Personal Statements

by Jeff Oaks

I’m sitting at my regular coffeehouse, warm sunlight growing hot on my neck. The dog has stretched out at my feet, his black fur absorbing the moderate, October heat. It might be the last weekend we can do this outside. There’s no telling when it will get too chilly to enjoy ourselves like this: a cafe au lait for me; a bag of kibble and assorted bites of croissant, the occasional petting by a stranger for him.

You’d think it would be relaxing, and it is more relaxing than the normal weekday, especially this past one, which had the beginning of midterm anxieties for the students, the pressure of midterm conferencing for us teachers. I had to compile a digital dossier as part of the regular renewal of my contract, and most of it was fairly easy–a matter of moving files from one place to another on my computer, of updating my c.v., which has grown some pages since its last update. What wasn’t easy was writing a personal statement. I worried it all week, first by frantically searching for earlier ones to read and rewrite, and then by being irritated I had to write one at all (which gave me a justification for not writing or rewriting), and then finally, on the day it was due, to simply rewriting my last renewal letter and uploading it.

I think a whole class might be constructed around writing personal statements, the first half of which might deal with the emotional contradictions. The poet Stephen Mills had this as his Facebook status this week:

“I keep checking my cover letter to make sure the first line isn’t: ‘I hate you. Don’t hire me.'”

I felt exactly the same thing this week, writing out my accomplishments for my faculty colleagues, knowing that most of them won’t read it, that the Dean won’t read it, that it’s mostly a formal exercise, a form to fill out, a kind of pledge I take that implies I understand the complicated rules of the institution and have the emotional maturity to handle those complications. That I can tell a narrative. That I’m sensitive enough not to boast of or inflate the work I’ve done, but not too mousy to avoid taking credit and/or blame for it. If all goes well, I won’t have to write another one for four more years, when my renewal will be up for debate. I’ll be 53 years old then. I will have spent 30 years at the same university. I will hope to work there for 15 more, which means three more renewals after this one.

Still, I felt more than once like saying, “Oh my God, if you don’t know how hard I’ve been working, then you haven’t been paying attention!”

I didn’t write that of course. My institution training is better than that. I returned to simple principles: be specific with details, keep jargon to an absolute minimum, keep your tone and syntax as elegantly simple as you can. I tried to relax into it. I imagined today, when it would all be behind me.