion advice and tips on how to evolve as an artist. “How can I be really cool, Alyson? I need your help.”
If you are a female cylcocross racer, it’s like Katie Compton asking you for advice on how to corner better. “Alyson, I need to follow your wheel for a few laps to improve.”
If you are a male cyclocross racer, it’s like Sven Nys asking you for advice on hopping barriers. “Alyson, you’re so fast. How do you do it?”
If you dig film/tv, it’s like David Lynch calling you up to ask you if he should care that audiences may not get it. “Alyson, this dream sequence connects to the main narrative, but I want people to figure that on their own. What do you think?”
If you knit, it’s like Elizabeth Zimmerman hitting you up for help with cables. “You never drop a stitch, Alyson. You must teach me how you do it.”
If you are into learning using the digital space, it’s like…well, it’s like Amy Collier hiring you to work with her at an amazing school. “Alyson, we’d like to offer you the position.”
This is not notyetness. This is yes. This is not make believe. This is yes. This is not the lottery. This is my new position.
Yes, I’m an Instructional Designer for Middlebury College and I’m moving to Vermont to work for the Associate Provost for Digital Learning, Dr. Amy Collier.
I’m so thrilled. So elated. So relieved. So excited. So completely and utterly in awe that I was hired. And I plan on sharing my learning about everything along the way with my network and friends–especially everything I will learn about Jazzercise.