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Any Recommendations?

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
II Corinthians 2:1-3

As a faculty member, I get several requests each semester for letters of recommendation. I would like to share several pointers about approaching folks for letters of recommendation in general to save you some headaches and embarrassment, and to give you a higher chance of getting the kind of letter you want.

1)      Make sure you know the recommender, and they know YOU.

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

Especially at this time of semester, it is easy to let one’s life get completely out of balance. Deadlines are real, and sometimes life steps in with curve balls that interfere with meeting deadlines in a sane manner. Nonetheless, proper care and maintenance of the machinery of our bodies is critical.

Yesterday, I noticed a small grinding noise when I applied my brakes. I hadn’t heard anything before this, so I was surprised. I took it into the shop this morning, and drove away this afternoon with a complete set of new brakes, including calipers, and $1200 less in my pocket. (Yes, I checked it out and got second opinions—not an ideal cost, but ballpark for the needed job.) It was a LOT more than I wanted to spend, especially now, but it needed doing. The $1200 now was still a lighter burden than having failure at a critical time.

It is the same with our bodies. Stress over long periods of time cause major, chronic health problems that are hard to lick. In the short term, it decreases our effectiveness, we tend to make more mistakes, which cost us more time and increases stress even more. Thus, proper diet and sleep seem like a $1200 brake job at the time, but they prevent catastrophic failure—failures such as auto accidents due to fatigue, grading mistakes that take lots of time and headache to fix, mistakes in the lab that could be expensive and dangerous, taking shortcuts with our integrity that will haunt us later, saying or doing things without thinking because our brains have shut down, and so on.

A Sabbath rest is even more critical in times of stress—whether it is an hour a day or a day a week, being disciplined to keep a healthful routine will make the work we do better, more efficient, and more enjoyable.

I may be preaching to the choir, but this choir director needs this reminder as much or more than any.


A Time for Peace

"The Artist's Garden at Giverty," Claude Monet, 1900.

During the end of term stress most in the academy feel right about now, I offer this fable that has gone ‘round the net for years. This is a version I’ve cobbled together from a couple of others. Hope it inspires you the way it does me, reminding me of the nature of God’s peace in our lives.

In the medieval times, a king wanted a painting in his throne room—a portrait representation of peace, so that in bad times he could glance at it to calm his soul. Thus, he decreed a contest to all artists in his kingdom to paint their best representation of peace and the winner would be rewarded greatly.

All artists submitted their finest work for the king to examine. 

Times of Stress

In II Timothy 3:1, Paul told his protégé, “But understand this, that in the last days there will be times of stress.” Without getting apocalyptic, I have noticed that this semester has been a greater than normal “time of stress” for many people, myself included. People are tired, they are behind, they are worn out.

It is not merely the economy, though for many it is definitely a strong factor. I think there is something deeper, a cultural, spiritual malaise and stress that is affecting people on a wide scale.

I don’t know the cause. I only know one aspect of the cure. Prayer. Please join me in more fervent prayer for God’s peace to flow over folks, and in so doing, fertilize the soil of hearts to respond to His invitation for reconciliation and redemption through Christ.


Roger's Corner

{Note 2: Roger made a change to the name and URL, which is reflected in this updated version of the post, formerly titled "Pastor's Corner."--RJW}
{Note:  for some reason, the URL to the below link was corrupted. It should be fixed now. My appologies. RJW}

I’d like to let you know about a new blog that just started today, Roger’s Corner, written by my friend and former pastor, Roger Fankhauser. I deeply respect, love, admire and harass this man. He was pastor of the Bible Church I went to when I taught in Shreveport. He has since moved to the Fort Worth area burg of Burleson, Texas, where he is the senior pastor at Burleson Bible Church.

I encourage you to check it out, but read both of our blogs—no fair jumping ship now!


The Collegium of Feudal Lords

Ask non-academics, or students who want to be academics about their picture of the professoriate, and I suspect their picture will be like mine was, once. I had a somewhat romantic notion of mostly slightly socially awkward introverts who nonetheless liked to gather with each other over some mild refreshment or socially acceptable vice like pipes and scotch to chat informally over esoterica on any number of subjects, sometimes with good-natured heat.

Enter the reality.

