When applying for academic jobs in the US, one is often asked for a recommendation letter from someone who can attest to your teaching abilities. Suppose someone has been involved in various workshops, programs, discussion groups, etc. about pedagogy through a Center for Teaching Excellence (or a comparable office) as a graduate student or postdoc; is it acceptable for a non-teaching staff member from this center, who has facilitated such activities, to write a teaching recommendation letter for academic jobs? In particular, how are such letters perceived by hiring committees?

Edited to clarify: I was envisioning that such a letter would be in addition to a teaching letter written by a faculty member in one's department.

  • 1
    As long as the non-teaching staff has good academic background, it is alright, I think.
    – kitty
    Jan 21 '15 at 16:31

I would view the letter favorably if the letter writer made it clear that they had observed the candidate's teaching.

I've seen some TA training programs where the TA's are observed in the classroom and get formal evaluations by someone involved in the training program. A letter of recommendation from such a person would be quite valuable from my point of view (and assuming that the letter was positive this would be helpful to the candidate.)

On the other hand, if the person that you're considering is just a faculty development specialist who runs workshops that you've attended and hasn't directly observed your teaching, then such a letter would be much less useful (read useless) to me.

  • 1
    I agree that a TA observation letter would be interesting to the hiring committee, but the question is whether it is beneficial for the candidate to add it. If everyone else has glowing letters from professors they TA-ed or co-taught with, and you have that and also a really detailed classroom observation letter, does it help or hurt you in comparison?
    – mxmxmx
    Jan 21 '15 at 15:40
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    The really detailed classroom observation letter would be helpful to me since I care about teaching. In most faculty searches teaching is actually an important factor, but there are certainly some searches where the committee doesn't care about much except research. In those situations, this kind of letter could be unhelpful (and might even be a negative if the committee thinks the candidate is too oriented towards teaching.) Jan 21 '15 at 15:45
  • I understand that it will be helpful to you, the question here is whether it will be helpful to the candidate. :)
    – mxmxmx
    Jan 21 '15 at 15:52
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    In my opinion, for searches that I am involved in, having a positive letter of recommendation of this sort would raise my evaluation of that candidate's teaching. Jan 21 '15 at 16:14
  • However, as @mxmxmx alludes to in their answer, even if this person has observed your teaching so that they can write a useful letter, you should also get a letter from someone in your department (who has also observed your teaching recently).
    – Kimball
    Jan 21 '15 at 16:30

I think that such a letter would give a mixed impression, depending on the personalities of the people on the hiring committee and the priorities of the institution.

On the one hand, it could be viewed very favorably indeed. Being an active participant in such a workshops would signal your dedication to quality teaching, and perhaps this staff member could write a very moving and positive letter.

On the other hand, it could be viewed unfavorably. I think that some faculty members, especially at research-oriented schools, might have an instinctive distrust for this kind of organizationalism. Moreover, an active interest in pedagogy doesn't necessarily imply that you're actually a good teacher in the classroom.

Overall, I would recommend in favor of obtaining such a letter, especially if you are targeting jobs which prioritize teaching. However, you might consider getting a second teaching letter from someone in your department. If you don't get a second letter, I would recommend that you ask the staff member in question to observe your classroom teaching, and discuss that in his/her letter (and not just your interest in pedagogy).


Another important factor to consider is whether the person in question understands the conventions of academic letter writing. The one time I have looked at a letter written by person in this situation, it was horrible. I'm sure that person was especially incompetent (there were an embarassing number of typos, they had obviously cut and pasted from other letters, they wrote a lot of things that made no sense, etc.), but it made me very wary of such letters in the future. I'll also say, from my experience in hiring at research universities that two teaching letters would look a little weird. I think mxmxmx overstates things a little: while a lot of professors at research universities are essentially indifferent to a candidate's teaching, most recognize that it will be good for the department to have better teachers. However, it is true that they're more concerned about avoiding disasters than separating good teachers from great, and most wouldn't seriously consider compromising on research quality in order to get a better teacher.

One thing you might consider: ask the non-academic staff member to write an more informal summary of their interaction with you, observing your teaching, etc., and have them send it to the faculty member writing your teaching letter. That way, they can quote from it or use it for material, without having a separate letter.

  • I think we are basically in agreement. "most recognize that it will be good for the department to have better teachers" plus "most wouldn't seriously consider compromising on research quality in order to get a better teacher" is equivalent to "They just want to make sure you will not be a disaster in the classroom". :)
    – mxmxmx
    Jan 21 '15 at 20:00

Yes. You should ask someone who can provide detailed information about the quality of your teaching and who the hiring committee will view as qualified. I do not see how the letter writer's department is relevant. Consider that ability to work across disciplines is widely expected. If the letter writer is a teaching expert that could be beneficial.

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    Small cautionary note: in some situations, "teaching experts" are considered so exactly and only because they "do research in" teaching, and are in a department or group with a corresponding label. It does not necessarily mean much about the practice of teaching, etc. Comments from a same-content-matter faculty about content-matter-relevant teaching might be better. Jan 21 '15 at 14:36

A typical case where non-teaching staff can write teaching recommendation letters for someone is when someone from the administration has the role to design and gather teaching evaluations. Such staff member can provide hard quantitative and qualitative evidence of the quality of teaching.

Of course, this kind of letter cannot give actual facts, except by citing what students have written in their evaluations.

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