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.