Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Best Way to Use a VAP?

I was looking through the JFP Summer Web Ads the other day, and saw this gem from Seattle Pacific:

7. SEATTLE PACIFIC UNIVERSITY, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON. Philosophy: One-year, full-time, Visiting Assistant Professor position, available September 2011. Qualifications: Ph.D. or ABD. AOS: Open. A successful candidate must be able to teach all or most of the following: ethical theory, social ethics, history of ethics, aesthetics, and a general education course that focuses on questions at the intersection of philosophy, science, and religion...

It seems to me that whoever wrote this ad is thinking about visiting professors wrong. It seems to me that your basic 1-year non-renewable visiting assistant professor ought not to be asked to teach a weird interdisciplinary general education course. It seems ot me that because VAPs teach much more and get paid much less than permanent faculty, have little or no research support, are on the tenure-track job market, and must publish constantly in order to be successful on the job market, it is not fair to assign a course like that to a yet-to-be-identified VAP. You should be trying to make the VAP's courseload as manageable as possible.

It also seems to me that it's prudentially unwise to run an ad like that. It seems to me that the pool of applicants for visiting positions is much smaller than the pool for permanent positions or even the pool for visiting positions with the potential to be extended beyond the first year. It is my understanding that 30 or 40 applications from qualified candidates is a huge number for a position like this. So if an ability to teach a interdisciplinary course that focuses on questions at the intersection of science, philosophy, and religion means anything other than a willingness to do it, you might be cutting your potential applicant pool down to zero. You're looking for someone who has, or is close to having, a Ph.D. in philosophy, who has experience teaching ethics and aesthetics, who doesn't already have a job, who is willing to spend her own money to move to Seattle for a year, and who has experience teaching this highly specific interdisciplinary course. I can't imagine there are a bunch of people like that.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Don't be too hard on these people. I agree with your in principle, and there are good places that hire VAPs that make it easy with one or two preps a semester.

But remember this: the department isn't the only group that is involved in the creation of a job ad. Deans and provosts are also involved, and the money for the position might be coming from the provost for a pet project, which that class supports.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's prudentially unwise for most people to take a position like this but I doubt that they've cut their applicant pool to zero. The job market is so bad that there are plenty of people who just need an income for the following year. I bet they'll get a decent number of applications, though many of the best teachers and researchers won't apply for a job like this.

Also, the course in question doesn't look THAT weird. Someone who has taught philosophy of religion and philosophy of science could probably make up the course in question by combining material from those two courses.

Prof. Kate said...

I agree with the spirit of your post, but you make a couple assumptions about Seattle Pacific. I have no idea what the department is like, but it's possible this teaching load is no more or less manageable than that of everyone else in the department, which is only five faculty. They may all have wildly different preps and a tough load, i.e., things may be tough all over that department in a way that cannot be reworked.

Also, even my wee, strapped-for-cash SLAC reimbursed moving for VAPs.

And really, how many unemployed ethics/ aesthetics specialists aren't 'willing' to codge together an interdisciplinary class? The ad doesn't say "has experience" teaching it, only "must be able to teach," not impossible to show. When I applied (and got) a job like this I just hand-waved at my intro ethics syllabus and said, "That's got some interdisciplinary stuff on it."

Euthyphronics said...

... or there's exactly one applicant they're hoping to hire, and that applicant has exactly that teaching profile?

Anonymous said...

...or it's a sabbatical replacement, and instead of dividing up the courses into adjunct positions, the department is attempting to package the course load and offer a salary.

Anonymous said...

I knew someone who taught at this institution as a VAP. The instructors team teach courses. It's a sectarian institution, so you have to be really careful how you teach, for instance, the evolution debate. You get some pretty explicit instructions, but you still have to be careful. It's basically a mill for temp faculty, so nobody sticks around for long.

Anonymous said...

I can understand your sentiment, but I don't see the problem with running an ad like this. If a school has teaching needs in areas A, B and C and they only have at their disposal enough funding for a one-year contract, why not run an ad for a job requiring undergraduate-level teaching competence in A, B and C? Moreover, the ad (at least as far as you've provided it) doesn't say that in one semester the person must teach separate courses in each of these five areas. For that matter, even if they are looking for someone to teach a 5/5 load, why think that VAPs should only be tailored toward the interests of research-minded philosophers?

