ADE Bulletin

Number 111, Fall 1995

What Is a Comprehensive University, and Do I Want to Work There?

I WRITE here as a representative of a comprehensive university, a type of institution that, like some amorphous beast, ranges a wide and various terrain from research institutions to liberal arts colleges. Actually, I think we comprehensive universities are more akin to a herd than to a single beast, for, while we share many characteristics, we have a great many differences as well. Some of us, like Eastern Michigan University, where I teach, have more than twenty-five thousand students; some have fewer than ten thousand. Some of us have PhD programs, though they're likely to be smaller and more narrowly defined than those at major research institutions; many of us, like Eastern Michigan, have MA programs; and some of us have no graduate programs at all. Many resemble research institutions; others are more like liberal arts colleges. Some have large, well-stocked libraries; others have frustratingly small collections. Some have extensive, up-to-date computer facilities; some have very few computers for either students or faculty members. And so on. I won't go on further about such distinctions. If the dossiers I've read in recent years are any indication, many graduate students already have experience teaching as adjunct faculty members and comprehensive universities. Perhaps it will be most helpful, then, if I generalize briefly about what I think distinguishes tenure-track positions in comprehensive universities from those in research institutions and liberal arts colleges or community colleges.

Most people, I'm sure, are aware that comprehensive institutions expect a balance of teaching and research different from that at graduate institutions. The difference is reflected most clearly in our teaching loads, normally three to four courses a semester. With that kind of teaching schedule, one can't be expected to carry out the amount of scholarly activity that would be expected of faculty members teaching only two courses a term. That does not mean, however, that comprehensive universities aren't interested in or supportive of research. Most of us expect some amount of research and publication; some of us expect a great deal. Institutions vary considerably, and, to be frank, many of us may contradict ourselves on the issue. Many institutions whose research and publication expectations were once relatively minimal are now more stringent, a change made possible in part by the competitiveness of the job market, and often those increased expectations are not matched by corresponding reductions in teaching loads. Still, the pressure to publish is usually not as intense at these institutions as it is at most research institutions. Many comprehensive universities, moreover, have somewhat broader definitions of what constitutes appropriate scholarly activity than major research universities do. We might value pedagogical research, for example, or the publication of an original and innovative textbook, whereas many research institutions rank that kind of work below other forms of scholarship. We might give more credit than some research institutions would for juried conference presentations—such as ones at MLA—that haven't yet seen print. If an excellent teacher can demonstrate that he or she is making steady progress on a book, a comprehensive university might allow a longer gestation period for that project than a research institution would. After all, our faculty members are teaching more students and grading more papers than colleagues at research institutions are, and they probably have fewer opportunities for released time. We might also more readily encourage engaging in nontraditional forms of scholarly activity or writing for popular, rather than strictly academic, audiences.

At job interviews, we might be more interested than research universities in hearing how candidates' scholarly interests inform their teaching of undergraduate courses or how candidates would envision working with undergraduates and MA students on research. Like other kinds of institutions, we'll want to know what balance of teaching and research candidates perceive to be appropriate in their careers. I'm not just talking here about a balance of time, though that's important. I'm thinking as well of questions like the following: How and why does research excite them? What kind of research most engages them? How crucial is it for them to have easy and immediate access to major research libraries? How important is it to them to teach advanced graduate seminars in their current areas of investigation? What kind of support do they need to carry out research programs that would satisfy them? Because the range of expectations varies so widely among comprehensive universities, candidates should be sure to ask us what our departmental and institutional criteria are for promotion and tenure—not just how much we expect but what kinds of research we value.

I think that generally in an interview at a comprehensive institution candidates can expect to talk as much about teaching as about the scholarly activity. Many comprehensive universities began as teaching institutions, and many remain that way. Strong job candidates will have examined the catalogs and researched the curricula of the schools they are interviewing with. They'll certainly have thought about how they could teach some of the courses described in the schools' materials. Even if they're literature specialists, they shouldn't ignore the writing classes. In many—perhaps most—comprehensive institutions, all faculty members routinely teach writing as well as literature classes. In some places, writing courses may constitute half or more of the usual teaching loads. Most graduates students have a fair amount of expertise in this area, since, as graduate assistants, they not only have taught writing but also have undergone some excellent training in the teaching of writing. Candidates should think about the pedagogical philosophy and teaching strategies and be able to talk with some confidence about how they might teach a freshman composition course or perhaps an upper-level research writing course—or even a technical writing course.

