Monday, October 01, 2012


Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Lukewarm Letter

A new correspondent writes:

I wondered if I could crowdsource a request for advice from a colleague trying to find a full-time academic job. 
She finished her PhD a little while ago and has strong references from two prominent faculty members at her graduate institution. For 6 years, she has been doing part-time teaching work at another university that has only two full-time faculty in her discipline: one she doesn't get along with at all (through no fault of her own), but the other is great and has written reference letters for her in the past. However, my colleague just saw one of these letters and it was all of two paragraphs long with nothing of substance to say. 
Her question is: should she keep using this poor letter writer as a reference and, if she does, how can she mitigate a weak letter? If she doesn't use her, will too many red flags be raised since she wouldn't have a letter from the institution where she has been teaching (part-time) for the past 6 years? 
I have some ideas of my own, but I'd appreciate your thoughts and those of your wise and worldly readers.

This is a delicate one.  

For what it’s worth, on the hiring side as I’ve experienced it, letters don’t count for a lot.  They need to exist if they’re asked for -- someone who can’t find anybody to say anything nice about them probably isn’t our first choice -- but at least here, the content of the letters counts a lot less than I used to imagine they did, back in grad school.  (If anything, phone calls are far more useful than letters.  You can ask followup questions, and, sometimes, hear some very loud pauses.) That said, of course, your mileage may vary.

Assuming the second full-timer at the current workplace isn’t an option -- I’ll take your word for that -- and assuming that the current employer matters a great deal, then you’re left with how to improve the letter that’s already there.

If you decide to ask the writer to try again, the first issue that comes to mind is explaining how the applicant came to know what was written.  The writer may have understood the letter to be confidential.  If that’s the case, then there’s a basic epistemological issue.  I don’t have a magic bullet for that one, though some of my wise and worldly readers might.

Alternately, I guess, you could try something a little more roundabout.  Mention some new twist in either the market or the applicant’s qualifications, and ask for a revised letter.  (“Could you make a point of mentioning my latest award?”)  That evades the epistemological issue, and offers a face-saving way to ask for a new version.  But it raises the very real possibility that the second letter will be just as tepid as the first, if with new details.  (It’s a variation on the old dilemma of a student whose extra credit work sucks.  Yes, it’s extra, but if it sucks, it sucks.)  

Depending on context, some applicants have also used a statement like “please contact my current employer only if I reach finalist status,” and then offered phone numbers.  If the kindly soul is a better speaker than writer, this gives a generally-understood way to shift media to something that might get better results.  I’ve seen this more on administrative searches than on faculty searches, but it’s generally accepted as an acknowledgement that some places actually punish people for looking.  Offering the name and phone number of the kindly professor, bracketed with a statement like that, may come across as “here’s a good soul in a dysfunctional place,” rather than “here’s someone who writes weak letters.”  It’s a dodge, but it may work.

I’ll admit not being a fan of letters of reference generally.  Between the competitiveness of the academic job market and a widespread fear of litigation, letters are puffier and less candid than would be helpful.  It’s one of those old “rational choice” dilemmas: collectively, we’d all be better off with more truthful and nuanced letters, but the first person to make the shift loses.  Letters are also subject to cultural biases, quirks of writing style, and the limitations of the genre of what is supposed to be deep reflection but is really just advertising.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I’m fairly confident that there are more angles to this.  What would you recommend?  Are there elegant ways around this dilemma?

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

All she has to do is "Ask the Administrator" for a second letter.

IE get a reference letter from the HR point of view. They can state length of employment, testify to assiduity, punctuality, and completion of required duties.

Often times these types of letter count more than a "personal" or "character" letter of reference.
I'm not sure about that. Maybe others read these differently, but to me, a letter like Anon 6:18 describes is the kiss of death and not something a person should ask for.

One time I saw a letter for an applicant that basically said "Mr Smith shows up on time and turns in his grades every semester." This was interpreted - correctly, in this case - as a way of saying "this guy is a doofus who does the bare minimum required, and we have nothing good to say about him beyond that. But yes, he has a pulse"

How do I know it was the correct interpretation? First, because the letter writer was a long-time personal friend and I asked the writer about it. Second, because despite this terrible letter of non-recommendation, the department I worked in hired the guy anyway and I got stuck sharing an office with him for 2 years before they cut him loose. (All I can say is, as a non-tenure faculty member, I didn't have a voice or a vote in the final hiring decision.)

I want to know what they mean by "only two faculty in her discipline." Is this literally a department of two full-time people? Or is it a larger, "umbrella" department? I've seen departments of, say, math and computer science, or chemistry and biochemistry, or sociology and psychology, and one of the disciplines in the name is a "junior partner" that has only a handful of people in the specialty.

If it's a larger department, a Chair or Associate Chair from outside the field won't be able to write a letter on this person's depth in the field, but that person probably sees student evaluations and can probably write a lot about how well-received the person's teaching is.

If it really is a department with just 2 full-timers, what about other part-timers? When I was a part-timer, I worked with another part-timer on developing a few things for our courses, and he was able to write a letter about innovation in teaching.

