Monday, July 14, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Rounding Up References

An occasional correspondent writes:

I've been teaching as an adjunct for five semesters at my local
community college. I carry a full adjunct load every semester and they
give me first pick after the full-time faculty. My reviews are
stellar. I really, really enjoy teaching at the CC and would love to
go full-time there, and they have expressed a tentative interest for
"somewhere down the road" in taking me full time. However, they're
constrained in creating full time positions and neither of the two
current full-timers is planning to go anywhere any time soon.

A full-time position just opened up at a local specialized college
that is an UNUSUALLY good fit for me.

This is the first time I'm in a position to seek references from an
academic employer, and I feel a little awkward about it. I have good
relationships with both my department chair and my dean, and I think
they're both eager to help adjuncts/faculty succeed generally. But I
definitely don't want to burn the bridge or suggest to them that the
CC isn't my first preference -- but the other school can give me full
time and benefits, and whether the CC will EVER be able to offer me
that is up in the air.

How do I go about asking them for references? Will it signal I'm not
serious about teaching there? Or is it a really normal thing? Do I
stress that it's an unusually good fit? Do I say I'd rather be at the
CC, or is that then bad if the other school calls the CC?

I've gone on record opposing the whole system of academic job references. In a litigious age, I just haven't seen anything useful come out of them. Employment verification through HR strikes me as reasonable – either Bob worked there or he didn't, and finding out that he lied on his cv is worthwhile – but anything opinion-based will be hopelessly sanitized for the speaker's protection.

The downside of references is exactly what you've described. Although it's petty, and destructive, and selfish, and ultimately self-defeating, some employers will actually hold 'looking elsewhere' against you. (I had a department chair do that once when a secretary sent out applications.) I've been lucky enough not to have to go through that personally, but I can't guarantee that it wouldn't happen to you. Given how empty most references are anyway, this strikes me as a high-cost, low-value enterprise, well-suited for the dustbin of history.

That said, you still have a situation to negotiate. A few thoughts:

First, even a relatively petty employer should be able to understand that 'full-time' beats 'adjunct.' It isn't a matter of preferring one college over the other; it's a matter of preferring decent salary and benefits over piecework. If asked, I'd address it as 'full-time vs. adjunct,' rather than as college A against college B. After all, this approach implies that you'd be open an offer, either now or down the road. I've had adjuncts leave for full-time positions elsewhere, and I can honestly report that the unanimous reaction on the campus they left was “good for them.”

Second, if you find it politically necessary, you could always frame it as the next step in your professional development. “I've learned a great deal here, and now it's time for me to take what I've learned and see what I can do in a full-time position.” A little flattery can help, if your supervisors are the sorts who respond to that sort of thing. It also gives you a chance to frame their descriptions of you – remind them of all the great stuff you've achieved, in the guise of expressing gratitude. (“Thank you for giving me the chance to shine so brightly that I won the teaching award...”)

Weirdly enough, I've seen cases in which the prospect of losing someone actually made them suddenly more appealing. This is the only non-creepy explanation I have for why Bill Clinton's approval ratings actually went up after the Lewinsky story broke. When faced with the prospect of losing him, Americans took another look and decided that he was okay after all. I got my best performance review from my VP after he started doing references for me. To what extent that was him convincing himself, or to what extent it had to do with taking a fresh look, I don't know, but I didn't argue the point.

I also don't see the upside of not applying. The status quo is that you're adjuncting, and your cc doesn't seem likely to change that. What, exactly, do you have to lose? Take the shot, take the high road, and know that even if it doesn't work – and statistically, that's a very real possibility – you'll at least know that you tried. If nothing else, you may very well get valuable interviewing experience, and that's nothing to sneeze at. I say, go for it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? What have you seen?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm with DD. If you've been hanging around for a while in a soft position, the natural assumption for your employers is that you're just fine with that. If you're not, it's time to (politely and with professionalism) make that clear.

If you're good, and they aren't dysfunctional, the worst that can happen is that things will stay as they are. It would be awfully petty and shortsighted for them to toss you overboard for the sin of wanting a real job -- it would mean that they expect serious commitment from you but feel no obligation to respond in kind.

