A Twitter exchange in response to my post saying that mediocre students deserve reference letters raised the problem of adjuncts’ reference-writing woes. Some adjuncts apparently get asked to write a lot more letters of reference than many full professors. Some of the people who are being asked to write a lot of letters are contingent faculty who are already being overworked for poverty wages and it seems particularly unjust for them to be expected to shoulder this burden. My Twitter exchange was with an adjunct who teaches in five different departments and has a post doc besides, so I’m going to assume that the wage per course for this person is low. There are, of course, other adjuncts who are in regular non-contingent positions for reasonably good wages whose situation is somewhat different.
Writing a reference letter for an undergraduate takes at least 3 hours. It involves communicating with them and soliciting from them all the information necessary for the letter. Although a small number of undergraduates have their act together and will supply you up front with a complete dossier with all necessary material, most students will need to be told what to give you. If you don’t know the student very well or don’t have the basis for a strong letter, you are going to have to explain to the student that the letter you can write will be considered tepid, and talk with them about whether there isn’t someone else who can write a better letter for them. This personal conference alone will take at least 30 minutes and can go much longer. You will have to deal with either the depression of realizing you are talking to a student who has not connected well with anyone or done well in any course, and their mediocre performance in your course is the best they could do, or the depression of realizing that the other people you work with are jerks who really don’t care about students and refused to even talk to them, or that the program you are working for seems to have put no effort into mentoring students into knowing what they will need upon exit.
The letter writing itself takes time. If it is a student you know well and really believe in, you want to put your effort into explain as well as you can why the student is terrific. And if it is a student you barely know or one who did only so-so in your class, you have to put effort into making the best possible case for the student without lying. Finally, you have to deal with the aggravation of forms and portals as most fields lack a centralized application system, so you have to perform dances ranging from delivering the letter and a special rating form in a signed and sealed envelope to the student, to mailing letter and form yourself, to creating a login and filling out a form online and uploading a letter.
My original post explicitly mentioned tenure track faculty and other full-time well-paid instructors when I called them out for making excuses for why they won’t be bothered writing letters for most students. It is true that the reference letters take time, but the students still deserve them. However, I was aware as I wrote that underpaid contingent faculty might well feel that letter writing is one more uncompensated burden placed on them.
I believe there is almost certainly disproportionality in who gets asked for references. It seems quite possible that adjuncts would receive more requests for reference letters than tenure-track faculty at large public institutions. First, adjuncts often teach more classes and teach smaller classes where the students feel that the instructor knows who they are, while many of us full professors teach large lecture classes with TAs and don’t really get to know our students. I rarely get requests for letters from students whose only contact with me is a large lecture, which means I get requests from undergrads overall. Second, adjuncts may be more teaching-focused, either because they actually like teaching more, or because their job description emphasizes teaching, or because they know they have to please the students to keep their jobs. This may lead them to act in more student-centered and approachable ways. Third, there is doubtless a gender dynamic involved as well, with women being perceived as easier to ask favors of than men.
Students often perceive asking for a letter of reference as a big favor, and it is easier to ask someone who seems nice and approachable than someone who is brusque and standoffish. But then the “nice” people start feeling overwhelmed with work. If you are a low-paid adjunct on contingent contract, you can justly feel that carrying a program’s burden of letter-writing is not really your job. And even if you have a regular appointment with good pay in a teaching track, or are a TT faculty member who is especially popular with students, you may come to feel that you are being exploited and dong more than your fair share of letter-writing.
So here is the structural problem. The lower-status faculty who are the least well-rewarded for their work are the ones who are asked more often to undertake the additional labor of reference letters for students. What can we do about it?
As a senior TT faculty member who has held administrative posts, I think those of us in this position should take the initiative to find out who is writing reference letters for our students. Poll all the teaching staff: how many references for undergrads have you written in the past 12 months? Poll your majors: what has been your experience with getting reference letters? Who writes them for you? Do your students have trouble finding people to write for them?
I know that top liberal arts colleges treat this task of writing letters as a key part of their service to students, and students at liberal arts colleges have the opportunity to become known by plenty of faculty.
But at the large public institutions, the situation is much more problematic. When you teach a large lecture class, you just cannot possibly get to know the students. Students take relatively few smaller classes whether faculty and students can get to know each other, and it is typically only a minority of instructors who are teaching those classes. Many of these may be taught by contingent adjuncts or graduate students who may no longer be on campus by the time the student needs a reference. The small number of people who are teaching smaller classes will get the most requests. But is this pattern fair to the letter-writers and fair to the students? I don’t know.
If we find that many or most of our students’ references are being written by contingent faculty, we need to do something about the situation if we think we should be serving our students well for their futures, and not just collecting their tuition money. If contingent faculty really are the ones best qualified to write some students’ letters, do we need to compensate them better? We certainly cannot expect that students will pay to have their letters written. For one thing, that would corrupt the entire idea of a letter of reference. For another, it is just wrong. Should we have a fund to pay adjuncts for writing letters? Should we develop some other system?
And what if you are an adjunct and are feeling exploited or burdened by letter requests? I can appreciate why low-paid contingent faculty who receive lots of requests for letters would want to limit how many they do. If I were in this situation, I would look for ways to limit the problem. If possible, I would consult with the department chair or other full-time administrator to find out who “should” be writing letters for students and learn what to tell students about where to get help. (I realize this itself can seem a burden if you are contingent and work for multiple departments or institutions.) I would prepare a handout for students that (a) suggests campus resources for getting help, (b) explains what is necessary for a “good” letter, (c) lists conditions for being willing to write a letter, and (d) lists what information will be needed if you are going to write the letter.
Another thing that can help lessen the burden is to have the student asking for a letter write a “shell” letter that includes the addressee, necessary information about the thing the letter is for and the student’s qualifications for it, a summary of how the instructor knows the student and relevant information about the student’s qualifications or performance. Editing this draft into a final letter is less work than starting from scratch. Some people even tell the student to write their own letter and they’ll be willing to sign it; this seems somewhat extreme to me, especially as most students do not know how to write a good letter or, in some cases, even a competent letter. But it is still better than refusing to write at all.
But even all these stop gaps and work hacks may make contingent faculty feel that they have to choose between being bad to students and being exploited. It is an unhappy situation.
What are your experiences? Do you think this is a problem? What are reasonable ways of dealing with it?