Or, what about an administrator? Obviously the HR letter "This person shows up on time" is a kiss of death, but if there's a Dean or Associate Dean who sees teaching evals (sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't) that person might be worth talking to. If they have any integrity at all, they'll decline to write a letter that they have insufficient information to write, so no harm in trying.
Discipline (I suspect) matters a lot here. Letters of rec count for a lot in English - maybe not for administrators, but at the department level, which is where interview invitations get decided. No, letters matter not at all once you've been invited for an interview, so when administrators get involved, but they matter at the early stages when administrators are not involved. What you want from your current place of employment is a letter that can attest not only to your excellence as a colleague (all the work-stuff: getting to class on time, teaching for the full time, fulfilling whatever your responsibilities are) but also somebody who can talk about your teaching - do you engage students effectively? are you innovative in your teaching?

Option #1 - Ask the original recommender to "update" the letter, giving very specific instructions about what he/she should include. If the person is truly an ally, that person should be more than happy to do it - especially with guidance as to what the letter should include.

Option #2 - solicit another letter, even if it's from a tenured person outside the institution, who can speak to those issues and who ALSO can explain in their letter why there's not a letter from the adjuncting institution. This person should NOT be from the institution where the person earned his/her PhD - rather, it should be a colleague in the field, ideally someone who knows the person's scholarship well. (You can give them sample syllabi and assignments and student evals so they can talk about the innovation in teaching stuff.)

Honestly, the biggest red-flag for us (a regional university with a 4/4 load) would be the fact that the person is 6 years out and only has positive letters from grad program people. A couple of letters from grad program people are fine, but six years out, this person should have made professional connections with other people who want to wax poetic about his/her qualities. The "lukewarm" letter would be fine with the addition of a current letter from a colleague who could talk about the person's current awesomeness. But two old letters plus a lukewarm one? That person wouldn't get an interview from us.
I'm with Alex on this one. Surely there is someone else there you can get a letter from. Maybe it's not within your department per se but someone you worked on a project with or faculty that you were paired with for an accreditation visit. If you've been there for 6 years, you've at least had some sort of accreditation visit to content with. What about committee work or things like that?

And if you don't have something like that, I'd suggest finding ways to network with colleagues so you'd have it in the future.
Is this a regional thing? Here in the Pacific NW, I have never been required to submit a letter of recommendation for any faculty positions. In any case, organizational psychologists have demonstrated that letters have little or no predictive validity as an employee selection tool. The only thing worse is...unstructured interviews.
Perhaps you were told in the course of an interview (put on the spot?) that your recommendation letter was less than enthusiastic? In that case it would be normal for you to get back to the letter writer and get a feeling for whether that was intentional or not. In the latter case you could openly rework the letter together with that person. In the former case you need to look for another letter writer (as discussed in other contributions here).
The academic job market is so tight nowadays that virtually anything negative in your portfolio can doom your chances of ever getting a tenure-track faculty appointment. You have to be practically perfect to even get an interview, much less be offered the job.

I can visualize a busy and harassed search committee which has to sift through a pile of hundreds of CVs from super-qualified applicants. They happen to see someone who might fit and who might be worth inviting to an actual interview. Then they see that lukewarm letter of recommendation in the candidate’s portfolio. It really doesn’t say anything bad about the candidate, but it doesn’t say a lot of good things either. Since a lot of people write “fluffy” letters of recommendation that say that the candidate literally walks on water, such a lukewarm letter raises a red flag. Maybe the writer of the letter of recommendation really thinks that the applicant is an utter turkey, but is afraid to put such a sentiment in writing, lest the applicant find out what was said, get mad, and file a lawsuit in the future. Best to say nothing really negative, but don’t go overboard in the praise either. Such a lukewarm letter may hint to the search committee that there is actually something really wrong with the candidate, and it is probably not worth even inviting them for an interview.

In addition, having been a part-timer for several years may indicate to the search committee that, no matter what the letters of recommendation say, there is probably still something seriously wrong with the candidate. Faculty members who are on the tenure track or who are even tenured often have an inflated view of their intelligence and ability, and believe that just because they have been successful at the academic career game that they are worthy winners in some sort of Darwinist struggle for survival, and will probably conclude that if the candidate were really any good, they would probably have already gotten a tenure-track gig by now. If a candidate has been a part-timer for too long, the search committee will probably look askance at their CV and conclude that the candidate is really a loser. Tragically, once you are branded as a part-timer, you are likely to remain one, and you will find that you are trapped in a dead-end job rather than in an entry-level position.

But then again, letters of recommendation may be important in some fields and in some locales, but may not matter very much in others. I don't recall them as having very much influence in my past career.
I don't know if this is an option at the part-timers institution, but many schools have some sort of Office of Teaching and Learning (different names for this exist, of course). The purpose of offices like this is to provide resources to faculty who want to stay up to date on best practice teaching methods, share methodologies, teaching strategies, collaborate on teaching innovation, etc. At my school, the Office offers the service of classroom observation and survey, which means someone from the Office will observe you teach, survey your students to find out what's working, what's not, etc., and then offer feedback to the instructor on what changes might be appropriate, what the instructor is doing well, etc.

The benefit of this is that, over the course of several observations--perhaps of different classes--one might be able to ask the representative from this office for a letter of recommendation. The letter would offer evidence based on direct observation *and* it would be from someone whose specialty is identifying/assisting/building good teachers.

Just a thought...
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