Dodos, Dinosaurs, and Cover Letters

stack-of-resumes

You know when you are thinking of buying a new car– a Honda Civic, say– and then you start to see Honda Civics everywhere? The same is happening with my new and growing interest in digital rhetoric; everywhere I look I see examples of the Internet giving new life to old genres. Even the word “Internet” is starting to sound archaic, as if the web were somehow a foreign place, separate from real life. Because actually, increasingly, we’re building our lives online. I’m not even teaching any “online classes” this semester, and yet that’s still where I do the majority of my work. It’s where my bosses communicate with me, and where my students do most of their homework (and though I do require readings out of old fashioned books, you can guess where they ordered those old paper bricks in the first place. Unless of course they bought or rented the e-version).

But before our work even begins, professional first impressions happen– think of it as the bum-sniffing between employers and those aspiring to employment. Even this courtship has gone digital, and some recent articles have come out sounding the death knell of the tools we have traditionally used: the cover letter and resume. After attributing the genre of the CV to Leonardo da Vinci and conducting some semi-interesting historical document analysis that dates the cover letter back to the mid-1950’s, this Atlantic article claims that many companies barely look at applicants’ cover letters anymore. Companies would rather see prospective employees’ actual work rather than some blandly written reference to it. And like I mentioned above, our work is now available to all through the click of a mouse. With a URL and a password, anyone can see how and what I teach. Companies can (and will) go right to the horse’s mouth to check out how computer folks write code and how PR folks write Tweets; to consult artists’ portfolios and writers’ publications. Not only do we lay our personal selves bare online (though, thankfully, most smart people have curbed their penchants for posting drunk/naked/idiotic photos on Facebook), but we construct our professions there too.

This Fast Company piece waves goodbye to the resume, saying that a spiffed up LinkedIn profile is far more important to an organization that starts poking around for new talent. Of course, as soon as I read the article I went to my own LinkedIn page to do some housekeeping. When I got there, what did I find? One of the last visitors to my (embarrassingly out-of-date) page was the HR person from a company I interviewed with when I was looking for a summer job. Needless to say I got my latest accomplishments up there tout de suite.

As usual, my timing could have been better. One of the requirements of the Professional Writing Program (PWP– the department where I now teach) is to assign students a cover letter and resume. The thinking is that, before learning the genres of their respective workplaces, students must gain access to these jobs in the first place. One single day after my students turned in their rough drafts, I discover from the articles linked above that these documents are quickly becoming endangered species. About half of my students had never written a resume before; it occurs to me now that their very first resume may end up also being their last. I think I might have served them better if I asked them to set up LinkedIn accounts.

I’m thinking about putting together a digital rhetoric course for PWP. Digitizing the cover letter/resume along with wider discussions about our online professional personnae will certainly be a part of the curriculum. What else should I include? Teachers and writers: what does it mean to write for digital spaces? Employers and professionals: what do students need to know about communicating and producing work online?

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One thought on “Dodos, Dinosaurs, and Cover Letters

  1. Interesting… I wonder if certain fields are more likely to require and use the traditional cover letter/resume combo, while other career areas are moving toward the digital options you describe. I’ve been on two search committees during my time at UMD, and both require resumes and cover letters from applicants. The search committee members are at various places with their comfort and use of technology, and I can imagine more than one asking “Linked what?”. But you are right, I think, that it is time to spruce up the ol’ online profile. The job search process is sure to become more and more digital, at least in the early stage of application. That opens up some interesting questions about how we represent ourselves differently (or not) in spaces like LinkedIn vs. traditional resumes and cover letters. And in Skype interviews vs. face-to-face…

    Agh! As if the job search process wasn’t scary enough!

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