More to the point, anyone who claims an AOS in ethics should be able to teach at least an introductory-level course in either ethical theory, social ethics, or the history of ethics, so that requirement shouldn't be too big a strain on would-be applicants. Similarly, if someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy hasn't thought enough about the ways in which philosophy, science and religion sometimes try to answer the same questions to be able to teach the subject to a bunch of undergrads, that's a bad reflection on that particular philosopher in my book; not on the school. Aesthetics may be the outlier here for most analytic folks, but if you could meet the other requirements, wouldn't that qualify as, "able to teach...most of the following..."?

Mr. Zero said...

It's not that I hate them or think they're bad people, or whatever. I'm just not in love with using your VAPs to cover unusual interdisciplinary courses. I understand that there are external pressures that may have led to this. That doesn't make me love it more.

And I definitely don't think VAPs should have it way easier than the TT faculty. I don't think the VAP should be tailored to research-oriented philosophers if the TT jobs in that department don't leave much time for research. But I think it is very important for departments who make use of VAPs to keep in mind that even if the VAP doesn't have appreciably greater teaching responsibilities than the permanent faculty, the VAP makes a lot less money than them in what is essentially a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement, promotion, or increase in pay.

Now, I think I could teach an interdisciplinary course like the one SPU wants. And I think I could do a good job. And if the circumstances were right, I might ask to take it on, even if it wasn't part of my regular teaching duties. But I would also like to have the opportunity to put my head down, teach the same courses over and over again, and try to publish my way out. I think that's a reasonable thing to want, even if the reality of the situation doesn't always make it possible. And I think that departments who use VAPs should sort of try to go as easy on them as they can.

Anonymous said...

"the VAP makes a lot less money than them in what is essentially a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement, promotion, or increase in pay"

That's not universally true. VAPs at my university are hired at the same rate as new TT faculty. They have the same salary and benefits package as TT faculty hired the same year. Further, if the VAP position is multi-year, they get the same cost of living salary increases as their TT colleagues.

Sometimes a VAP position can turn TT, though that's increasingly rare from what I can tell. (And more to the point, most of the VAPs I knew in such positions were not hired to the TT line, as those hiring committees almost always opted for an external hire.)

Many schools teat their VAP crappy. But certainly not all of them.

Mr. Zero said...

That's not universally true.

But it's generally true.

VAPs at my university are hired at the same rate as new TT faculty. They have the same salary and benefits package as TT faculty hired the same year.

You know that's unusual, right?

Further, if the VAP position is multi-year, they get the same cost of living salary increases as their TT colleagues.

You know that's unusual, right? And even in situations like this, the VAPs don't get promoted, and don't get the raises that accompany with the promotions. And they don't get to apply for tenure.

Many schools teat their VAP crappy. But certainly not all of them.

I didn't say that all schools treat their VAPs crappy. I identified a job ad as an example of something I don't like to see. I don't see how these points you mention affect the larger point that VAP jobs are inherently less attractive than TT jobs, and departments who make use of VAPs ought to be careful that they are treating them well.

Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned that some schools, even small SLACs reimburse VAPs for their moving costs. How common is this?

Rex II said...

It might be helpful to distinguish VAP from Instructor/Lecturer positions. VAP's typically have higher status than Instructors/Lecturers, and get better pay.

For instance, I was in the running for two VAP spots over the past few years. Each paid $48K/year. I also interviewed for several I/L spots. The pay for these was in the low-$30K range.

The VAP spots wanted someone to teach primarily upper division courses, with an intro course added to fill the schedule. Often VAP's cover sabbatical years for TT/Tenured Profs. Sometimes they are extended interviews of a sort, an effort to poach a professor from another school. When I was in grad school, one of our professors took a 1-year VAP at another school. He never came back. Sometimes VAP's are arranged as a way of bringing an expert in Phil of X to your department for a short while. There are many reasons why this is seen as valuable.

