Has it really come to this?
I recently wrote a recommendation letter for a student of whom I think highly. The letter was my usual, short and direct: The student has done impressive work, the forthcoming paper makes what I see as a real advance in the debate about x (and here's why), and the teaching record is solid. I ended with a sentence about how the student once had a hard time in dealing on his/her feet with a particular kind of objection, but now has developed a stronger response. I then said the stuff about "highest recommendation" and what not.
I just got a phone call from someone at another university asking how to interpret the letter. The simple and direct approach apparently now is taken as evidence of lurking defects. The lack of gushing praise about being "the best student in 40 years" or similar nonsense is now taken as an implicit assertion that the student is, after all, not especially good. And the claim about the student once having problems (now overcome) in formulating a real-time response to a particular kind of objection is now taken as the claim that the student's entire project is a crashing failure.
Apparently my letter got the application placed in the "no thanks" pile! Luckily, someone had the good sense to think twice, and I was able to set everything aright. But I can't help but worry about how my recommendation letters get read. I always avoid vapid gushing and useless hyperbole. And I always include some example of how the student has matured over the course of writing the dissertation. I'd been thinking that cutting to the chase, giving non-nonsense evaluation of the work, and saying something about how students improve was a good thing!
Perhaps there's a code word we could come up with that will indicate to letter readers that the short and direct approach is being taken, and should not be received as an implicit condemnation, like "No B.S." just below the signature?