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Monday, September 15, 2008

Life As a VAP, Some Thoughts for Law Schools

"VAP" (visiting assistant professor) programs seem to be gaining ground, as Mark Fenster pointed out in an earlier post below.  I do think that there are some big questions about the purpose of these programs (broadening the legal academy? filling curricular gaps without making permanent hires? etc.), but I suspect that most programs are motivated by mixed aims. 

Based on my experience as a teaching VAP, I want to suggest a few issues - from the VAP perspective - that faculties should think about before starting or as they develop their program.

1 - Remember that the VAP's real job is getting the next job. 

2 - Focus mentoring on research and writing.  You might even have a research adviser in the fellow's field.  We all know that publication is the coin of the realm.  It is also the price of entry.

3 - Decide whether you are going to fund job hunting expenses, especially attendance at the AALS conference.  Remember, this is one expense that VAPs are almost certain to incur.

4 - Decide on a clear rule about whether you hire out of your VAP program and communicate it clearly to candidates for a VAP position.

5 - Identify who hires the VAP (i.e., how much faculty-wide buy in you are looking for).

6 - Think about teaching load (for teaching VAPs, rather than research fellows, obviously).  The key semesters are the first one and when the VAP is on the market.  Both your students and your VAPs will thank you for being thoughtful about this.

7 - How long should the program be?  Because of the timing of the academic market, one year is likely too short, putting the VAP on the market before any academic life is under the belt.

8 - Do VAPs attend others' job talks?  A sensible rule may be that they are allowed to when they are not on the market themselves.  (Sitting in on job talks is an eye-opener, as permanent faculty well know.)

Posted by Verity Winship on September 15, 2008 at 02:56 PM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market | Permalink


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Re VAPs' attendance of other people's job talks. I am a faculty member at a top-20 school with an established VAP program. Our VAPs are always invited to attend job talks, both entry-level and lateral. I've never heard anyone questioning this practice. In fact, we *want* VAPs to attend job talks as a prep for their own future talks. So far, VAPs have had a good sense not to ask questions or otherwise interfere.

Posted by: totally anon | Sep 19, 2008 12:15:41 AM

I've heard of people getting positions that way, 3d-Anon, but I'd worry about the level of research support in such an ad hoc setting. Obviously it depends a lot on the specific school, and your connections to it; if you already have strong mentoring relationships at a school without a VAP program, and they will take you, that could be a great set-up. You will want to be very clear about teaching obligations before you get there, however. You don't want to be surprised by a clash of expectations regarding how much time you will be devoting to filling curricular holes vs. writing your job talk.

Also (in reference to your hypothetical timing): I'd be cautious about one-year programs, and about going on the market in your first year of VAP-ing. Keep in mind that there is a bit of an arms race going on in terms of the length of an applicant's paper trail. I don't know your specific situation, but it seems to me like you could be doing yourself a disservice if you try and go out on the market too early.

See also: http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2008/09/should-applican.html

There is one other benefit of a 2-year program that I haven't seen discussed much: it allows you time to work with faculty to chose a killer research question for your job talk paper, before you start writing. A lot hinges on that paper, so why not take the time to find a topic that you can really sell?

Posted by: a different anon | Sep 17, 2008 5:09:11 PM

My sense is that schools without formal programs are sometimes open to hiring VAPs (or have actually hired them in the past, even though it is not widely known or was called something else) - at least enough so that it is worth contacting the hiring chair or (if you can figure out who this is) the associate dean who makes sure the curriculum is covered.

Posted by: Verity Winship | Sep 17, 2008 10:49:07 AM

Great post, Verity.

Re: applying (third Anon). For what it is worth, I was offered several visiting positions sua sponte as part of the AALS process, by schools that interviewed me but did not offer me a job (one was a school with an established VAP/Fellowship program and the others were not). That sugests to me that some insitutions have some "play in the joints" about this issue, so writing directly may be worth it.

