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I'm a VAP at a R1 school, and I had been a postdoc for 3 years in the same institution before taking up the position. In addition to my former boss, I have been able to secure letters from two well-known senior scholars that work here. However, even though I didn't know them personally before asking to come and see a class or read my stuff, one is friend of a mentor I had, and I have a friend (a colleague from another institution) in common with the other. Therefore, it was pretty easy to be introduced and ask them 'favors' (please remember that writing a letter takes a lot of work, in the sense of reading papers, coming at a class, etc).


I had three VAP-type positions before landing a TT job. In one of them, someone volunteered to observe my teaching and write a letter. In the second, someone asked to attend my class because of the topic I was teaching, and he said afterwards that he would write a letter about my teaching. And in the third, after one semester, the chair agreed to write a letter about my teaching, when I asked. I had quite good reviews, compared to the faculty as a whole (that is the way he put it). I think the chairs who hire VAPs expect to be asked to write letters.
Indeed, the profession is full of many decent people.


I"m not sure the fact that someone is in a senior position would help with a teaching letter. Research success doesn't have anything to do with being good at observing teaching. And I agree with Marcus that it would come off as rude to ask something to come in and watch your teaching during sabbatical. Sabbaticals do not come often, and most professors don't want to be anywhere near the campus.

As for the letter...well, I guess there is a chance it could turn out well. But I wouldn't do this. First, there is the chance they would write a letter and not write a very good one, i.e. it would just be very short. I think a letter like this would hurt a candidate. Second, asking also might piss them off, and destroy chances of getting a good letter in the future, via means that would developed more naturally. They could also simply ignore the request (likely), which could be awkward if you ever see this person. But there is, indeed, some chance they would say yes and the letter would be good. Everyone just has to weigh these risks.

Sam Duncan

Amanda's right. From what I can tell all too often people will write weak letters or letters entirely lacking in any sort of necessary detail rather than just saying no. (Which is just really spineless but I suppose that's an issue for another time. Though honestly I would like to see more discussion in academia on the ethics of letter writing). I'm not sure I would ask the senior person to observe your teaching but I'd definitely try to get a teaching letter from someone there. Most places that I and friends have VAPed at honestly expect that you'll want a teaching letter and for that reason they'll often set up one or two observations. Someone with more experience can correct me if I'm wrong, but I do think that teaching letters from VAPs and similar positions can mean a lot. I get the distinct impression that at many teaching focused schools letters from your grad program are heavily discounted because a. the propensity toward exaggeration and b. the assumption that many profs at R1s themselves have no idea how to teach and so are pretty poor judges of teaching quality. In my experience though the chair is a more natural person to ask for a teaching letter than is the person you're filling in for.


I agree that asking for a teaching letter is a good idea, just not from the person on sabbatical. And I re-read the post, and I have to say I am a bit shocked anyone would think it is appropriate to ask someone to come in on their sabbatical and watch them teach "a few times." Asking them to come once would already be way too much, much less more than once.

Anyway, I don't think anybody needs to watch teaching more than once to write a letter. I had 4 teaching letters and each person only watched me teach once (I did not use all 4 teaching letters for any single application.) So I would advice any VAP to ask either the chair or director of undergraduate studies if either they would watch and write a letter, or if there is someone they recommend asking. I would be surprised if I was wrong, but I think it makes little difference who writes your teaching letter, as long as they are at least someone with tenure. There is a strong reverse correlation between schools who care about teaching, and schools who care about prestige.

The OP

Thanks for the helpful responses, everyone. I've just gotten coffee with my department chair and they volunteered on their own to come in to observe my teaching!

Re: the original question. On reflection, I realize I was asking whether it'd be strange not to have a *research* letter from the well-known senior philosopher in my area whom I'm replacing. Any thoughts on this? I'll likely have a teaching letter now from my department chair, thanks to their generous offer, but I'm still curious about decorum about asking the person whom I'm replacing on sabbatical for (basically) a research letter.

a philosopher

Asking someone on sabbatical whom you're replacing to write you a research letter sounds strange at best to me. I've never been on a search committee, but I would be surprised to hear that committees expect to see such a letter. Sabbatical replacement isn't exactly a meaningful connection. As just a random observer, the request to me boarders on appearing like you're trying to exploit the situation. (Sorry, but I'm just being frank.) I have much more robust (but still fairly thin) connections to a number of people but wouldn't think of asking them randomly to read my stuff or write me a letter.

Perhaps my impressions aren't widely shared, and I know there's disagreement surrounding decorum and what's prudent on the job market, but if it were me I would worry that such a move would risk (however slight) annoying the person I'm replacing or getting myself a bad reputation.


OP: congrats on the teaching offer from the chair. That will be helpful. Re the research letter - most of my comments I made before would still apply. I disagree with Marcus that the worst that can happen is that he can say no. There is a risk that he writes a letter which shows he doesn't know you well, and I think that can hurt. It also might prevent a better letter in the future, if you were to get to know him. And it might just lead to awkward situations if he ignores you. While it is not unheard to cold email someone with papers and ask for a letter, it is not common. It certainly wouldn't be weird to *not* have a letter from someone simply because you are replacing them when they are on sabbatical. All that said, there is also the chance that asking would be worth it, and he would write a helpful letter. Alas, you just can't know for sure, so you have to judge the risks and benefits and make the best call you can. Good luck.

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