Friday, February 1, 2008

I Hope that Someone Gets My Message in a Bottle

Leiter's posted an e-mail from someone whose department's hiring, and who got recommendation letters from students in some application packages. There's the question of how useful those letters could be. (Answer: it depends on the letter, doesn't it?) But there's also the question of why anyone sent them in the first place.

Well, as one of Leiter's commentors points out, letters from students were required by at least one school that posted an ad in one of the fall JFPs. I can't remember what school it was (and I'm too lazy to look it up), but I remember the ad. It asked for (I think) at least six letters, three of which had to be from former students.

I remember, because it made me think, "Hey, maybe I should get some letters from students to go in my teaching portfolio." To be a little more precise, it made me think that for about 30 seconds, before I realized I had no way of contacting most of my students. Even if I could get in touch with some of them, I'm just not sure I could get good letters from them. (Taking a barely literate kid, and working with him over only a single semester, getting him to the point where he was only a terrible writer--that's actually something I'm pretty fucking proud of. But I still don't want my letters written by terrible writers.)

Anyway, here's the thing. A lot of people applied to that job asking for student letters, because a lot of people apply to every job. So a lot people got letters from students. Now, they were also applying to a bunch of other jobs, and a lot of those asked for "evidence of teaching excellence" or something just as vague. Why the not send the letters? Because who the fuck really knows what "evidence of teaching excellence" is?

Update: Okay, thanks to Jennifer in comments, who says the schools asking for letters from students was Oxford College at Emory University. Also, she's curious to know if people did send student letters, and if it helped at all.


Anonymous said...

I'm the commentator who wrote that comment on Leiter.
Thanks for picking up on the conundrum.

I'd be interested in discovering if any of your readers applied to that job (Oxford College at Emory University) and see if they send in student letters, and then see how they fared in the hiring process.
Cheers all,

Anonymous said...

I applied to the Oxford College at Emory job and I did send the letters to Oxford but not anywhere else. I didn't make the first cut. I didn't send the letters anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

"recommendation letters from students "

I wouldn't put a lot of stock in this school...they care what students think..who the F**k cares.

Anonymous said...

I was going to apply, then saw that and thought, hey, would I want to apply somewhere that has faculty dumb enough to ask for that. BTW, I'm currently an unemployed PhD-in-hand, and I still didn't apply. My guess is they asked for that simply to cut down the number of applicants from 300 to, oh, let's say 20.

As for "evidence of teaching excellence", that's a terrible phrase and I wish schools would quit using it. Here's how I interpret it. They want say all their faculty are excellent teachers, so they stick that in job ads and, voila, whoever they hire must be excellent, no need to bother training them or checking to see if they're doing a good job.

What's wrong with "please send a teaching portfolio" or ideally "please send teaching philosophy, sample syllabi, and student evaluations"?

Anonymous said...

Class evaluations by students are about as unreliable as individual letters by students. (Evidence that they measure popularity or personal student identification with the perceived personal style of the teacher as opposed to teaching excellence and effectiveness, etc.)One case just contains more potentially unreliable data. No matter where the current conventions came from, isn't it obvious that both standard evaluations and letters of recommendation by individuals have pros and cons - things that you are and are not more or less likely to learn from each?

Anonymous said...

I thought of applying for that job, but didn't because I couldn't be bothered to bug the shit out of former students.

I noticed at the APA that they were one of the few schools accepting on-site requests for interviews. No fucking wonder.

Anonymous said...

I took it the same way I take all such way-stupid application hoops: they have someone in mind they'd like to hire and this is a way of discouraging too many applicants that may actually be more qualified than their favorite horse. How many people didn't apply because of that? A couple years back, a friend applied for a position that wanted to know the total number of each letter grade assigned in each course that one had ever taught. WTF?!?!?

Anonymous said...

anon 4:31:

There's a big difference between not being able to glean much value from student letters and thinking that students' thoughts are unimportant.

Anonymous said...

One guy from my department applied there; he did not send in any student letters, for some reason, but got an APA interview. No fly-out though.

Anonymous said...

Anyone in the know that has advice on how to write VAP (non-TT) job application letters? Do you do about the same as TT positions, or do you spin it toward teaching more, mention this blog, etc.? thx!

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

Anon. 8:46 --

Uh, I for one would avoid mentioning this blog, since we're really more about a button-down atmosphere here.

Anonymous said...

Multiple people are suggesting that the primary motivation for requiring three student letters is to cut down on the number applications. I doubt that is the real motivation.