To Put It Simply

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:

Rugged Frailty

In Perelandra, the second book in C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Venus is an Eden-like planet, complete with an Adam and Eve. Weston, a human from earth is possessed with a demon and comes to Perelandra in order to cause the Fall there. The hero, appropriately named Ransom, is sent by God after Weston to preserve the innocence of the Eve character. The longer Weston is on Perelandra, the more depraved he becomes. He mauls some frog-like creatures horribly, and Ransom stumbles upon them, and seeing their suffering condition, tries to put them out of their misery, but they will not die, because Death hasn’t entered that planet yet. Ransom realizes he’s just adding to their suffering and leaves them, since he is also unable to heal them.

What has stuck with me about that episode since I first read it in college is

Bizarrities in the Bible

One of the all-time strangest passing references in the Bible occurs during the description of the crucifixion. I share it with you now as food for thought for Easter weekend.

“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

The Greatest Mystery

There are many mysteries in this world. Some are silly, like how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? Some are contentious, such as the creation/evolution debate—how did we get here? Some are more profound, such as does the soul exist and if so, where in the body and how?

To me, the greatest mystery of all is God’s Love. Why does He love us?! Seriously, you look around at all of the crap in this world, all of the ‘bad people,’ all of the evil actions, and my favorite, all of the profoundly stupid things we do, and there are times we are merely a pathetic colony of parasites on an otherwise interesting mudball in space.

God's Final Exam

As we draw near the end of term, and begin to think of finals that are fast approaching, and all the more during Holy Week, it can be a good time to think about the course God has set before us, and the expectations He has upon us for passing.

As I think about life in these terms, I see two parts to the ‘syllabus’ and they are sequential. You have to pass the first part in order for the second part to even count.

Dearly Departed

Tonight, I received and email from a member of our fellowship requesting to be removed from the email group as she is no longer with the university. In closing, she requested that we remember to pray for all retirees.

It is a profound request. As a ministry to employees of an institution, how do we treat those no longer with the institution, for whatever cause? Do they cease to exist? Do we rely on personal friendships within the group to keep us up to speed on things? Or do we keep them as part of our extended family and check up on them actively?

These questions are particularly poignant this week. As you may have read, Texas is very dry right now and having problems with wildfires. On Sunday here in Austin, a homeless man’s campfire was left unattended and blew out of control destroying at least 10 homes. One of those homes belonged to a retired staff member of our department. She and her husband were travelling and not around. There is nothing left except the slab and part of the chimney.

I hadn’t heard about her situation until I received an email from a staff member in the department calling for donations to help the couple get back on their feet. It made me grateful that people in my department watch over each other, even after retirement. If a secular department can do that, how much more the family of God?

{If you are so moved to want to help this retiree, email me at and I will put you in contact with the person organizing the drive. I will also be contributing.}


More on Going Amish

Awhile back, I posted wistfully about having a ‘simpler life.’ Well, thanks to a commenter, I’ve learned about a blog that discusses how to do that in the information age.

Going Amish is a relatively new blog that discusses how to help enhance and protect your privacy on the web. It has some interesting tips and tricks, that I have not yet tried, but am familiar with some of them.

There are a couple of ironies that keep me from an unqualified endorsement. First, his comment advertising his blog was posted by “Anonymous.” Second, all you can tell about him without a lot of digging is that the blog is posted to by a marketing guy named Del, or so he claims.

Still, it makes for an interesting read and the tips may help you increase your privacy. I had a student last week tell me how she did an Internet search for me and found my FacultyLinc webpage (linked to in the right-hand column). This lack of privacy we have, especially as faculty at state institutions, is why I have the name plate by my door read,
Dr. Robb J. Wilson
(formerly a private citizen)

It’s not all bad, however. Given that information can be readily found on the Internet, we have the opportunity to take the offense and to some extent control what people find first and make it content we consciously put out there. Most search engines rank hits by how popular they are, how often material is posted on a site and other SEO (Search Engine Optimization) factors. There even companies out there now that for a fee help you make sure that what folks find first about you is what you want them to find.

Every once in a while, I do a Google search on my name and various incarnations to see what’s out there. After doing this blog for a while, it has helped direct searchers here. Fortunately, I’ve not yet found any negative sites, but I watch for things a disgruntled student might come up with to cause mischief.

Christ encourages us to ‘be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents.” Knowing how to manage our presence on the Internet is consistent with following this.


The Sabbath

God made us as organic machines, and like any machine, it requires maintenance. Be sure to maintain yours, even as the semester winds down, so that it will function properly. This includes making time to rest. Good night, all!


