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I'll be on the job market this year for teaching positions at very small schools or lecturer positions at large schools. I took a class about two years ago now that was focused on teaching pedagogy. It was great, and I had good rapport with my teacher. After the semester, I asked her if she would mind writing a recommendation letter for me in advance, despite almost two years until I would be on the job market. The intent was that I could contact her when I was actually on the market, and she would already have something prepared from when I was in more regular contact with her.

My professor did write me the letter. However, she also let me know that she had recently received a diagnosis for a debilitating illness that would be demanding her time and attention, and sent me the letter she completed. She's still alive, although on leave indefinitely from the school to concentrate on her health and spending time with family.

I'm wondering what the protocol is for whether I should use her letter or not, particularly given that many schools prefer to contact the letter writers directly. I come from a big research school, and while other professors would be a great testament to my character and research, none have any real awareness about my teaching. A few schools I'm considering applying to actually specifically ask for one letter that focuses on teaching.

Given how teaching-centric my job search is, I think her letter would be a great asset. But I'm not sure whether I should use it, and if so, the best way to get the letter to schools.

Note: This is for the US academic system.

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    You should write the country of your university and the country you intend to work in as letter protocols vary widely depending on the country. – virmaior Sep 6 '14 at 14:30
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This is always a very tough situation. Ideally if you had known of her sickness ahead of time, you could have asked her to use a dossier service (such as interfolio.com; note that I have no connection with this service except being a user). She could send them a single letter and they would send this to other schools on your request. This way the contents of her letter would remain confidential from you.

It would have also been great if the letter contained language such as "I apologize for not sending a personalized letter but my current health conditions preclude me from doing so, please do not take this as any indication of my high regard for this candidate."

But this would have been an ideal situation. If she's still healthy and you have good relations, you can ask her if you can set up something with a dossier service (your university might have one itself) with a letter with an apology for generic language.

Otherwise, you could add a similar note to your list of references:

References

  1. Prof. John Doe
  2. Prof. Alice Smith
  3. Prof. Jane Roe
    • Prof Jane Roe apologies that due to medical issues she is unable to send personalized letters. A signed generic letter will be sent with her sincerest apologies to the search committee. Verification of the contents of the letter may be made by contacting the department chair, Prof. Bob Ajar, at xxxxx@xxxx.edu




[Aside: I have used letters with similar language when I have been engaged in field research and unable to write personalized letters for my students. So it's not just for sickness but for other conditions where letter writing is difficult.]

  • Another issue is that of confidentiality. Because the letter has not been sent directly from your teacher, there is no guarantee that you have not read or altered the content. Perhaps using the dossier service would still be possible. The letter has already been written: she may still be willing to do this (that probably depends on whether or not the illness is terminal). – Moriarty Sep 6 '14 at 9:38
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    @Moriarty: Isn't the alteration issue handled by "the department chair can verify the authenticity"? – Nate Eldredge Sep 6 '14 at 14:56
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    Thanks for the advice. I'll check with the University and see how painless it would be to get a service set up, and then see if she'll be willing/able to send her letter there with a brief note. – cryptic_star Sep 6 '14 at 22:53

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