DD's also right in that this might well generate a job offer from the CC. Money's tight, but it's pretty darn common for an institution to magically come up with resources in order to hang on to someone that they don't want to lose. I've experienced it, I've seen it elsewhere, it definitely happens.
I would be straight with them -- tell them that a full-time position is what you are aiming at, that one is available and you'd appreciate their reference. It is probably good to flatter them first by saying that if you had a full time with them, you wouldn't even consider the opening down the road -- but, since you need the stability and benefits of a full-time position, you really can't not apply over there.
I'm puzzled about why it's even an issue. When I was in your situation I never thought twice about asking my chair for a letter of recommendation. If your current employers are worth working for/with, they'll know that applying for a full-time position doesn't say anything bad about them--you just want a real job like what they have. If you're really worried, just say something like "geez, I wish the opening was here at [your school] instead..."
I recall a recent case where a very good multi-year adjunct left for a 4-year uni, although in his case he had just finished up his PhD. Nonetheless, the Dean and faculty were extremely pleased to see him go to a mid-tier school. After all, that verifies our judgment of his quality, right?

Wouldn't it make Local CC look good if its adjunct got a f-t job at Fancier College? Especially when you tell them to keep your address handy if they have a f-t opening in the future?
I was an adjunct for seven years (my field has very, very few full time positions). When I decided to go on the market, I told my chair that I loved teaching at my current university and would hate to have to leave, and I'd certainly continue doing so as long as another job wasn't offered to me. I then said I was sure she would understand that I needed to look for a job with benefits and stability. I asked her if she'd be able to write me a positive letter, and she said she would. I assured her that if anything were to come from my search, I would let her know as quickly as possible so that she could find a replacement.

It worked out fine. She wrote a glowing letter. When I got a t-track job, I posted the news of my departure on my discipline's listserv so that she could get easily find a replacement. (That's a bit unusual in general, but in my field it's not uncommon.)

Only a very petty and vindictive chair or dean would non-renew an adjunct for (gasp!) wanting to make living wages, have a steady income, and plan for retirement. Being an adjunct doesn't mean the university OWNS you.

I've been reading the blog for a while and would love to exchange links on our blogroll with you. I see you have a few of our friends (Evil HR Lady, etc) blogs listed as links as well. Feel free to delete this comment once you reply to it.

Please let me know if you would be interested. My blog is a human resources related blog that contains some very unique content and is 100% written by us.

Feel free to delete this comment once you read it.

- Aaron

From a "big picture" perspective:

1) List summary evaluations
2) State "No student complaints/challenges" (if true)
3) State "Currently serving in good standing" (if true)

All of hte above are 1) easily verifiable; and 2) well within what HR would quickly either confirm or deny

"References" in todays Politically Correct Gulag are meaningless in any case.

You lie, your department chair can't say anything, and in any case they will see you F2F.

Don't waste your time seeking "glowing recommendations" as it is a Golden Fleece.
In a litigious age, I just haven't seen anything useful come out of them. ... but anything opinion-based will be hopelessly sanitized for the speaker's protection.

This has been nagging at me. It seems to assume that the only person who might sue is the candidate. But couldn't the college sue someone who covered up knowledge of important negatives?
To the question writer:

Are the chair and dean decent people? If so, ask for the letter. Why? Because decent people in acedemia want you to succeed.

In addition, put yourself in the position of the potential employer. 74 applications with references, one without.... The reader doesn't even ask why, (s)he just tosses the application in the "don't call" pile.

A dean who writes positive letters for aspiring adjuncts.
Yeah of course "fill the square" but that's all it is.

Don't obsess over getting a "good reference" vs. a "bad reference."

There is no difference between the two for all the reasons previously given.
I so have to disagree with the posters who are saying there's no difference between a good reference and a mediocre one. I do a fair amount of reference checking and I can hear the difference between an okay reference and a really good one. The reference doesn't have to say anything negative about the candidate for me to get the picture that this person is fine, but nothing special. (Or that there's a problem that can't be spoken about.) And one time I was called to give a reference for someone who hadn't asked me and about whom I couldn't really say much nice. All I would say is "I can only verify dates of employment," but the caller got the subtext, loud and clear.

As to the original question, though--ask for the letters/references! Any dean or colleague will be happy serve as a reference; of course we expect PT employees to be looking for FT work and we're happy when they find it.
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