University employment is changing. We all know that tenured faculty teach an ever-declining proportion of undergraduate courses. We know that there is a boom in piecework sessional teaching. There is also the possibly cheering / possibly more depressing development in the hiring of short-term and continuing lecturer positions, a kind of teaching-track full-time job, often focusing on writing instruction, that makes sessional work much more highly remunerative and stable.* This is a big change. By the start of the fall term, 4 of our faculty members in English will be Definite Term Lecturers, and 25 will be tenure-stream.
The kinds of “academic jobs” available are changing. And our application, interviewing, hiring, renewing, and assessment practices haven’t really caught up yet. Today, let’s talk about reference letters. Next week I’ll talk about application letters and CVs from candidates.
In my department, we’ve launched three searches for definite term lecturers this year (8 courses per year, 10% research component on writing pedagogy, 3 year position with possibility of renewal and move to continuing status) and two tenure track searches (standard 2:2 load, 40-40-20 split, research position). One of our associated colleges, St. Jerome’s, is also doing a search right now, for two more DTLs on roughly the same terms as our own.
I’ve read a lot of reference letters, if you put these six searches into one big pool. Many of these letters are lousy, in the sense of inappropriate to the position, bordering on the disrespectful to the candidate’s chances, and of the time of the committee.
First, the pool. Most of the candidates applying fall into two camps: first, rhet/comp and writing studies scholars, and second, literature PhDs. The first group is doing more than fine, and doesn’t need my help: there is such a boom in positions for these (mostly American and American-trained) candidates, that the odds are usually quite good they’ve got a choice of tenure-trac positions closer to where they want to live. I will not tell you how many of these candidates have rejected job offers from us over the last several years. But they are numerous.
Much more problematic are the repurposed literature PhDs. I truly, truly sympathize with the desire to get an academic job, any academic job, and closer to the GTA rather than farther, and more stable rather than less. And many of these candidates are award-winning scholars with exciting dissertations and upper level teaching in their area. But their referees are sinking their candidacies before they even really get going.
The highlights are something like this (made-up examples, that get the gist):
- “I have not had an opportunity to see X teaching, but her interactions with me have always been pleasant and professional.”
- “I have not discussed teaching with X, but he is an excellent researcher, whose innovative dissertation suggests he will be a creative classroom teacher.”
- “X was lucky enough to secure funding that removed her from the classroom, and as a result, her dissertation is already at a state to be submitted to an academic publisher.”
- “The nuance that X brings to guest lectures in upper level courses in his research area demonstrate his readiness to devise innovative courses in your department.”
Stop this. The job ad says we need people to teach 8 introductory writing courses to students from across the university. The ad may indicate that the position may turn into long-term continuing: that is, it can be a career-job. It says there’s no research component, or a small research component based in continuing training in pedagogy. It stresses writing studies and writing pedagogy, or communications studies, or cognate research or training. The letters describe literary scholars with tenure-track dreams and training. They also, in blithely ignoring the terms of the ad, seem to indicate the writer’s and candidate’s belief that no special skills are required to teach writing across the curriculum. This is, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, insulting to the field, the job, and the search committee.
I imagine most of this is inadvertent. These are new kinds of jobs, with new kinds of ads, in new sorts of fields, particularly for Canadians.
- Graduate supervisors? You need to go watch your students teach. You need to talk to them about teaching.
- You also need to really encourage your literary students to take advantage of any and all teaching credentialling opportunities at your institution.
- You need to devise new templates for letters. The research letter is a standard form, that is well-pitched to research jobs, but it’s not suited to all jobs, not even all jobs inside of academic departments
I’m thinking particularly of the literary scholars who are reframing their job focus from TT in their area, to other kinds of stable employment as teachers in departments. The writing studies and rhet/comp people are doing more than okay on this front. And I think our literary grads can become strong, credible, hireable candidates for the lecturer positions that are becoming more numerous. But it’s not obvious from the application materials. Yet.
What reference letters for teaching lectureships, focused on introductory writing or writing across the curriculum might look like:
- Indicate the candidate is serious, at least for now, about taking up a lectureship like this one
- Speak specifically about the candidate’s skills as a teacher
- Of junior students
- Skills like works well in a team, has good time management, deals well with student conflicts are prized as well
Look, I don’t have any such letters written for my students. I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you I never thought about it before I read something like 200 of them written by other people. I don’t know if I like the stratification of departments into tenured scholar/teachers of upper-level and grad courses, and writing-teacher lecturers with such high teaching loads and mostly junior / non-departmental students. But there are a lot more of one these kinds of jobs than the other. And some candidates really do seem quite happy to reframe toward writing and communication, and to relish the teaching, and to really want these positions. So I’d like all applicants (and there are LOTS of applicants) to produce better application materials for the jobs we’re actually hiring for.
It’s a work in progress for me. I’d love any advice or feedback you might have.