Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rec Letter Fuckedupness

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?

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've thought before that if I am ever in the position to give a letter of recommendation, I'd start it with a couple of sentences explicitly explaining how I intend the letter to be interpreted. I've also thought this might be off-putting. But I've heard so many stories like this about people reading far too much _into_ letters of recommendation, that I'm really tempted just to tell the readers explicitly at the outset that I intend the letter to be read _only_, and _not_ read into.

Anonymous said...

I was going to suggest adding "I really mean it" at the end, but surely it's only a matter of time until you'd have to add "no, really" after that, and so on. Maybe a better idea would be comparisons with other younger philosophers (though not things like "as good as the young Quine", unless you knew the young Quine.)

Anonymous said...

It's a serious problem. Rec letters are usually so inflated that they really don't mean anything, but non-inflated letters read like kisses of death. I think that something like the "no BS" label is what's needed-- something to say to readers that the non-inflation is due to the writer's desire to keep rec letters meaningful assessments of candidates rather than moves in a PR game.

Anonymous Prime said...

Perhaps add a qualifier such as, "This student was among the top n% of those I've supervised -- and not in the oft-used sense in which all of my students are somehow in that top n%. This student is in the top n%, and the rest are in the bottom 100-n%."

Anonymous said...

I was going to say comparisons with other philosophers, too, but as 3:09 intimates, some letter-writers inflate that comparison, too. (I've seen absolutely preposterous examples -- more ludicrous than 'Young Quine' -- from a couple of super-famous philosophers.)

The general approach suggested by 4:22 seems promising. That is, add a clause that beaks the rote nature of praise. "Among the top students I've seen here at SLAC and as good as my contemporaries in the 90s at Leiterific U" has become rote (for a recommendation to graduate school). Disrupt the cant while saying something logically equivalent, like "very few of the philosophy majors here are suited to the top graduate programs, but Mordecai will impress Prof. Snoots more than his average student."

I dunno. I think it's even harder for job letters. Yeah, it really is difficult collective action problem, since we all want the standard to return to "and I actually mean what I'm saying," but we're all loathe to put our own students at a disadvantage. Ugh.

Anonymous said...

The signing statements just multiply the problem. Use color coded paper (include a guide, of course). White for "No BS," yellow for "I mean a lot of what I say," and red for "Everything I say is hyperbole. Just throw the whole application away."

Anonymous said...

Heh. The funny thing is just think how many other job searches didn't call for clarification about your letters of recommendation. Your students must be grateful that you are taking a stand on hyperbole in letter writing.;)

Anonymous said...

Certainly you should include a condemnation of those who do inflate - 'This letter does not conform the deplorably modern practice of inflating praise for one's own students in order to get them in ahead of better candiadates and boost the prestige of the


that will cast the Certainly you should include a condemnation of those who do inflate - 'This letter does not conform the deplorably modern practice of inflating praise for one's own students in order to get them in ahead of better candiadates and boost the prestige of the letter writer’s own institution’.

That will cast the writer of inflated letters in a bad light, and by extension his candidate, which should discourage the writing of inflated letters as counter productive.

Anonymous said...

sorry that somehow got mixed up in cutting and pasting. Here is how it should read:

Certainly you should include a condemnation of those who do inflate - 'This letter does not conform the deplorably modern practice of inflating praise for one's own students in order to get them in ahead of better candiadates and boost the prestige of the letter writer’s own institution’.

That will cast the writer of inflated letters in a bad light, and by extension his candidate, which should discourage the writing of inflated letters as counter productive.

Anonymous said...

You seriously put something negative about a student in a recommendation letter? And one "of whom you think highly"? Like another commenter said, I'm sure your students are grateful for all your scruples!

Spiros said...

8:02,

No. Learn to read. I didn't write anything negative. I wrote something that, as it turns out, people who don't know how to read will *take* to be negative. It's not negative to say of a student that when she began writing, she had trouble handling a certain kind of objection, but now has found a very powerful response. In fact, that's straightforwardly *positive*. But in the culture of hyperbolic praise, it's *taken* as a red flag, *despite* the fact that the letter is *obviously* positive (like when I say that the candidate in question gets my "highest recommendation").