The two VAP's I interviewed for had 3/3 teaching loads. The I/L spots, on the other hand, were 4/4 loads teaching service/intro courses (Logic and Intro to Phil).

These I/L hires are sometimes made to cover a larger than expected interest in lower division philosophy courses. Some schools make these short-term hires every year. I/L lines are less expensive than TT lines, and are easier to fill.

That said, some I/L spots are better than others. Some pay better. Some offer the opportunity to teach an occasional upper division course. Some offer 3-year contracts, rather than 1-year.

Anonymous said...

"VAP jobs are inherently less attractive than TT jobs"

Well, yes. But you don't need to post an example of a bad VAP job to prove that.

Mr. Zero said...

Well, yes. But you don't need to post an example of a bad VAP job to prove that [VAP jobs are inherently less attractive than TT jobs].

That's not what I was using the example to prove. I was trying to make a point about how VAPs are best (most humanely and effectively) utilized. The second half of the sentence you quoted suggests this point.

Xenophon said...

I thought I agreed with Mr. Z until I read his clarification, and now I think that a lot of people are getting distracted from the main issues in this post.

First, it's irrelevant how common it is to find people who can teach these particular courses, for two reasons. (1) The issue is now many preparations are appropriate for a VAP, and this is way too many. (2) The issue isn't about whether the prof is qualified anyway; it's whether the students will benefit from having the position defined this way. It's not about us, it's about them. That's the key point that no one seems to get here.

Second, "able" in this context means "willing," not "qualified." Sometimes a laundry list like this indicates all the shit courses that none of the regular faculty want. I'm not sure that's the case here, since there are some pretty cool topics on the list, but this posting is more about general issues than it's intended to rag on Seattle Pacific, I think.

Third, it says "all or most of." It might be that the department would like the best person, and they're indifferent between some of these, but in the next 3 years they need to teach all of them, and they don't much care the order.

As for the interdisciplinary course, if they want a VAP to teach it, it's probably a shit course to them. Any time the university requires departments to pitch in to university initiatives, some people resent it on principle.

More broadly, I'm always surprised that schools that always hire non-TT folks don't realize they'll get better candidates if they offer a 2 or 3 year contract. Relocating for one year sucks.

Word verification: cheap. As in the cheap SOBs who come up with 1-year VAPs like this in the first place.

Anonymous said...

"More broadly, I'm always surprised that schools that always hire non-TT folks don't realize they'll get better candidates if they offer a 2 or 3 year contract. Relocating for one year sucks."

True, but some programs just aren't allowed to. A VAP for a sabbatical replacement may be limited to just one year. Sure, the department could in theory hire someone for a multi-year contract, but then what does that person teach after the first year? (Ideally, I'd like to see this happen, as that would free up the TT faculty in other useful ways, in terms of research, service, or even curricular development. I'd love for someone to teach my intro courses so I can work on curricular development. However, I've yet to meet an administrator who would approve of such a hire.)

Xenophon said...

My point was that some departments have what amount to permanent, non-TT slots. Administrators like them because they can shift them to other departments down the road, or not renew them if the economy tanks, but it's a safe bet that they'll still be in Philosophy 3-5 years from now. And every year they post for a one-year position. Often they're former TT slots that the dean isn't willing to replace with another TT person, but short-time it's still the department's line. Those are the ones that could easily be 2 or 3 year positions.

Sabbatical replacements are a different beast. For those you might need different specializations every year, and you might not be sure who's going on sabbatical 2 years out.

Anonymous said...


I do understand your point. One thing I've learned, however, is that there is almost never any consensus as to how best to handle such positions. Some administrators don't like rotating VAPs; I've even seen some instances where a department essentially chooses a rotating VAP rather than a TT position. (No kidding. I know of one department that had a chance to hire a TT line, and chose instead for a rotating VAP, arguing that a rotating VAP gave that department more options for coverage without any commitment.) Some programs think of their rotating VAP position like a post-doc.

I know we often like to think that departments always want what's best for the department and the faculty, while administration only thinks about the bottom line. But that's just not always true.

I'm not bothered as much by administration making predictably stupid decisions as I am by departments that make unpredictably stupid decisions.