I did my undergraduate at Emory University, so I know the role that Oxford College plays within the wider university system. It is marketed as a stepping stone to Emory University. Oxford college has smaller class sizes, more devoted teachers, etc. Whereas Emory has highish research expectations for its faculty members, Oxford College greatly prioritizes teaching. The hope is that, while at Oxford, students will get all the benefits of a small liberal arts college. Then when they transition to Emory university for the last two years (as is the custom), they will have all the benefits of a major research institution.

In short, I think Oxford College requested those student letters because of how much they prioritize teaching.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:46:

Here's the advice/explanation I got while applying for one-year gigs, which was confirmed by the dept. where I'm now a VAP:

Typically, VAP's are for the sake of meeting specific teaching needs--needs which should be spelled out or at least mentioned in the job ad ('successful candidate will be expected to teach X, Y, and/or Z'). So show them, or at least tell them, that you can teach X, Y, and/or Z (and that you'd be happy to do so).

Nevertheless, most depts. will gauge a candidate's fit primarily based on research--that's what you'll bring to the job in addition to meeting those teaching needs.

The good news, then, is that roughly the same letter you used in the Fall is good in the Spring. (I used a slightly shortened version of my TT apps, cutting the stuff on long-term research interests.)

But I would say it is more important in this situation to make sure that the letter, especially the teaching bits, fits the description. If a dept. needs someone to fill two sections of social/political, say, or medical ethics, they want more than just a broad or vague interest in those areas. They want someone who can come in on short notice and teach those classes well.

Anonymous said...

Why would one want to mention this blog in a letter for a VAP? I don't see it.

Anonymous said...


It's still the case that Oxford College is the only SLAC or wanna-be-SLAC asking for such letters. It's not the difference between teaching and research oriented schools: not even teaching oriented schools want that nonsense. I'm guessing that someone in the Dean's office had a bright idea and didn't think through how stupid it was.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering whether it was generally considered acceptable to try to negotiate terms on offers at the Assistant Prof. level. Would this be considered obnoxious? Are there certain kinds of terms it would be OK to negotiate (maybe, teaching reductions) but others not (maybe, salary)?

Anonymous said...

Negotiating a TT Asst Prof offer ... I too would particularly appreciate some discussion of this issue. What's in/appropriate to ask for? What are SC chairs expecting to hear? Can you ask for more (whatever) only if you have another offer, or in any case? All help appreciated!

Anonymous said...

To follow up on anon 11:47, with whom does one negotiate when appropriate? Is this something that one takes up with the search chair, department chair, or dean?

Anonymous said...

you can _definitely_ negotiate at the assistant level position. And salary is definitely on the table, at least at most places. I don't think candidates realize how much power they have once the department has settled on you as the favored candidate.

There are tons of things you are going to want spelled out before you sign a contract:

- annual salary
- moving expenses
- research funds
- workload
- course reduction for first year or two
- office and computer facilities

Anonymous said...

Yeah, CST, the problem with the Emory ad is not that it focuses on getting evidence about teaching. It's that it requires evidence that most applicants won't be able to provide, and that some reasonable people might think presents the candidate with a moral dilemma. So it's both impractical and stupid.

A lot of people at teaching schools get holier than thou about their commitment to teaching. I'm one of those people (contra many readers here) who think that the primary responsibility of all professors, except for research professors (those without any teaching obligations) is teaching. I work hard on my teaching and I take pride in it. But not everything is justifiable if you amend the coda "because we value good teaching" to the end of it.

So either the folks at Emory are manipulative, as we suggested, or they're sincere but stupid. Which would you prefer?

Anonymous said...


I think the topic of negotiations is important enough to have its own thread (though it will be a bit annoying for those without offers).

I think there is a temptation to think that since it's so hard to get a TT job, you should just take whatever they offer. But, you have to resist this way of thinking--this is your only time to negotiate things for your life until tenure, typically. The only other way to get more loot (broadly construed) is to get another offer in the future.

So, without being obnoxious, keeping in mind what your school's resources are like, you need to consider (at least) the following:

Annual salary
Set-up expenses/research funds
Moving expenses
Sabbatical Policies (Pre-tenure and otherwise)

The dean is the person making the decisions, but you might have your chair act as an advocate to guide you in terms of what is reasonable to accept. My chair was a lifesaver on this one. I didn't have a counter-offer at the time but my chair was the one to tell me to ask for more! I really like my chair!

I think the best thing to do is to ask young faculty you trust who have gone through this recently, or ask your program's chair. My younger mentors told me it was very standard to get more loot, even without a counter-offer. I was clueless.

