Let’s all write shorter letters of recommendation

Let’s all write shorter letters of recommendation

If you are an academic who is in a secure, full-time position then , let’s be honest, no one in the precariate wants to listen to you complain about how hard your job is. But if you were to complain, one topic would be the endless rounds of letters of recommendation you are asked to read and write. The production and circulation of these letters has gotten out of control, people: out of control. We need to go back to letters that are shorter, more candid, and easier to process for everyone involved.

When I was in graduate school, I was told that there was a distinction between the ‘American’ and ‘European’ (European here also includes the UK — sorry Brexiteers) style of recommendation letter. The American letters were voluble, hypberbolic, and long. The European letters, in contrast, tended to be one line affairs which said “I, Famous Professor X, Y, or Z hereby officially know this person and vouch for them.” Of course, the real situation is more complicated then that, but if anything it seems to me that the American style of letter is spreading, both across space to other countries and across the page.

The sad thing is that letters of recommendation spend most of their time describing things about an applicant that are already covered in the CV and cover letter. Is there a reason to describe someone’s research when it is already described in two other places in a dossier? If so, I can’t guess what it is. And, sadly, too often we use the length of letters of recommendation as a way to avoid the hard work of actually assessing applicants. I’ve read many letters of recommendation that don’t say anything about the candidate at all, and go to enormous lengths to hide that fact behind boiler plate prose. And as for addressing the criteria — if there are any that aren’t totally nebulous — I’m shocked at how often people simply don’t do it.

What is our letters were one paragraph long, and explained candidly, empathetically, and honestly how well the applicant fit the criteria for the job or scholarship they were applying for? Not only would it radically improve the signal to noise ratio in these letters, it would cut down the amount of work that everyone had to do. And, frankly, professors would probably gain a deeper understanding of their students and their relationship with them.

At a certain point in my life, I felt the ‘European’ style “I know this person” letter didn’t do enough to show a professor’s support for a student. Now, however, I increasingly think it’s a good idea. Don’t get me wrong: Bumping up the length of a letter to address crtieria or explain complicated intellectual projects or circumstances is fine with me. But in the future, let’s try to make letters of recommendation as long as they need to be — and no longer.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book “Leviathans at the Gold Mine” won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology book award. He is interested in political anthropology, the anthropology of virtual worlds, the history of anthropology, and public anthropology and open access scholarship.

One Reply to “Let’s all write shorter letters of recommendation”

  1. I’m going to disagree with this opinion. I find detailed letters of reference to be very useful. A more senior scholar can often contextualize a younger person’s career with greater clarity, and can bring out features of a young person’s scholarship that a committee might miss. Done well, the letter of reference adds to the dossier by saying things that would be inappropriate in the CV or cover letter. “Glowing” is one part of this, but far from the most important part.

    That being said, I fully recognize how few people actually write good letters of recommendation. Letters that are meant to be “glowing” often unwittingly undercut the cover letter or misrepresent what is in the CV. Some letters damn their candidate with faint praise, others sabotage their candidates with gender-loaded language. Our job is to write letters with real scholarly judgment, and most scholars fail in that task.

    The problem posed here, of overworking references, is a real one. I think the root of this problem is that committees solicit letters for too many candidates. Thousands of letters are composed and sent for candidates who never had a real chance at a position or nomination to begin with. This is because committees are outsourcing their responsibility: The effort of obtaining letters is substituted for judgment.

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