Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Letters of Recommendation, Revisited

An aside in a previous entry, on the silliness of letters of recommendation, brought forth a flurry of emails and comments. Apparently, I’m not the only one who sees them as archaic and fundamentally flawed.

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…