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06/30/2020

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concerned

I do not think these letters from undergraduate students are a good idea. Consider the discussion unfolding on the thread about professionalization. Grad students rightly raise the concern that there is a huge and unrecognized power differential. This is also the case in this sort of situation. Do the students really have any choice but to write a letter if their teachers ask for one? It sets up a very bad dynamic that is so likely to be abused. If I were on the receiving end of such a letter, reading it in an applicant's file, I would really wonder.

Yikes

Yeah, agreed 100%. It’s inappropriate. I had a professor ask me once to nominate him for a teaching award. Straight up manipulation and exploitation in that scenario as in this one, even if the undergraduate can provide better info. People who give references signed up for jobs that entail giving references as part of the job description. They get paid to do it.

On the fence

Do folks see this as equally problematic if the student has a) graduated, b) will not be taking any future courses with the instructor, and/or c) will not be asking for a letter of recommendation from the instructor?

wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands

@yikes and concerned:

Those are interesting points, but it doesn't seem to rule out the practice of student penned letters in general.

For example, do those worries still apply if an instructor asks a student who has graduated already?

I guess one way in which it might still be manipulative (that seems a bit strong to me but I'll go with it) is if the student in question might themselves want a letter of recommendation (for medical/law/grad school or whatever) from the instructor who asked them to write on their behalf.

But if that is not the case, and if the student has already graduated, is there still a worry?

It's also worth mentioning that it is a common practice for departments to ask graduate students to write letters for the tenure file of faculty members with whom they have worked. Perhaps that is just bad and so doesn't vindicate the undergraduate writing letters idea, but it does involve a similar imbalance of power.

also

In addition, I would not count such letters as worth much during a job search. It would certainly never come down to choice between Candidate A and Candidate B on the basis of a student letter, no matter how good the letter was. I would read them with a certain degree of cynicism. Students - and this is bound to offend someone - are generally poor judges of who really taught them. That is, students evaluate courses and teachers by measures that do not track learning.

on the fence

"S̶t̶u̶d̶e̶n̶t̶s̶ Faculty - and this is bound to offend someone - are generally poor judges of their colleagues' teaching and pedagogy w̶h̶o̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶t̶a̶u̶g̶h̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶. That is, our colleagues s̶t̶u̶d̶e̶n̶t̶s̶ evaluate courses and teachers by measures that do not track learning."

also

On the fence,
Precisely. I did not mean to imply that faculty are good judges of teaching. Indeed, I doubt they are. There are objective measures used to determine student learning that are quite effective in some disciplines. But students rate courses high even when they do not measure up; and they rate courses low when they in fact have learned. One of the mysteries.
But Plato told us you cannot teach virtue ...

(maybe less) on the fence

Hi also,
Ah good. My apologies--I thought you were suggesting students shouldn't write letters, though it's fine if faculty do. But if you'd advocate for getting rid of all letters of recommendation, regardless of faculty or student, I at least don't have any objections based on consistency.

It seems to me it would be helpful to articulate what we want letters *to do.* also implies that letters should accurately report whether instructors are teaching (i.e. students are learning). But there is a HOST of other information that might be useful to a committee. Is the instructor creative and innovative? Is the instructor available for student questions and concerns? Does the instructor do extra emotional labor when students face personal challenges and crises? Do students (especially those in marginalized positions) feel safe, welcomed, and heard in the instructor's course? Does the instructor encourage students to engage beyond the classroom (e.g. encouraging and mentoring students in submitting work for an essay contest, or joining and ethics bowl team, or even just having a tricky moral conversation with a friend or family)? Are the students eager to come to class? Are they eager to talk and share? Do they feel challenged and transformed? etc. etc. I personally think these kinds of things are at least as important as whether the student learned. It further seems to me that they can be really nicely captured by student letters. I wouldn't suggest replacing a faculty letter with a student letter (for pragmatic reasons), but I don't yet see the harm in supplementing a faculty letter with a student letter, under the circumstances I mentioned above, where students are no longer being supervised by the instructor.

Don’t go to a bar for awhile

When putting together job market materials it’s important, to the extent that it is even possible, to tailor materials to how committees will in fact react to them, rather than how they ought to.

That said, some of the posters above who are skeptical of the value of student penned letter ought not have the dim view of students that they appear to have. Having worked for undergraduates for a decade, I have no reason to think that, in general, they are incapable of accurately assessing their teachers when they seek to do so in earnest. Moreover, while the power imbalances discussed above are real and important, the way they have been pressed into concerns about student penned (okay who actually uses a pen, but whatever) strikes me as at least slightly paternalistic (is there a non-gendered version of this word?). That is especially so if the students in question will not be under the professional supervision of the petitioning instructor.

That is to say, if I encountered such a letter while serving on a search committee I would not automatically assume that it was coerced and that it’s content was irrelevant to the teaching abilities of the candidate under discussion.

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