Monday, November 05, 2007

Letters Redux

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?

Good luck!

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