The whole point is that the profession is so fuckedup that unless a rec letter is nonsense it's taken as negative.

Anonymous said...

Spiros,
Perhaps bursting into rhyming verse would convey your enthusiasm with greater precision? Here are a few suggestions:

This student of mine is better than Quine!

She's quite a savant, far better than Kant!

You can safely assume she is better than Hume!

Jokes aside, however, I am pretty sure that the general (or at least widely held) presumption is that the only meaningful letters are negative ones. Otherwise, all departments want to place their students (however feeble), and generally will write all sorts of laudatory bullshit.

Anonymous said...

As others have tried to point out, your mention of the student's early "trouble," while not strictly negative, is certainly not "straightforwardly 'positive'."

The reason it might well be "'taken' as a red flag"--regardless of "the culture of hyperbolic praise"--is that it seems irrelevant in the context of a job letter. The ability to overcome a weakness qua philosopher is not exactly a trait that many departments are looking for in hiring (as compared, say, to grad admissions).

If the student no longer had the trouble by the time he/she was going on the market, the relevance of mentioning the trouble is hardly obvious. If it is not meant to qualify your support for the candidate, what other function does it serve, since it does not help the candidate?

Anyway, I gather the point of your post was merely to vent. If this is indeed the case, my apologies.

Spiros said...

10:06:

I think you're dead wrong about what's relevant in hiring and also wrong about the comment being positive. When hiring (esp. at the asst. rank), departments most certainly want someone who doesn't shut down in the face of criticism, or simply plods through as if the criticisms didn't exist. They want a colleague/instructor who can mature in the fact of objections. And they want to hire someone who has matured in the process of writing her dissertation (viz., someone who won't show up acting like a grad student). Being able to see one's way through an serious objection is a mark of philosophical skill, and an indication of philosophical promise. This is obvious.

The fucked up part, to repeat once again, is that departments *don't* like letters that explicitly state of an applicant that he or she is this kind of philosopher (viz., the kind of philosopher they want). Apparently they instead like letters that simply gush meaningless shallow nonsense about "the best student in 20 years" and such.

There's probably a story to tell about how the culture of rec letter hyperbole is connected to departments with a habit of making bad hires, but who knows. The fact is this: an honest assessment hurts job candidates, even when the honest assessment is wholly and highly positive. So it seems to me that rec letters are a waste of everyone's time. They're at best simply the profession's equivalent of TV commercials.

Anonymous said...

If your letter was the sole reason the candidate was put into the "no thanks" pile, perhaps the candidate was not otherwise strong enough compared to the rest of the pool. Either that, or philosophers put for too much emphasis on such letters and not nearly enough on other aspects of the application.

Anonymous said...

Instead of "No B.S.," I vote for something like: "Fo' Realz"

Anonymous said...

Safe to say, we're all against the hyperbolic letters norm.

However, just today I was reading through a stack of apps and when I came across one that wasn't shiny, slick, and filled with delight, it gave me pause. Nothing particularly negative, just a certain short and to the point quality which threw me off. It was almost as though the author was trafficking in the subtlest kind of irony. Then the mention of the student's inability to field what I think is an obvious softball objection to his view. How should I interpret this from a philosopher I know to be a crotchety old dick... hmmmm maybe I'll call him and ask for some hermeneutical guidance.

Only joking, it wasn't me.

Anonymous said...

I'm a newish assistant professor and I've just plain refused to write letters for grad school except for the very best students. I think it isn't in the very good though not the best students' interest. As this is my policy, I say so in my letter and that seems to have helped (as word has gotten back to me). Not sure how one could incorporate that into a job letter though.

