Monday, November 05, 2007
An occasional correspondent writes:
After many years as a full-time faculty member at a community college, I have decided to apply for tenure track positions at four-year colleges. My question is about letters of recommendation. Who should I ask for letters? For several reasons, I do not want my current dean to know that I am "on the market," which means I can't ask him for a letter of recommendation. Are letters from faculty colleagues ok? What about former students? What are hiring committees looking for in letters of recommendation?
I've gone on record as opposing letters of recommendation generally. And as the recent blogfire over at Dr. Crazy's has demonstrated, there are still plenty of folks out there who are willing to punish people for looking. It's perverse, and thoughtless, and petty, but there it is.
In my experience with searches, letters never helped anybody. They hurt a few. The arms race of effusive praise has rendered them pretty much useless, except when you can read between the lines of faint praise. (There may be a limited exception to this for spanking-new Ph.D.'s emerging from the tutelage of Monster Superstar. At cc's, that's generally much irrelevant.) There's no training in how to write letters of recommendation, and there aren't any generally accepted industry standards (other than brevity). Fear of litigation – whether founded or unfounded – has fostered a bias toward leaving out anything distinctive. Inadvertent cultural bias can creep in easily, as in the case of international applicants coming from traditions in which praise is less effusive.
Worse, anybody beyond the 'first real job' stage is placed in a compromising position by asking for them. At least the newly-phudded are supposed to be looking. Once you've landed somewhere, though, asking for letters involves letting it be known that you are looking, which many people are more than willing to punish.
From this end of the desk, I've found more value in simply asking for a list of three references and contact information, and stipulating that they won't be contacted without the candidate's permission. Once the search committee has picked the top one or two people, then I contact those references to see if there are any red flags. (Again, praise is deeply discounted, but any criticism is taken very seriously.) So the references have no bearing until the very end, and then, only if something unexpected, bad, and relevant pops up. And the candidate doesn't have to give anybody a heads-up until the possibility of an offer materializing is substantial.
All of that said, some places continue – for whatever reason – to ask for actual letters.
I'd personally shy away from using former students as references. If you have some sort of useful statistical breakdown of student evaluations, and they're both comprehensible and flattering, go ahead and use that. But I'd assume that anybody with significant teaching experience has at least one student who liked her, so it would strike me as odd if you had to prove it.
You don't mention the 'tier' of four-year college to which you're applying, but I wouldn't be surprised if you ran into some snobbery about community colleges. Anything you could do to defuse that would be likely to help. Have you collaborated on projects with anybody at a four-year school? To the extent that you can do it, recruiting some writers from your 'target tier' or higher might help. Departmental colleagues are obviously great, but only if you can trust their discretion and/or the enlightened attitude on your campus. If you get the impression that anything you ask for can and will be used against you later, you might want to look someplace else.
I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have much to add on this one, so I'll throw it open. Wise and worldly readers: in my correspondent's shoes, who would you ask to write? And is there actually an argument for letters of recommendation, or should they be consigned to the dustbin of history?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
I do not even understand why we are allowed to ask for letters if we are not allowed to use them.
I'm with DD in thinking that the important thing in this case is to show you actually swim in the same pool as folks at 4 year college. Whether it's teaching advanced courses, or presenting at national conferences, those are the things that will signal your position. And those are the things you want your letter writers to be able to address.
Oh -- and because I've had a fraught relationship with higher administration, I have used colleagues instead of the Dean when they have asked for "a letter from your current employer".
It seems to me that the committee 1) wouldn't want to deal with extra paperwork coming in, and 2) how much can you really gain from this kind of letter. I am in the biological sciences and I know that positions can get over 100 applicants, 300 in some cases. If the committee needs to whittle the pool down to a manageable size anyways, wouldn't there be enough information in the other documents in the application packet be enough? I guess one positive to requesting letters up front is completeness of the application. If you have 300 applicants and you need to start removing packets, those that are missing a letter or other document can be removed right away.
One of my references always gave me the letter first before submitting it. He would tailor each sentence. If you just have contact information, wouldn't a phone call provide more information? Without the ability to tailor things and just provide praise, couldn't the search committee ask questions that evoke the true feelings of the reference regarding the candidate? Specifically voice inflection and limited time to respond to questions.
Also, the phone call approach is problematic because at the point you are making phone calls, you have to make the same phone calls for everyone in the stack, not just a select few. Given the time constraints, that means not doing calls until you have a very short short list.
Well, I'm in the process of applying to grad schools right now, and most schools ask for 2-3 letters. Thing is, anyone applying to grad school at all (even if they're not a particularly good fit) can, I'm sure, find 3 professors who liked them well enough to write a letter on their behalf. If they can't...well, chances are they didn't like undergrad much, and wouldn't be interested in signing up for a few more years on campus.
Plus, the stuff that someone who has supervised your work or has had you in class that might actually be significant ("John Doe is a little prick. Smart as hell, but you don't want him around", etc, probably won't even get into the hands of a prospective grad school. The same holds true for a propective employer...
Also, let's be honest: how much does a 500 word statement of purpose help anybody? (probably more relevant to the applying to grad school thing, but still) I mean, if you're not stupid, you'll pretty much just be telling the committee what you know they want to hear. The people who write your letters are gonna do the same thing, probably: " John Doe is a wonderful teacher/student/researcher. Any department would be lucky to have him...blah blah blah"
So this doesn't always apply. And yes, they are checking the references by phone.