Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New Letters of Reference for New Kinds of Academic Careers

University employment is changing. We all know that tenured faculty teach an ever-declining proportion of undergraduate courses. We know that there is a boom in piecework sessional teaching. There is also the possibly cheering / possibly more depressing development in the hiring of short-term and continuing lecturer positions, a kind of teaching-track full-time job, often focusing on writing instruction, that makes sessional work much more highly remunerative and stable.* This is a big change. By the start of the fall term, 4 of our faculty members in English will be Definite Term Lecturers, and 25 will be tenure-stream.

The kinds of "academic jobs" available are changing. And our application, interviewing, hiring, renewing, and assessment practices haven't really caught up yet. Today, let's talk about reference letters. Next week I'll talk about application letters and CVs from candidates.

In my department, we've launched three searches for definite term lecturers this year (8 courses per year, 10% research component on writing pedagogy, 3 year position with possibility of renewal and move to continuing status) and two tenure track searches (standard 2:2 load, 40-40-20 split, research position). One of our associated colleges, St. Jerome's, is also doing a search right now, for two more DTLs on roughly the same terms as our own.

I've read a lot of reference letters, if you put these six searches into one big pool. Many of these letters are lousy, in the sense of inappropriate to the position, bordering on the disrespectful to the candidate's chances, and of the time of the committee.

First, the pool. Most of the candidates applying fall into two camps: first, rhet/comp and writing studies scholars, and second, literature PhDs. The first group is doing more than fine, and doesn't need my help: there is such a boom in positions for these (mostly American and American-trained) candidates, that the odds are usually quite good they've got a choice of tenure-trac positions closer to where they want to live. I will not tell you how many of these candidates have rejected job offers from us over the last several years. But they are numerous.

Much more problematic are the repurposed literature PhDs. I truly, truly sympathize with the desire to get an academic job, any academic job, and closer to the GTA rather than farther, and more stable rather than less. And many of these candidates are award-winning scholars with exciting dissertations and upper level teaching in their area. But their referees are sinking their candidacies before they even really get going.

The highlights are something like this (made-up examples, that get the gist):
  • "I have not had an opportunity to see X teaching, but her interactions with me have always been pleasant and professional."
  • "I have not discussed teaching with X, but he is an excellent researcher, whose innovative dissertation suggests he will be a creative classroom teacher."
  • "X was lucky enough to secure funding that removed her from the classroom, and as a result, her dissertation is already at a state to be submitted to an academic publisher."
  • "The nuance that X brings to guest lectures in upper level courses in his research area demonstrate his readiness to devise innovative courses in your department."
Stop this. The job ad says we need people to teach 8 introductory writing courses to students from across the university. The ad may indicate that the position may turn into long-term continuing: that is, it can be a career-job. It says there's no research component, or a small research component based in continuing training in pedagogy. It stresses writing studies and writing pedagogy, or communications studies, or cognate research or training. The letters describe literary scholars with tenure-track dreams and training. They also, in blithely ignoring the terms of the ad, seem to indicate the writer's and candidate's belief that no special skills are required to teach writing across the curriculum. This is, if I'm going to be perfectly honest, insulting to the field, the job, and the search committee.

I imagine most of this is inadvertent. These are new kinds of jobs, with new kinds of ads, in new sorts of fields, particularly for Canadians.

I suggest:

  • Graduate supervisors? You need to go watch your students teach. You need to talk to them about teaching.
  • You also need to really encourage your literary students to take advantage of any and all teaching credentialling opportunities at your institution.
  • You need to devise new templates for letters. The research letter is a standard form, that is well-pitched to research jobs, but it's not suited to all jobs, not even all jobs inside of academic departments

I'm thinking particularly of the literary scholars who are reframing their job focus from TT in their area, to other kinds of stable employment as teachers in departments. The writing studies and rhet/comp people are doing more than okay on this front. And I think our literary grads can become strong, credible, hireable candidates for the lecturer positions that are becoming more numerous. But it's not obvious from the application materials. Yet.