Again, in most comprehensive universities, as in other kinds of institutions, all faculty members teach lower-level literature courses, designed either as general studies courses for nonmajors or as introductory courses in the major. Candidates should be ready to talk about those courses—not just their contents or their structures, but the pedagogical strategies a teacher might use. I expect that, regardless of the institution they're interviewing with, candidates will be asked how they design a course they'd like to teach. I've seen and heard descriptions of many highly imaginative, wonderfully exciting courses that would be suitable for advanced graduate seminars but inappropriate for the undergraduates, or even many of the graduate students, at a university like mine. I don't mean that we at comprehensive universities have no room for innovative courses. We do have room, lots of it. We have interdisciplinary, team-taught courses; we have special topics courses; we have senior seminars and graduate seminars. But the courses must recognize the realities of our student populations and our institutional settings. At Eastern Michigan, for example, classes are relatively large—40 students is the average for literature classes, even upper-level courses for majors. MA classes average 20 students. Faculty members may therefore be responsible for 100 to 150 students a semester. Candidates should be aware that the number of students they teach influences the kinds of courses and assignments they can offer.

The makeup of the student population is another factors. At Eastern Michigan—and I believe it is fairly typical of public comprehensive universities, at any rate—many of the students are first-generation college students. Many commute. Many work full-time. Many are older than what used to be considered the normal student age. Most are very career-oriented. They see getting a degree as a way of improving their chances for getting a descent job, or perhaps a promotion, and it's sometimes difficult to move them beyond their rather utilitarian view of education. Still, they can be—and many are—wonderfully exciting students to teach. Our best students are often very bright indeed but either haven't the money to attend a more elite public or private institution or weren't aware that they had the option of applying elsewhere. The presence of older, more mature students often enables a teacher to do more sophisticated work with a class or to move more quickly than is possible with only younger students who may have better academic backgrounds and higher test scores. But our students can also be—shall I say—challenging. An introductory literature class of thirty-five or forty students or a writing class of twenty-five may well include two or three students who read and write as well as the best students in the most elite private colleges, but it is likely to have as well five or six students who are barely literate. Some students will have such heavy work or family responsibilities that they often can't or don't do their course work in a timely fashion. (In these respects, many comprehensive universities' student populations resemble those in community colleges, and, indeed, many community college students come to comprehensive institutions for their junior and senior years.) At comprehensive universities, graduate students, like undergraduates, range greatly in preparation and ability. Many simply seek a degree because they like English studies. Others seek teaching credentials or other career advancement. A few hope, often naively, to enter PhD programs. Even fewer will do so (though most who do are successful). A comprehensive university will want to know how potential faculty members feel about working with this kind of student body. What experiences can they bring to teaching this students? What kinds of pedagogical strategies might they try? What kinds of courses and curricula might be appropriate? It's crucial for job candidates to recognize that these courses and students are not responsibilities that faculty members endure only until they move up to advanced graduate teaching but, rather, permanent, primary components of the teaching obligation, a far more important component that advanced courses in a specialized research field. Comprehensive institutions look for colleagues who seem to have the resources to sustain their interest in these courses and their enthusiasm for these students.

What are those resources? One, I think is the commitment to a broad-based, democratic philosophy of education, an active belief that less-privileged, less-prepared students have the same rights to excellent instruction as more privileged students do. Another is a genuine love of teaching, even outside one's specialty. Yet another is a flexibility of imagination that allows a potential faculty member to reach beyond the professional orientation usually encouraged by graduate training to envision ways of reaching students like those I describe above.


This essay focuses mainly on how one might imagine a position and prepare for a job interview at a comprehensive university. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I note that one doesn't gain an interview—or often even a dossier request—without a good letter or résumé. The application letter is, in a sense, the first in a series of interview. So, as we all tell our students is freshman composition, candidates should write to the audience! While composing two or three dozen highly individual letters of application is probably unnecessary, the most successful applicants will be able to demonstrate that they best match a particular institution's needs. Sometimes that simply means rearranging the balance of discussion about research and teaching to fit various institutions' priorities. Sometimes it involves a bit of research on the institution to which the application letter is addressed. The rewards will be worth the effort. Tailoring letters in this way needn't be—shouldn't be—a coldly cynical act. Although the job market is undeniably difficult and the prospect of unemployment is terrifying, a far worse fate in the long run, for both institution and employee, is an untenable match. It's far better not to apply if either the position or the institution clearly isn't appropriate to one's needs and qualifications.

Yes, its a jungle out here. But there are jobs, and all sorts of institutions are hiring. A great number of those jobs are in comprehensive universities, if only because there are so many of us. My department alone has hired more than two dozen new faculty members in the past eight years, and we expect to hire more. Keep your eyes on the Job Information List.


The author is Professor of English and Head of the English Department at Eastern Michigan University and a member of the ADE Executive Committee. This paper was presented at the 1994 MLA convention in San Diego.


© 1995 by the Association of Departments of English. All Rights Reserved.

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