Re support. I too have heard anecdotally about extremely varying levels of support and commitment to VAP/Fellows and their research from school to school. Asking current VAPs (discreetly, of course) is likely the most reliable way to go, but a few other indicia might be useful as well. For example, where are the VAP/Fellows housed? In offices intermingled with the doctrinal faculty, or off in a separate building? Who has "oversight" of the VAP/Fellows program, a tenure-track member of the doctrinal faculty or a LWR administrator? Is the program created with an eye towards boosting the institution through the success of its VAPs, or is it a program for covering hard to staff classes repurposed for the new faculty hiring paradigm? None of these questions would be dispositive, of course, but might give you some sense of where the program stood if it were hard to get information out of the current fellows.

Posted by: Anon the Fourth | Sep 16, 2008 5:22:13 PM

anon, a different anon, or verity -- any thoughts on applying for VAPs at schools that do not have formal programs? I.e., if one is planning to do the meat market in Fall 2009 but wants to do a VAP for 2009-2010, can one be successful in applying to schools that do not have formal programs?

Although there are several VAP programs that interest me, many are two years (too long)...also, I'm interested in a region of the country (west coast) where not too many schools have VAP programs. have you guys heard of anyone just sending resume/pubs/references to hiring chairs at schools and asking to be considered for a one year VAP position?

Posted by: a third anon | Sep 16, 2008 4:17:22 PM

That is very helpful -- thanks!

Posted by: a different anon | Sep 16, 2008 10:19:51 AM

It will vary from one program to the next, but among the VAPs that I know, those who have been most disatisfied with the scholarship aspect of their programs have been in LRW type programs. Although this is far from scientific, it makes sense that faculty who do not have publication obligations of their own and view VAPs as little more than cheap labor may be more likely to marginalize the VAPs' scholarship efforts. Again, it will vary from program to program; some programs that require VAPs to teach LRW also have excellent support for their VAPs' scholarship.

The best thing to do is to talk to the current VAPs when you interview. Does the program have a clear mentoring system? How approachable are the permanent faculty concerning the scholarship development and publication process? What sort of resources does the program have to facilitate research? Are VAPs able to devote substantial time to their scholarship during the year?

You may also look at their publication histories, but that can be misleading because some VAPs are able to publish quality scholarship in spite of a lack of support.

Posted by: anon | Sep 16, 2008 9:59:42 AM

Anon, while we are both being anonymous, would you be willing to give some hints as to which programs have this defect? I'm shopping for a fellowship at the moment, and want to make sure that I don't get sold on going someplace, only to later discover that they fail to give adequate writing support.

Is this a problem you would associate more with the LRW-program fellowships? With the VAPs that involve teaching substantive classes? (I assume it is less of a problem with the research-only fellowships.)

Posted by: a different anon | Sep 16, 2008 8:34:36 AM

2 - Focus mentoring on research and writing. You might even have a research adviser in the fellow's field. We all know that publication is the coin of the realm. It is also the price of entry.

This is also a critical question that VAP/Fellowship applicants should ask when they interview with an existing program. Some provide little or no support for (with some permanent faculty being openly hostile to) the VAPs'/Fellows' work on scholarship.

Posted by: anon | Sep 15, 2008 10:10:35 PM

I'd be interested to hear from permanent faculty about the job talk issue. From a VAP perspective, maybe it is an advantage to know the competition, but I can also imagine that it would add stress or that the faculty might feel more constrained in their questions and comments. But I don't think it is a key point - one that will likely come up, though.

Also, these issues must be taken seriously now that the VAP program is so established as an entity that it has even spawned a verb. I'm glad to see you use the term "VAP-ing," which I was tempted to work into my post.

Posted by: Verity Winship | Sep 15, 2008 1:34:01 PM

Going through a VAP myself right now, I think this is a great list. Too often, schools don't have it foremost in mind that their VAPs are interested only in landing a permanent position -- somewhere, and hopefully at the VAP school.

But why do you say that a VAP should not be able to sit in on a job talk at the school he or she is VAP-ing at? I can see why a VAP might not want to do this, just to keep his or her nose out of the fray. But there seem to be significant advantages to sitting in as well, and I'm not sure why a faculty would object to having the VAP there.

Posted by: anon | Sep 15, 2008 1:23:17 PM

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