Context Matters

 December 9, 2015

Content is king. Context is queen.

I attended The Graduate School’s “Preparing for Faculty Positions in Liberal Arts Colleges: A Workshop for Humanities Graduate Students.” Duke’s 2015-2016 Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellows sought a forum where they could share their experiences at small liberal arts colleges (aka “SLACs”) with Duke graduate students thinking about where their future careers could take them. As a result, the Academic Job Search Series hosted a panel discussion with Max Gabriel Cherem, Amadou T. Fofana, Meredith Goldsmith, and Charles Edward McGuire

The panelists repeatedly said, “Context matters.” Each SLAC thrives in a particular niche, and they are looking for faculty members who understand and resonate with their unique identity and mission. The panelists chimed in with suggestions about how to learn about what makes a particular SLAC tick. School websites provide a gold mine of information. Mission statements and strategic plans reveal a school’s primary goals, and comparing the two can be even more informative because the strategic plan shows which goals the school is currently prioritizing in its financial investments. 

Even as each SLAC occupies a unique niche, SLACs overall tend to emphasize teaching and mentoring. The context of a smaller school can provide more opportunities for one-on-one interaction between faculty and students. As a result, SLACs look for potential faculty members who have experience and passion for teaching and mentoring students. Perusing the websites for SLACs’ centers for teaching excellence can reveal the kinds of pedagogy each school cultivates. Mentoring experience can come from academic and/or non-academic contexts. Because SLACs are often committed to the growth of the whole student, they seek faculty members whose whole lives can be resources for mentoring their students. Experience in summer camps, scouting, non-profits, etc. can show a commitment to helping young people grow in character as well as in the classroom. 

The smaller context of many SLACs provides a rich environment for cross-disciplinary teaching and learning. In these smaller settings, faculty from different departments routinely work together on various committees and have opportunities to help students make connections between disciplines in the classroom as well as through other projects and initiatives. The best cross-disciplinary conversations appreciate the unique contributions of each discipline as well as the new insights that arise from bringing them together. 

Because I studied at a larger school, I found the panelists’ observations about the ethos of SLACs both fascinating and helpful. The panelists not only described the uniqueness of SLACs, but they also suggested how to incorporate these insights into strong cover letters, teaching statements, teaching demonstrations, and interviews. They also directed us to helpful resources like the Job Market Boot Camp blog for more tips on the nuts and bolts of strong applications. From this panel, I am taking away several concrete strategies for writing my cover letters for SLACs. I plan to explore each school’s strategic plan and mission statement to see what about the school’s ethos particularly resonates with me. I will peruse each school’s departmental website for my field as well as the course catalogue to see where I can fit into the faculty and teaching needs of the department. I will also describe my work at a summer camp and in individual tutoring to show my experience with and passion for mentoring students. These details will help me craft stronger application materials that fit the unique context of each school to which I will apply. 

(Photo Credit:


Diana Abernethy

Ph.D. Candidate, Religion

Diana is a sixth year Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke. She is in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament track and is currently writing her dissertation on the literary function of deception in the book of 1 Samuel.