Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Why Do We Still Use Letters?

The Modern Language Association put out a statement this week suggesting that letters of recommendation have gotten out of hand.  It offered a series of suggestions for reducing the burden they place on candidates, writers, and readers.

From the perspective of a hiring manager, I’ll offer a different suggestion.  Yes, letters have become burdensome on all involved. Streamlining the number involved helps, but doesn’t solve the core problem.  My suggestion is simpler still: abandon letters entirely.  Go with lists of people who are willing to take a call instead.

This approach would save a great deal of labor all around, and actually give hiring managers better information.  

For one thing, it would apply only to candidates who made it to the final round.  So the sheer number of references would be reduced dramatically, especially in fields that attract the most candidates.

It would also allow each employer to find out the information that matters the most in that setting.  For example, in hiring faculty here, I’m concerned about how well the person teaches and how well she gets along with others.  I’m far less interested in how groundbreaking her dissertation is.  In some cases, in which the job called for someone who could do multiple things, I’d have reservations about a candidate’s strength in one of those subfields; having the ability to ask the question directly reduces the guesswork and allows for better decisions.

But the concerns I have about a given candidate may be entirely different from the concerns that someone at another college might have.  Maybe they’re looking at program growth, and are looking for administrative potential.  Or maybe they’re trying to “raise their academic profile,” and are keying on research.  Maybe they want a different mix of subfields.   Any of those, and more, could be entirely valid; relying on candidates to suss it out, and to ask referees for correctly customized letters for each, is just unrealistic.

Calls can also get around the “boilerplate” problem.  Letters of recommendation have become a formulaic genre; after a while, they tend to read pretty much the same.  In a litigious age, people have learned to be very careful about what they write.  But calls are interactive, so it’s possible to get people off script.  They also allow for the conspicuous silences that can say a lot.

In the age of electronic communication, the old letter of recommendation seems oddly anachronistic.  Other than habit, why does it survive?  

I can only come up with three reasons, though I may be missing some.  The first is the “you first” problem.  Even if nearly everybody agrees that letters are kind of silly, nobody wants to be the first to drop them, for fear of looking less “rigorous” or “serious.”  In this market, that concern strikes me as misplaced, but it may be there.

The second is that elites like it.  The Harvard letterhead means something; doing away with letters means doing away with one more reminder of status.  But at a community college, I really don’t see why that’s my problem.  We’ve hired faculty from Harvard -- we have several -- and we’ve hired faculty from less name-brand places.  We hire people, not pedigrees.

Finally, the sheer difficulty of letters may serve as a sort of “seriousness” filter.  If letters are so much trouble, then presumably anyone who would bother to scrape enough of them together must really want the job.  (In principle, this same function could apply to almost any arbitrarily difficult task.  “Candidate must supply video of herself juggling bowling pins.”)  Leaving aside the sheer meanness of it, I’d like to think that any reasonably competent search committee could do a better job of discerning seriousness than some contrived hurdle could.

The MLA got the problem right, but stopped halfway to a solution.  Don’t just streamline letters.  Consign them to the dustbin of history.  If I want to know something, I just need to know who to call.

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something here?  Is there a better argument for letters?