Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Letters of Recommendation, Revisited
This morning I received an especially troubling email from a professor who discovered that the “characteristic caution” with which she wrote was being misread as “damning with faint praise.” Part of me wanted to tell her to think about her audience, rather than her ‘characteristic’ anything, but part of me had to admit that she has a point. Letters of recommendation, in this employer’s market, need to be effusive, distinctive, on-point, and (preferably) from famous people. A thoughtful, balanced, circumspect letter from a solid-but-not-famous author is worse than nothing; it screams ‘mediocrity,’ which is death in this market. (Whether famous people are better mentors is another issue – in my experience, it’s pretty much the opposite. They get famous by being self-centered, not by nurturing others. Exceptions exist, but they’re exceptions.)
The great tragedy, of course, is that letters are such horrible indicators. They really don’t tell you much at all.
I’ve never been trained in how to write a letter of recommendation. I’ve never seen an industry standard. HR has issued a few ‘thou-shalt-nots,’ addressing the predictable no-nos, but that’s about it. You’re just supposed to know: know not to be ‘characteristically cautious,’ not to be thoughtful or pensive or even fair. Swing for the fences, and hope for the best. This, in the name of finding the best academic minds! (Although I’ve never seen anything written specifically on this, this may be another area in which female academics are at a disadvantage. If it’s true that women are more likely to shy away from either self-promotion or hyperbole in promoting others, they may both get and give less effective letters. The cultural issues here are potentially legion: a mentor from another part of the world might tend towards a more circumspect style, dooming her students to endless adjuncting. There’s nothing fair about it.)
Worse, the larger graduate programs, which are precisely the ones with the famous names, are so laden with students that the letters inevitably start to sound the same.
In administrative job searches, letters have pretty much been dispensed with altogether, probably because fear of litigation has made them so predictably bland. They’ve been replaced by requests for (ever longer) lists of names, phone numbers, and email addresses, on the theory that spontaneous comments may be less guarded, and therefore more helpful, than written ones. There’s considerable truth to this, but it raises an awkward issue for the administrative job seeker: when you ask someone to be a reference, you’re effectively announcing that you’re considering leaving. The more considerate committees will say in the ad that they’ll only contact the references of finalists, which at least minimizes the collateral damage, but it still poisons the well for finalists who don’t get the job.
(Oddly, this is the one area – okay, the only area – in which grad students actually have an advantage. They’re supposed to be looking. The question of ‘what if they find out I’m leaving?’ is a non-issue. Once you’re actually ensconced somewhere, though, getting tagged as disloyal can be a real problem.)
A modest proposal: get away from letters altogether, shorten the list of references, and do more telephone interviews of candidates themselves. Put more emphasis on the cover letter, which, in my experience on committees (both faculty and administrative), is almost always more revealing than third-party letters anyway. Focus on the candidate, not on the references. I’ve seen too many candidates with exemplary letters who turned out, in person, to be underwhelming; I shudder when I think of how many exemplary people got passed over for uninspired letters.
What this implies about the larger issue of peer review, well…
As much as I hate to write recs I do so with great attention and caution because of the one hire I participated in a few years back. We had 160 applications for a 2 year position. (My field lost 1/3 of its positions in the past decade.)
This is what I learned:
1) You only learn negatives from letters of rec. You begin reading them for "warning signs." One recommender wrote about an applicant that s/he was "quite arrogant" when s/he began her studies at XU but has since "found a way to be nice to his/her less competent peers." This applicant turned out to be the best of the bunch. Who would have known?
2) Personal letters ARE the best indicators. You can tell right away that you don't want to work with someone who would write 4 pages about themselves.
3) I work in foreign languages and literatures and letters written by Europeans should be avoided. For French, Russian, German scholars, the name on the paper is recommendation enough and they don't often see the need elaborate any further. They're right, of course, but our academic culture wants a lot of blather.
I also think the recommendation should be scrapped at this point for a new system.
We don't use them in academic hires. For most jobs, you'd give the name of a reference the employers could call, but in academia you're hired on the basis of publications, experience and in some cases an interview or trial lecture. I'm sure this system has plenty of problems too, but I'm sure glad we don't have those weird letters of recommendation.
Very un-Norwegian, to brag about people like that. It's just not done.