Choosing a Research Advisor

It is mid-August or so, and you have just arrived at your next educational home. This will be probably the most intense semester of your life, but it will only be about 3-1/2 months long. In that time, you will become acclimated to a new city, a new school, a new type of class (graduate classes tend to either be much easier or much harder than undergrad classes), probably teaching in some capacity for the first time, and finally, choosing the individual who will probably shape your career more than anyone else, your research advisor.

In adademia, we speak of the string of PhD advsiors as a genealogy. We have a series of professional ancestors that lead back to a few, usually well-known pioneers in our field. (I discuss mine here.) So choosing your advisor is very much like choosing a parent. Choose wisely.

It is crucial to pick the advisor rather than the research project. What I mean is you should examine carefully the professional and personal worldview and values to be a match with yours. In other words:
-          If you are a laid-back type of person, don’t pick an advisor gunning to win the Nobel Prize next week, and vice versa.
-          Similarly, if you are pretty independent, you don’t want an advisor that is always looking over your shoulder, and vice versa—if you need lots of guidance, you don’t want someone whom you will see maybe once a semester.
-          Look at their life-work balance and see if it is something that appeals to you.
-          How long on average does it take for their students to graduate? If students tend to take6-7 years, then you probably want to stay away, as this faculty member probably tends to hold onto their students to benefit from experienced, cheap labor. Faculty members who push people out in 4-5 years usually are more concerned with developing your career and keeping it moving and will give you a swift kick start if you seem to be stagnating.
-          And so on. This is not an exhaustive list, but some key things that will help you get started. In my use of ‘worldview,’ I am not necessarily in this context describing their religious views. That is probably less important. Choose someone who will mentor you to be an excellent independent researcher, and in a way that you can get along with them.

What about the tenure status of a faculty member? That depends, largely on what you want. A young assistant professor can be beneficial, helping you to rise on their coattails as their career is in its ascendency. However, if they prove a bust, you’ve got the problem of being tied to their failure. If they don’t get tenure for less dramatic issues, most schools will not leave you in the lurch. Most faculty have a year or so to search for a new position and close down shop, including getting you through. If that is not enough time, you may be allowed to move with that advisor or be reassigned to another faculty member to complete your work (if you are just starting, you may have to switch projects.) If you work for someone at the end of their career, they are a known quantity, but you have to watch carefully to see how engaged they still are in the process, as they may be mentally moving on to the next phase of life. A mid-career advisor is usually pretty stable, though they may be recruited to another school, in which case, your situation will look a lot like the failed-tenure case, though not as bad.

I insist on choosing the advisor over the project for several related reasons. First, a good relationship with your boss can make nearly any research project worthwhile, whereas a bad relationship can make the most exciting and promising project sheer misery, even to the point of not being worth it. Second, your advisor is your primary professional reference for the rest of your career, so you want to have the kind of relationship that will produce good reports from them. Your name will be tied with theirs within the academic community, so make sure you want that association.

Follow this advice even if you end up working in a group that doesn’t do exactly what you ultimately want to do. The training is the key, not the project. Especially these days, while they Ph.D. research will greatly shape the beginning of your career, it need not define it. Many academics will drift through a variety of research areas, sometimes radically, so you are not locked in. Also, if a real jerk is the best in the area about which you are passionate, you can always seek out a post-doc with them. There, it can still be miserable/uncomfortable if they are a jerk, but it is for a much shorter period of time, you are more nearly a peer (though that is not necessarily a guarantee of good treatment), your focus is producing papers more than learning how to be a researcher and you aren’t as intimately tied with them for the duration of your career than if they were your graduate advisor. With the current interest in interdisciplinary work, your graduate research may give you insights that will inform and transform your later work, and even instrumental in inspiring key breakthroughs.

Also, many advisors have some flexibility on the exact form of their research interests, so that if you have a particular interest, one or more of their existing efforts might be able to incorporate modifications to include it.

Finally, if you do end up with ‘buyer’s remorse,’ it is possible to make a change. It can be a very political process, as your advisor may take it as a blow to the ego that you don’t want to continue working for them, so be smart and circumspect about things. If the issues aren’t too serious, you may consider keeping them on your committee as a courteous way of telling them you still value their input into your career. To the extent you can with integrity, cite your reasons for the change in terms of changing research interests rather than your inability to stand them. It is just common sense.

I hope this series has been helpful. I followed much of this in my graduate career and it worked.