Two more things: First, keep in mind that at some schools, if you get a raised offer, all assistant profs in your department/division will have to get a raise, so it may be a big deal to the school. Stay respectful and understanding, but ask about the options.

Second, Anon 11:47 brought up course reductions. I think it is WAY more likely to get more money than a lighter course load. Unless you are seriously hot shit, you're going to teach the same load as the other assts. But, many schools will offer a one-time one course reduction for one of your first few semesters. The only other course load negotiations would center around sabbatical policies, I would think.

Just be respectful, upfront, and fair.

Anonymous said...

Folks, I was f***ing kidding about mentioning this blog in the VAP letter, so relax. Thx to the folks who answered the VAP letter part, though!

Anonymous said...

In defense of cst...Personally, I don't see anything wrong with the request. I'm a graduate student instructor at a major research university (still working on the dissertation), and I had no problems finding students to write letters for me. In fact, I found it difficult to narrow down the ones that I wanted. Many of them (sometime after taking my Intro to Phil., Ethics, etc., courses) became philosophy majors, so it was relatively easy. I too applied for the job at Oxford College (though, sadly, I was granted no interview - maybe those letters didn't help all that much after all!).

I know, I know...Mr. Zero's gonna' pop up here and start talking about goddamned "noise" again. But I honestly can't see anything wrong with this procedure - other than the perpetual whining about more "work" to do for the application process. I enjoyed teaching my classes, my student's seemed to respond, and for that reason, I don't see what's wrong with finding your best students to write letters for you.

And nah, I didn't send'em elsewhere...Ye ol' proverb "If they don't ask for it, don't..."

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:42 and 2:29:

Actually, I wasn't trying to defend the request for student letters, though I can see why you got that impression. I was just trying to clarify their motivation for making such a request. I myself don't think the request is stupid, but overall, I think the costs outweigh the benefits.

Anonymous said...

Leiter had an interesting post on the subject of junior negotiation, though it's geared to R1 jobs:

Anonymous said...

Huh, I've learned something here myself. I would have been much less optimistic about the prospects of negotiating.
I think often there isn't a whole lot of room for salary negotiation because the dean of the faculty may be constrained by rules. Likewise for a course off: I think at a lot of schools there will be hard-and-fast rules against this. Moving expenses, I think, ought to be pretty standard.

But from what I'm hearing it sounds like at some places there are real prospects for negotiating, even without a competing offer. That's great to hear! I'd add that it can't hurt to try, in any case.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback on the potential to negotiate at the asst TT level. I'm somewhat skeptical that it's really possible to do this without two offers, though. If you don't have two offers, how do you go about broaching the topic? Do you just say "I think I'm worth more than that?"

I'm also interested in non-traditional things that you might want. Can you (plausibly) ask for a reduced rate mortgage? If there are any other "creative" things that we might ask for, but that I just can't think of, I'd be interested in hearing about them. At public universities where salaries are public, I could imagine it would be difficult to negotiate the salary too much, but other extras might be easier to get.

Anonymous said...

Regarding VAP positions;

Teaching what they need you to teach is the priority.

But it might also be a good idea to play up one's willingness to talk about other people's research. There is likely to be at least one person on the search committee who is looking for a fresh perspective on what they are writing. So if you are more than happy to read other's work and offer some comments on it, that will be a good thing. No matter what kind of job it is there will be someone there who wants an interesting person to talk to about their work.

This will also set you up, if you get hired, to have people read your stuff. Which is key for making a VAP payoff. Ideally, you want to leave the place with letters from outside your home department that say you are a smart and interesting philosopher. VAPs only payoff if you increase the number of philosophers willing to go to bat for you as a good philosopher.

By the way I am the original VAP, at least for this site. You other VAPs need to get your own moniker. Don't steal my mojo!

Anonymous said...

I think that the advice above about negotiations is all good! I would like to stress, though, that you should make sure to get *everything* in writing--and if certain things are very important to you, to have a lawyer make sure that you'll have recourse if the school tries to renege.

None of this would have occured to me until I accepted a TT job at a Large Southern School as a result of being offered a significantly higher salary than my previous TT job, an Instructor position for my partner in the same department, and expense reimbursement for setting up a Center. As soon as we arrived the Instructorship vanished (leaving my partner unemployed), that part of my salary that was funded by soft money was paid by the Chair and his cronies to some "good Southern boys" associated with the department (which, when the donor found out, led it to promptly withdraw funding and consider legal action), and I never received reimbursement for several thousand dollars of expenses.

