More from the mailbag: how can I write a good letter of recommendation?

elvgrenmailFree advice?  You’re soaking in it!  I put out a call on Twitter yesterday, and it’s like the loaves and the fishes, man:  For one tweet, I get five, seven, and seven times seven in response!  (Keep them coming–I’m all ears).

A correspondent wrote yesterday to suggest that we–dear readers, you & me both–offer some advice and ideas as to how to write a good letter of recommendation to get someone else a job.  Said correspondent is an American teaching at a British university now, and also offers some insight as to how American and British referees traditionally approach their task:

Dear Historiann,

Can you write a blog post offering advice for letter-writers? Obviously there’s some out there already, but it would be really useful to have more history-specific thoughts. I think your posts on the job market will be helpful for those going on it–this angle would hopefully add to that conversation.

As an American teaching in the U.K., I’ve noticed that British letter-writers tend to write more honest letters that trace the arc of a candidate’s intellectual development. These can come across as much more critical/not positive even though that’s not how they’re meant. If applying to U.S. universities, a candidate may wish to have a senior scholar or colleague look over that letter writer’s letter (if at all possible) to make sure it won’t sink the candidate.

–Call me Natasha (when I Look Like Elsie)

Dear Natasha/Elsie,

Thanks for writing, Natasha.  You’ve offered some really useful advice to search committees in the U.S. for understanding British letters of recommendation.  This is something I wasn’t aware of and I’m glad to know.

Speaking from my position as a American who has always worked in U.S. American universities, the most helpful letters of recommendation are written like the best letters from tenure and promotion referees.  That is, they’re experts in a subfield writing to peers who are experts in other history subfields, and so understand their charge to contextualize and explain the candidate’s research to an intelligent audience of non-specialists.  Did the junior scholar in question travel thousands of miles and spend months or years in remote, difficult to access archives in order to do her research?  Does she have a perspective on her sources that is totally original and possibly pathbreaking?  Does her work address major questions in her subfield in a creative and ambitious fashion?  A good letter of recommendation will point these out and elaborate on just what are her unique contributions to her field. Continue reading

Today’s mailbag: Historiann offers a rope to Millie on the job market

elvgrenmailToday’s mailbag brings us a thoroughly modern problem from Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) and new Ph.D. Millie, who wonders if she should rush to get a book contract:

I’m a VAP, on the job market, and trying to conceptualize the dissertation-to-manuscript process (I graduated this past academic year).

That intellectual labor aside, the thing that’s really making me anxious is the timing of the process itself. On the one hand, lots of people say “write a book proposal, get a contract, write the manuscript” and I see fellow junior faculty doing that on Twitter all the time. On the other hand, other people (including my adviser, who is wonderful but also wrote his first book in the late 60s) tell me to write the manuscript first because a contract doesn’t mean that much at this stage in my career.

Obviously one of those has to be the right path, but I don’t know which one it is! I also feel like everyone else understands this but me. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.

–Thoroughly Modern Millie

Dear Millie,

Thanks for writing in.  Increasingly over the past decade, I’ve seen more and more junior scholars applying for assistant professor jobs with book manuscripts under contract or even published, so your question is a very important one for many in your cohort of recent grads.  I’ll be interested to hear what my readers have to say about this,   (FYI, Millie’s Ph.D. and current VAP is in a book-intensive humanities discipline.)

Believe me, I understand the lure of snagging a book contract ASAP.  I’ve fallen under that spell myself on occasion, but in the end I think spending some time thinking about the book you want to write and getting some major revisions done is the way to go.  In other words, I think your advisor is right.  (Maybe that means I’m an old fart too, although I see that I was a wee infant the year he published his first book.  Old fartitude sneaks up quickly on you–one day you’re all like “hey, I’m 32, burn the candle at both ends!” and then you’re all like “two beers and I can’t get out of bed the next morning, srsly?”–so watch out.) Continue reading

The AAR for PPL 2016

rockymtnnpOr, After Action Review for Parks as Portals to Learning–just a little taste of the ways in which military culture informs the history and present operations of the National Park Service.

My week up in Rocky, or ROMO (=ROcky MOuntain), another acronym used by Parkies, was a rich learning experience.  As a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Eastern historian my expertise was fairly irrelevant, but I took the opportunity to learn about how the NPS works.  Besides keeping up with all of the military- and government-style acronyms (EIS, NEPA, EA , ETC) for the laws and procedures that structure the park’s conservation work, faculty from Colorado State and UC Santa Barbara helped CSU students think through the ways that environmental history informs and can assist natural resource preservation as well as the interpretation and visitor experience of the park. Continue reading

Hannah’s tenure year, part II: “the anger and fear [are] strong enough to wake me from a deep sleep.”

For part I in our two-part series, click here.

