Wednesday, January 25, 2006
A Modest Proposal: Eliminate References
The parallel, I think, is to selective colleges eliminating SAT’s from admissions decisions. What looks, at first blush, like a lowering of standards actually winds up increasing the quality of the applicant pool.
In the case of eliminating SAT’s, it does so by signaling that the college has a deeper view of education than can be shown on a multiple-choice test. (Do they even use number two pencils anymore? I’m so old. Back in my day, we wrote with burned bark, and we liked it!) The selective colleges that have taken this step have thrived, achieving both greater diversity and higher academic standards among their students.
I think we should do the same for faculty and (especially) administrative searches.
Letters are badly flawed for entry-level faculty positions. Different writers have different standards and styles, there’s no generally-accepted template for letters, and European letter-writers often take a more diffident approach, inadvertently dooming their charges to extended unemployment here. But at least at the entry level it’s not weird to be looking for a job.
At more senior or administrative levels, though, asking someone to write a letter for you pretty much tells them that you’re looking. The only time you want anyone at your home institution to know that you’re looking is when you have an offer in hand. Until then, it can only hurt.
If I’m right about that, then a college that doesn’t ask for references could attract a much larger, and much more interesting, pool of applicants.
Each candidate would stand or fall based on his or her own presentation. This is not a bad thing; if I hire a turkey, it’s of little comfort to me that someone at his old school liked him. Besides, one of the running jokes about references is that truly glowing references at senior levels reflect not glowing performance, but a burning desire to be rid of the candidate.
Given anxieties about litigation, few references come with anything approaching candor. To compensate for the lack of candor, many writers have resorted instead to hyperbolic praise, making the slightly less inflated letters look lukewarm by comparison. An arms raise of puffery ensues, with each letter writer working the thesaurus just a little harder than the last. To base decisions on this rather than, oh, I don’t know, any other input is insane.
I can imagine an objection that failure to check letters would constitute a failure of ‘due diligence,’ especially if it turned out that the candidate has a shady past. That said, in all the searches on which I’ve participated, I’ve never seen a letter reveal (or even refer to) a shady past, and in today’s litigious climate I’d be shocked to. I’ve never seen anything along the lines of “Rest assured that the charges of public bestiality were somewhat exaggerated” in a letter.
Instead, it seems to me that letters are required because it looks like rigor, because it’s always been done that way, and because nobody ever got fired for requiring them. That’s fine when times are easy and flush, but these aren’t those times.
No letters did require us to look carefully at transcripts, cover letters and CVs. It would have been nice to accept, but not require, aggregate teaching evaluations -- since we do a lot of teachiing around here.
I do think that someone who has tenure and no logistical reason to be on the market (i.e. spouse job = move or something) is in a hard spot in terms of asking for a letter. Why should they risk the political implications at home if they don't get the job?
Doesn't dropping the SATs dramatically increase the administrative cost of admissions?
-I'm accounting as fast as I can
I don't want to ask my references (very busy people) to create 50 letters, even if the letters are almost identical. It still takes time to change to school specific information. The faculty with secretaries, well, I don't mind asking for many, many letters but two of my references don't have the luxury of a secretary.
Basically, due to employment laws where I am now (not US), I am not even in the running for teaching positions. It's almost a relief. I'm not ready to ask for another batch of ten or twelve letters. Ugh.
I found that we learned a lot more by talking to references than we ever would have from reading letters. My experience was that references were more likely to give an honest appraisal of a candidates strengths and weaknesses. Letters of reference aren't usually as informative. (This might vary from field to field, though.) I'm left with a slight preference for not asking for letters. However, other faculty who served with me on the search felt differently.
Also, as Dean Dad pointed out, letters from overseas are particularly hard to parse. I recently served as a reader of applications for an international graduate summer school. We had applications mostly from North America, but many from Europe, Asia, and South America as well. It was very hard to know how to read letters from non-native speakers from countries where, presumably, the culture of letter writing is different than that to which I'm accustomed.
Two years ago I chaired the search committee for my college's registrar. We didn't ask for letters and it worked just fine. Again, we called references, and learned a lot about the potential candidates. Many of these calls were pretty quick, so it wasn't a huge time sink.
I do think that letters can be useful if they contain not just qualitative assessments but details, particularly putting the candidates' research into perspective and work habits, etc.
But other letters are also useful. I'm at an R1 university, and letters from a student's advisor or other leaders in their field are often much better at situating a grad student's work in the field than is the student himself or herself--if only because he or she lacks the perspective that decades of familiarity brings. When I was a youngster, I was often startled by how much of what I thought of as normal, self-evident approaches to my subject was considered innovative by others. I suspect my referees' letters did a much better job of talking me up to prospective employers than I was able to do myself.
When you have 200 applications for a job, it's easy to toss out the first 100 because they're really not suited to it. But letters can help in deciding which 10-15% of the remaining 100 are worth interviewing at the first stage. Again, I'm at an R1, with its own needs and preferences. Maybe they're less useful elsewhere.
I've just applied to several Ph.D. programs. I made the mistake of picking a recommender who, in the past, was extremely tardy in completing a recommendation. (Fool me once, shame on you... fool me twice...) At this point, he's four weeks overdue and I'm rather afraid that my chances of getting my application looked at in a timely manner are essentially gone. At a minimum, that's $300 out the window in application fees, GRE fees, and transcript fees.
The curious thing is that this same professor recommended me for an academic award of merit, selected me to be his teaching assistant, and worked with me on my thesis. He has given me a good deal of accolades.
The message I'm getting loud and clear is that recommendation letters for students don't warrant his attention when there are larger matters at hand--like his self aggrandizement.
Yes, I'd second it; let's do away with these horrid letters.
I have even had applicants state "When you are ready to make the offer, I will provide the letters".