Is it appropriate to get a letter of recommendation from people on the search committee?
October 18, 2007 4:24 PM   Subscribe

I am currently a visiting professor at a liberal arts college. Our department is conducting a search for a tenure track position which I intend to apply for. I need letters of recommendation which address my teaching abilities. The people most qualified to write these letters are my colleagues that are on the search committee. Is it appropriate or inappropriate to ask them to write letters of recommendation for this position?
posted by achmorrison to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a conflict of interest to me. Don't you have colleagues at your home university?

I know as an undergrad at my university they actually asked the students (and alumni) to write letters for the people that were seeking the tenure track positions.
posted by rocket_johnny at 4:28 PM on October 18, 2007

When I was in the same position you are, I was told (by one of my colleagues who was also a friend, so I felt comfortable asking) that it was inappropriate for current department members to write letters. Consider also that if your colleagues appreciate your teaching, they will support your application verbally; so letters from outside reviewers contribute more even if they are less familiar with your recent activity.
posted by obliquicity at 4:29 PM on October 18, 2007

Yes, it is inappropriate. They will advocate for you on the hiring panel if they support you. Get other references.
posted by loiseau at 4:56 PM on October 18, 2007

If you don't get a good answer here, try the Chronicle of Higher Ed forums, where the crowd contains a higher percentage of people in the know.

(One thought: If you're really in a bind, you might be able to get a faculty member from a nearby school to come in and observe your class.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:58 PM on October 18, 2007

Relax. The function of a letter of recommendation is to have someone with experience fill in the gaps in the committee's knowledge of you. If you're a good teacher/colleague, then you've got a huge advantage over the other candidates, since the committee already knows all about you. Take this as an opportunity to show them other sides of you than the ones they presently see. Don't act like a loser, press your advantage.

of course, if we're competing for the same job, my advice is to go in and raise the biggest stink possible. throw a fit. demand redress of grievance. etc. etc.
posted by felix betachat at 5:19 PM on October 18, 2007

It is not inappropriate, though your colleagues may decline out of some misplaced sense of unease. A letter of recommendation should represent the writer's opinion of you; in that sense, it should say the same things that the writer would say if their colleagues asked them for their opinion.
posted by gleuschk at 5:35 PM on October 18, 2007

It's not inappropriate to ask. They'll either do it or not.

If they won't, I might talk to the department chair and ask if, under the circumstances, you could ask the DUS to prepare a summary of evaluations, etc, to be used in lieu of recommendations.

In any case, it wouldn't be a conflict of interest as long as they restrict themselves to a normal letter. They're perfectly capable of summarizing your evaluations and of making a factual claim like "We've had X VAPs here, and only SuperTeacher was better than achmorrison."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:56 PM on October 18, 2007

1. The members of the committee will already take their personal knowledge of you into account, so asking them to write it down as well adds nothing to your application. 2. The college wants to know that you have some reputation in the wider academic world. 3. Some members will feel very uncomfortable with the request.

I would ask your favorite colleague out for coffee and see what she thinks. And even if you get the green light, you should have no more than one letter from your current colleagues. But I would recommend none.

And yes, come see us at the Chronicle forums.
posted by LarryC at 6:08 PM on October 18, 2007

I have been in the same situation, and I second what LarryC suggests. Go and talk to one of these colleagues candidly. Tell them that you would really like get a permanent position in the department, and ask them it they would be willing to endorse you. (Or, you can do that more humbly be asking them what they think your chances would be if you applied.) Once that's out of the way broach the subject of letters. Would they be willing to write one? Would it be better if someone else did? etc. Another possibility would be to talk to someone else in the department and ask for advice - senior members tend to be in the loop, whether or not they are actually on the current hiring committee.

Good luck!
posted by epimorph at 6:38 PM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback! I've consulted with a colleague in another department, and he suggested I talk to the associate dean of the faculty to see what the protocol for this school is. I would agree that it doesn't seem to add value to the process, in that anything that the recommender might write could be said in the committee's discussions. OTOH, it was suggested to me by a colleague, in my department, that letters from persons who have observed my teaching would be more valuable than those who have not. So, I may try to get colleagues from other departments (and therefore not on the search committee, which is the entire department) to come observe my teaching, then write letters.
posted by achmorrison at 7:22 PM on October 18, 2007

1. Probably almost no harm in asking someone's opinion informally -- preferably, though, someone who's not on the committee now but who has been. I would tend to stay away from the associate dean completely.

2. My guess is that they will deem it as inappropriate. Part of their job is to evaluate you, so what's the harm, you might think, even if there's no clear upside? The problem is that their job is also to evaluate the strength of the recommendation (including the credibility of the recommender), and in the best of worlds there is a subtle process of dealing with considered disagreements on the committee without calling each other's judgments into question -- which is extremely hard if one of the committee has put pen to paper saying you're the best thing since sliced bread.

3. Evaluating teaching while there is traditionally regarded as different -- it's something that is almost unavoidably done in house (or at least at lot easier to do that way), and is confined to your performance on site and in that limited regard, so it doesn't pose all the risks associated with #2.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:18 PM on October 18, 2007

it was suggested to me by a colleague, in my department, that letters from persons who have observed my teaching would be more valuable than those who have not. So, I may try to get colleagues from other departments (and therefore not on the search committee, which is the entire department) to come observe my teaching, then write letters.

This is exactly what you should do, preferably from senior professors who are widely respected at the college for the quality of their teaching -- definitely don't ask anyone who is pre-tenure to take on this role, and it is even better if they are a full professor. If the dean has specific recommendations of who to ask, start with those people. Or perhaps a friendly and senior person in your department would suggest names of people who they would like to see evaluate your teaching. But you will probably end up having to find them yourself -- but you probably know who they are, at least at a small college. They are the senior people who win the teaching awards, who get asked to give presentations on "teaching innovation" or whatever from time to time, etc. It's definitely not the old curmudgeons, or the really prickly people who are always involved in three or four feuds at any one time.
posted by Forktine at 5:11 PM on October 20, 2007

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