As for the absurdity of letters of rec, I've noticed that there are various sorts of summer seminars (2-3 week things) aimed at 'junior philosophers' (within 5 years of phd), *all* of which require - as application material - not only writing samples, cv's, statements of intent on why I want to participate detailing what my current research is and blah blah blah, but also 1-3 letters of rec. This is crazy. I'm not asking for a job - I want to participate in a seminar. Judge the work I give you. That ought to suffice. What purpose do these letters serve? Is it to see if the applicant has the right connections? As it stands, I don't apply because I'm loathe to ask people at my department and my grad school for these letters.

Anonymous said...

"10:06:

I think you're dead wrong about what's relevant in hiring and also wrong about the comment being positive."

As someone instructed another commenter, "Learn to read."

I wasn't endorsing the vetting and hiring practices of many departments. I was purporting to describe them, somewhat less dismissively.

I realize attitude can go a long way in professional philosophy, but seriously.... Yes, it is "obvious" that the ability "to see one's way through [a] serious objection is a mark of philosophical skill, and an indication of philosophical promise." Mentioning in a job letter that a candidate eventually learned how to do this is unlikely to inspire sufficient confidence in the candidate.

Except, that is, in your own mind. Oh, if everyone else weren't so stupid, dishonest, shallow, blah, blah, blah.

Anonymous said...

I reacted to the rec letter as others did. If I received a letter saying "x used to have a problem with Y', I would take that as code for "x has a problem with y". Since I have never seen such an 'obstacles overcome' message in a rec letter before, I would think it was significant, and that the significance wasn't on the surface. Agree that there is a problem with inflation, but I think you got this one wrong.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps that part of the letters of recommendation which deals with assessing the candidate's intellectual and academic achievements should be systematically dropped (writing samples and publications can speak for that). And let rec letters only address things like reliability, collegiality etc.?

Mersenne Prime said...

I agree with Spiros that the 'growth' bit of the letter is positive. (I'm not interested in whether it will "inspire confidence", whatever that means.) And if the subtext is, the candidate isn't a fully mature philosopher, that's okay with me. My department has hired ABDs, just-minteds, etc., and they've all needed a little on-the-job ripening.

Also: the suggestion that recommendation letters be eliminated, that their influence be damped, or that they report exclusively on collegiality and reliability, that's not a good suggestion. We hired a logician not too long ago. I read his work. Seemed cool, but WTF do I know? I have one colleague who spends about a quarter of his time on logic, so I trusted him, but I was very happy to have the epistolary advice of some of the world's leading experts.


(Is that an acceptable use of 'epistolary'?)

Anonymous said...

I'm not asking for a job - I want to participate in a seminar. Judge the work I give you. That ought to suffice. What purpose do these letters (for summer seminars) serve?

To keep you having to brown-nose and beg for a few more years?

Anonymous said...

"To keep you having to brown-nose and beg for a few more years?"

My thoughts exactly.

Anonymous said...

I think the bit about "overcoming obstacles" is not a straightforward positive thing. Are you talking about rec letters for philo jobs? This makes a big different. The letter of rec for a job should communicate the applicant's readiness to flourish in a professional job context. People on SCs already know that grad students improve their philosophical abilities, learn to develop better objects and so on, in their PhD programs. But is this applicant ready to be a professional now? To carry on his research program and so forth? Show us that he is ready. The story about "overcoming obstacles" makes the applicant come across as "still a PhD student, who needs mentoring, but is capable of greatly improving." I wholeheartedly agree that inflated letters is a shitty practice, but maybe the "realistic" bit should be communicated in some other way.

Megatronymous said...

Spiros,

In light of the incompetence of letter readers and this recent incident, I'd urge you to modify your letter such that your mentioning of improvement CANNOT be interpreted as a red flag.

Say something like: "During her evolution as a student, X has also demonstrated an ability to respond well to criticism, and improve ... This speaks strongly towards X's characteristic willingness and enthusiasm to improve as a researcher and teacher"

It is really unfortunate that letter readers will over-interpret what is written in letters.