Of course, this is an especially egegious horror story, and *highly* unusual. And I'm fortunate to have been able to move from there to my dream job, which is sheer bliss. But it does show that not everyone in academia is honest. A polite request for all the terms of your offer to be placed in writing won't be thought unusual--indeed, most schools will probably send you this in any case--and could save you a lot of heartache later on.

Anonymous said...

I have another job negotiation question. Say you have an offer from university A, which is OK. It is a time-limited offer, and you sign a contract. Then dream school B makes you an offer. Can you break your contract with A? Honestly, I'm not asking here about the moral question of promise-keeping, I'm asking about 1) legal situation, or 2) the extent to which you will completely alienate yourself from the people at school X.

Anonymous said...

Regarding negotiations: I want to reiterate what others have already said. There is no harm done in trying to negotiate, so long as you do it respectfully, and the only time you will get to negotiate (if you don't have outside offers down the road) is upon hiring. Regarding salary, a nice way to do it is to simply ask: 'Is there room for negotiation?' Regarding other matters, make sure you know what exactly you will get upon arriving. Not all universities give new faculty a computer for the office, so be sure to ask for that. Other questions (some of which overlap): travel money? research budget? teaching reduction in the first term/year? pre-tenure leave? moving expenses? start up money? For things like a research budget or start up money, be sure to have a clear list of what you might need the money for (books, computer software, consulting with others elsewhere, travel to archives, microfilm reader (be creative)) Also remember to be reasonable: if you get pre-tenure leave, you might not want to ask for teaching release, for instance.

Anonymous said...

Re: negotiation in TT offers.

Yes, do it! If you've gotten an offer, the department wants you, and they don't want the search to fall through. And as others have said, this is your best chance to get more loot.

Obviously, if you have an offer from elsewhere, you have more leverage. But if you look pretty good (which you do if you got an offer), and the department is pulling for you strongly, you should have a good chance of getting the Dean to sweeten the pot a little in any case.

Don't ask for a permanent teaching reduction; it will just make you look bad. You *should* ask what the school's pre-tenure leave policy is in any case. And if they don't already do so, consider asking for a semester off after your third-year review. Even if you don't get it, you might get some sort of temporary course reduction to help with research. Folks upthread have other good suggestion sabout things to ask for (good computer, travel money, etc.)

Also, if you have good vibes from the department chair after your on-campus interview, and he (or she) seems approachable, try to be open with him about what you're thinking of asking for. A good departmental chair wants his faculty to be happy, wants the search the succeed, and will know the school's budget and what sorts of things can and can't happen. So a good chair will give you worthwhile advice about what to ask for and what not to.

Anonymous said...

anon 3:09,

I've posted my last 'noise' comment, I think. Sorry if I was being obnoxious.

That said, let me say something else about noise. I think that we, as grad students/applicants, need to be cognizant of the noise level, too. Since these things are very noisy, and the noise can easily work against us, it's very important for us to work to limit the bad noise and to create good noise. I think that sharing strategies about how to accomplish this is one of the most valuable things about this blog.

Anonymous said...

I found a pretty good handout on negotiating an academic job offer.

Go to

Then click "Handouts" at the top right. Then scroll half-way down the page to "Academic Job Offers & Negotiation."

Anonymous said...

I have another job negotiation question. Say you have an offer from university A, which is OK. It is a time-limited offer, and you sign a contract. Then dream school B makes you an offer. Can you break your contract with A? Honestly, I'm not asking here about the moral question of promise-keeping, I'm asking about 1) legal situation, or 2) the extent to which you will completely alienate yourself from the people at school X.

It depends on the details of the contract, but most states are at-will employment, so it would be just like quitting (as far as the legal risk to you) and it will alienate people if you walk away, trashing their search.

Turn it around. School A has offered you a job as their second choice, but their dream candidate who had turned them down has a change of heart. Okay for them to pull your offer? Would their name be mud at your school?

Anonymous said...

Say you have an offer from university A, which is OK. It is a time-limited offer, and you sign a contract. Then dream school B makes you an offer. Can you break your contract with A?

You shouldn't.

What you should do is, as soon as you have an OK offer from University A, contact all other places that still have you under consideration that you might prefer to A and let them know what's up. Let them know the deadline and ask them if you have any chance of getting an offer from them soon.

If Dream School B says that e.g., you're their second choice but that Number One is still considering their offer, ask University A for an additional week (or whatever). You'll probably have a 50/50 chance of getting it.

Things might not work out anyway, but communicating with people along the way will give you a better chance.