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« On the diversity of academic jobs...and which kind of job is right for you | Main | Another call for mentors »

10/21/2015

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one who cares about teaching

I have seen a number of different types of teaching letters during searches. The best ones are generally written by the chair of the department. The chair, after all, is one's supervisor, and if there were serious problems with one's teaching, the chair would hear about it. They often make comparative judgments about the relative ranking of the person's teaching evaluations, comparing them with comparable courses, or courses of comparable size (in the case of big classes). They usually discuss anecdotally, and with some detail, some impressions of the effects the person is having on students. "After class, students can often be seen enthusiastically following X back to her office, still discussing the course material ..." They often mention special strengths of the candidate. "She works to ensure that the students develop their writing skills ..."
Unfortunately, some graduate programs STILL use the expression "s/he is a very good teacher" to mean that her/his research is unimpressive. Can you believe it!? This sort of practice undermines the value and credibility of teaching letters.

CW

I've read a few of these letters. What owcat says about the content seems about right to me.

FWIW, it's a little better if you've observed the teacher on more than one occasion, so if that's the case, it's worth pointing out. Still, much of the content will be impressionistic and anecdotal.

Also, it's useful to talk to the teacher about the course in addition to observing. For instance, what is their approach to the course and why? Does it seem like a good approach to you? (E.g., because of the composition of your student body, or the relationship of the course to others, or main problems in their area, or whatever.) Also, how does the teacher see the session (or two) you observed as fitting into the larger course?

So I'm interested in how they interact with students, but also in how they put the course together.

I don't have any particular problem with a junior faculty member writing a letter like this, though I guess if they don't have much experience teaching I might factor that in to my assessment of the letter's value.

However, some leave grad school with quite a bit of teaching experience (I did), so I wouldn't necessarily hold junior rank against the letter writer. Maybe the letter writer could indicate in the letter just how qualified they are to write such a letter.

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