7:24. Condemning inflationary letters in a letter of rec for a student is inappropriate and plain idiocy. The effect will not be to weaken letters of others, but to weaken the strength of your own letter (as written by some self-important kook). Now isn't the time to get on your high horse about letter writing inflation. Just do what's best for your students (given the foolishness of your comment, I only hope I am correct to assume that you aren't writing letters for anyone)

Anonymous said...

it should read "learn to develop better objections." (this is 1:57) Not learn to develop better "objects"! Worrisome Freudian slip on my part...

Anonymous said...

I think Spiros is right now, While reading letters on two SCs (one for philosophy, one for biology) in the past three years, I specifically looked for these kinds of examples -- since the teaching environment is a /community college/ evidence of adaptability is super, super crucial. (One of our standard interview questions is "Explain one way in which you've adapted to an unexpected change or circumstance in a professional environment and how you handled the situation" -- a question almost all the philosophers bombed, but most of the biologists were able to give a decent answer to).

Let's be real. There's no way to make systematically accurate rule-of-thumb generalizations about how people will read what's in rec letters, because its impossible to predict what an SC is really looking for. So people can only write what they deem best represents their actual recommendation and hope that the people sitting on the SC have the sense to tell the difference between crap and not-crap.

(Also, stuff like this makes me SO GLAD that I am not in the R1 world, sometimes.)

Anonymous said...

How important are reference letters, compared with publications? My main supervisor is a bit of an arse so may not even be fair in my recommendation letter, and certainly will not inflate. Do I have no hope of a job or will 2 or 3 (or 4 or 5) decent publications swing the balance? I have one so far but am optimistic of others…

Anonymous said...

As someone who regularly reads and writes letters of recommendation for research-oriented departments, here are my thoughts.

The main problem with adding an "overcoming past difficulties" part to a letter is that it flouts the convention of not mentioning difficulties a candidate has had in the past. Such difficulties are usually not mentioned unless they are persisting problems for the candidate or they need to be cited in order to explain something like a gap in the c.v. If you flout this convention, don't be surprised if you are misread.

As for avoiding letter inflation, the best immediate strategy is to make explicit comparisons to others recently placed. The only long-term way to avoid the problem with letter inflation is to develop a reputation for giving accurate assessments in your letters. If your assessments pan out on a regular basis, people will take your claims about a candidate seriously. If not, then not.

PA said...

These truly are the end of times.

Anonymous said...

"I agree with Spiros that the 'growth' bit of the letter is positive. (I'm not interested in whether it will "inspire confidence", whatever that means.)"

There I could have gone--to a crappy job, if any--but for the grace of letter writers who had some idea what it means to make a helpful assessment that doesn't risk suggesting a basic deficiency.

Anonymous said...

I've been on dozens of search committees over the years and have read thousands of recommendation letters for job candidates. I think Spiros's practice of mentioning ways in which he's seen candidates grow or overcome deficiencies is solid, not uncommon, and should be more generally adopted.

Letters of only sugar-coated praise are useless; it's a waste of time to read them. A well-crafted letter that speaks substantively to the candidate's abilities and how they were developed is often very helpful. To be honest, I put the applications with bullshit letters on the B or C list, almost instantly.

The people who passed on the person Spiros wrote for are jackasses.

WV: giest

Anonymous said...

Yes, but given that most, but not all, people on search committees are jackasses, what should Spiros do?

Anonymous said...

I think this whole thread has overlooked the fact that letters from the UK are almost always understated by US standards. They're simply more honest and I think far more helpful. Anyone who has been on a few search committees knows the difference, and knows how to read a UK letter. Maybe what's needed is for people like Sprios to simply say that he writes recommendation letters "in the UK style."

Anonymous said...

But I thought one of the reasons why UK students have trouble getting jobs in America is precisely because the letters are understated?

Chris said...

what this also says is that those of us with difficulties like Asperger's are even more at a disadvantage- cuz I am incapable of what you describing (gushing and glowing) for the most part- especially about myself..

Anonymous said...

Wait. Quine rhymes with mine? I thought it rhymes with pin.

"To keep you having to brown-nose and beg for a few more years?"

Sounds like inflated rec letters pass the brown-nosing on to someone else.

Growth is good. Who wants to hire someone who stagnates?