After being told by the dean she had forfeited her right to apply for tenure, our intrepid junior scholar Hannah (a pseudonym) sought the advice of her union rep and her colleagues, and found that the dean was in error when he told her that 1) she had forfeited her right to apply for tenure, and 2) that he was going to recommend her dismissal at the end of the academic year.  They supported her appeal to the Provost to secure a seventh year of employment, and her tenure application as well.  Here’s what happened next:

The first weeks of the semester were spent waiting for my department to assess my tenure portfolio. They unanimously voted to support my application and noted my strengths in scholarship, teaching and service. While I had waived my right to see my external review letters, the letter written by my department’s personnel committee noted that all seven letters were positive and many came from senior scholars in my field. My book was published before the meeting of the college rank and tenure committee, and they also unanimously voted to support my tenure application in December.

The dean voted to deny my tenure application in January. His letter began by noting my strengths in teaching and service and then repeated his earlier  statements about the insignificance of my scholarship. The letter also suggested that I showed no evidence of future productivity and that my department had deliberately misled my external reviewers about my teaching load so they would lower their expectations of my scholarship. Our contract allows professors to write response letters at every stage of the tenure review process. Mine placed my scholarship in context with the standards of my field by quoting from both the letter in my tenure portfolio written by a professor in my field and from essays on scholarship and the tenure review process published in a recent trade journal. I also highlighted the sections of my tenure portfolio discussing progress on my second book project and documented that my department had made no such efforts regarding my teaching load. The following month, the university rank and tenure committee voted 7 to 1 in favor of supporting my tenure application. Continue reading

Hannah’s tenure year, part I

Today’s post is the first in a two-part series written by a junior scholar I’ll call Hannah who endured a rocky tenure review.  Hannah was lucky in that she works on a unionized campus, and she had supportive departmental colleagues.  She wrote to me late last summer when things started to go bad, seeking my advice as Historiann.  I encouraged her to reach out to as many people as she could on her campus and in her discipline, and to tell other people what was happening to her because abusive colleagues and administrators thrive on the silence and shame they hope to instill in junior faculty facing the threat of failure.

Hannah prefers to publish this post pseudonymously, because as she put it in an email to me recently, “I’d like to go up for full professor some day.”  But in the spirit of telling her story and refusing to be slienced or shamed, she has agreed to share her story here.

Tenure review is one of the final rites of passage in the academic world. Professors fortunate enough to have tenure track jobs dread its arrival, and tenured professors (or so I am told) try not to think about it. At its best, the tenure process provides both assessment and affirmation for the years of work leading to the review itself, at worst, it can become the stuff of nightmares. My experiences fell into the second category, and it is both Historiann’s and my hope that they may prove helpful to anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation.

I am a professor in the humanities at a regional state university. Both my department and my dean’s office had positively evaluated my scholarship, teaching and service during the five years before my tenure review. I’m also in a book-intensive discipline.  My book was not yet in print but was under contract to be published in the fall of my tenure review, and the last two professors in my department both received tenure with books published during the tenure review process. I also had published articles in peer reviewed journals and begun work on a second book, including an article under review and two planned conference presentations. Continue reading

Public service announcement: ask for mentoring assistance. Don’t pay for advice.

Friends, beware of former academics peddling CV, job application, and career advice if what you’re looking for is a career in academia. They charge you money to do what your peers and colleagues are happy to do for free. I’m not going to name any names or provide any links–you know who I’m talking about.

I don’t get their business model.  Maybe it’s unfair of me, but I always wonder about the value of advice from people who have left academia.  If they’re so savvy, why did they leave?  The people who know what’s going on in academic hiring are the people working in academia now. Because most of us believe we have an obligation to help our colleagues succeed too, we’re happy to help out. Trust us, not the people who are likely to have been trained outside of your discipline who will charge you for advice or editing that may work against your interests. Continue reading

Will this election put an end to the War on Expertise in this country?

Probably not, but wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

In honor of our ongoing War on Expertise, I bring you a link to a post of mine from two years ago, which featured a This American Life story about Bob the Electrician, and his deluded belief that if he couldn’t understand the Theory of Relativity, that meant that it was bunk.  Because everyone everywhere all the time should be able to understand everything, so one person’s as good as the next when it comes even to the trickiest of intellectual or policy questions.  It doesn’t matter if some of us have devoted our lives to the study and mastery of some forms of knowledge, nor if we actually do this for a living.  From my post on July 15, 2014:

To summarize:  Bob takes a year-long self-funded sabbatical to study physics and prove that Einstein had it all wrong.    [Reporter Robert Andrew] Powell tries to get real physicists to read the paper that Bob produces over the course of the year, which turns out to be quite a chore because it turns out that Bob is kind of like the old joke about asylums being full of Napoleons:  there are thousands of cranks around the world who believe Einstein’s theory–and by extension all of modern physics–is wrong, and they are a plague upon real, working, university- and U.S. government-affiliated physicists in much the same way that Holocaust Deniers, Constitutional Originalists, and Lost Causers are to historians; climate change denialists are to real climate scientists; and anti-vaxxers are to real physicians.  In sum, these cranks have no confidence whatsoever in expertise or in the value of the credentials that real historians, scientists, or doctors have.  But yet, they crave their respect and demand to be acknowledged by the experts.

Continue reading