What reference letters for teaching lectureships, focused on introductory writing or writing across the curriculum might look like:

  • Indicate the candidate is serious, at least for now, about taking up a lectureship like this one
  • Speak specifically about the candidate's skills as a teacher
  • Of junior students
  • Skills like works well in a team, has good time management, deals well with student conflicts are prized as well

Look, I don't have any such letters written for my students. I'll be perfectly honest and tell you I never thought about it before I read something like 200 of them written by other people. I don't know if I like the stratification of departments into tenured scholar/teachers of upper-level and grad courses, and writing-teacher lecturers with such high teaching loads and mostly junior / non-departmental students. But there are a lot more of one these kinds of jobs than the other. And some candidates really do seem quite happy to reframe toward writing and communication, and to relish the teaching, and to really want these positions. So I'd like all applicants (and there are LOTS of applicants) to produce better application materials for the jobs we're actually hiring for.

It's a work in progress for me. I'd love any advice or feedback you might have.


  1. Some of the trouble, I think, comes from dossier services where it's easy fpr candidates to have one letter per letter writer on file, but harder to have a variety tailored to particular sorts of jobs.

    But I agree that faculty are going to have to wrap their heads around the idea of writing more than one letter per candidate. That's always been best practice, I think, at least in my discipline, and isn't something that only applies to "teaching stream" jobs. The teaching needs of departments from tenure track faculty vary depending on the size of the department: a department of 40 might be able to have someone with a very limited teaching range, so it's fine to be an excellent teacher on topics close to research area, while a department of 15---still research department size in philosophy, depending on the school---needs a utility infielder. A letter writer needs to say different things in those cases. Also, at least in philosophy, if you can't say something informative about the teaching of students from your own department, you're doing a disservice. For a research position, the choice will come down to a bunch of candidates with high research potential, so why would you choose from among the ones who look likely to become really good teachers, too? Some of the best candidates will have evidence to that effect ... why not your student?

    1. Why would you *not* choose from among the good teachers, that is. Sheesh.

      So, um, also remember to proofread your letters, which many faculty don't.

  2. I think the onus is also on the applicant. I was fortunate enough to be told by a mentor that I *must* have my teaching observed every single time the Department Chair changes or I move universities. Consequently, I have at least four people who can write letters solely on my teaching.

    So, my advice to candidates/applicants would be to ask someone to come watch you teach at least once a year. Yes, its nerve-wracking, but not nearly as nerve-wracking as heading into a job interview and having the committee be the first people ever to observe your teaching.

    That said, I don't have a permanent position, so it is also worth remembering that there is no single stop-gap solution to the broken system. There are, however, productive discursive means of addressing particular issues systematically, as you do here Aimee. Thanks for this post!

  3. Good point, Erin, and one that has come up on Facebook: candidates need to be savvy in their job hunt, too. I'll get to some specifics on that front next week. And of course, the rise of lecturer positions is vexed, and uneven, and I'd love to have a bigger discussion about that.

  4. My comment was just lost when I tried to log in incorrectly, but to summarize it briefly:

    1. Let's replace letters with phone calls for the final short listed or even long listed candidates. Why do we have to write letters for people who might never crack those lists? And often calls are more candid that letters anyway.

    2. I am now writing letters for students over 4-5 years as they try to find permanent employment. It used to be maybe 1-2 years for each student. And so each year my letter writing load increases with the new students added into the mix. If I need to craft two different letters for each student, that's doubling an already almost unsustainable load. I am a fan of watching students teach and including pedagogical evaluation, but there's also a breaking point for letter writers. How about phone calls?

  5. It sounds as though the traditional liberal arts university education is now geared towards two type of fields: research or teaching. This means that students should probably decide early on the direction they wish to take and acquire the necessary skills for either a research position in or outside academia, or for a teaching position either in a traditional school setting or in corporate training, another growing field. Ultimately, students need to know that their degrees can take them outside academe and be used in any field. It is not just universities which are changing radically, all industries, arts, and human interactions are going through massive upheavals. I have often told young people that they will more likely create their own jobs. The onus cannot just be on the students or on the professors, everyone needs to get in on the conversation, including the employment professionals who are observing market trends and help inspire graduates to use their skills in ways they may have never imagined.

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