Monday, October 31, 2011

Letters of recommendation and letters of reference

I was thinking about posting on this subject already, and now Matt at The Consternation of Philosophy has done so, so I'll repost my comment there and say a bit more about it. Matt writes:
It's common knowledge that letters of recommendation for academic positions are generally inflated. This gives rise to some concern about how the letters are to be interpreted, as one must "discount" the praise for a candidate in some way in order to arrive at a more accurate assessment of his or her abilities. There is less concern, however, about the morality of this practice in general.
In the comments I respond:
Deception is certainly bad, I agree, but I don't know how much actual deception there is in academic letters of reference. I've read a lot of such letters recently and they appear to divide into two types. One, which I'll call letters of reference, describes the person in what seems to be an objective way, noting both good points and bad. The other, which I'll call letters of recommendation, only mentions good things. I don't see this as being dishonest, but it is very hard to compare two candidates when they have different types of letters being written about them. At the initial screening stage I think many search committees are looking for reasons to exclude a candidate from further consideration, so any negative comment might do real harm. When so many people are writing letters of recommendation, I think it's arguably immoral for someone to choose to write a letter of reference instead.
I guess I'm not really convinced that Matt's premise is right (although it might be). Or at least I wouldn't put things as he does. His analogy with grade inflation is useful, as is the implicit analogy with inflation generally. When prices go up this might be bad, but it isn't (necessarily) dishonest. There is a sense in which (some) goods just are worth their market price. A price is low if it is lower than the normal price and high if it is higher than the normal price, but there is no non-relative "true" price that somehow ought to be charged for something like a tomato or a can of beans. The monetary value of a can of beans just is what you can expect to get for it on the open market. (Compare "meaning is use.") And much the same goes for grades, I think. There just is no such thing as a true C that, because of grade inflation, would generally be given a B. If it's the kind of thing that would generally get a B, then it is a B. It is neither more honest nor helpfully trust-inspiring to give Cs to work that others would grade as B. The most helpful thing is if everyone applies the same standards. Or so I think.

I'm not bothered at all by letters that are liberal with words of praise. I expect that. If there is no specificity to go with it then it's pretty meaningless anyway. I can't quote examples, but a letter that just said, "This candidate is great. Really, really great," would do the candidate no good. One that gives examples of the candidate's greatness, though, or specifies some kind of ranking (e.g. the best graduate student I have worked with in the last x years at y university) might well help. If the writer is just lying then that's obviously bad, but otherwise this all seems well and good.

What I think is bad is the refusal to write a letter of recommendation (as opposed to one of reference). Why bring up bad points if they are not relevant? Sometimes there is a reason, of course. Perhaps the candidate has something odd about their CV that needs to be explained. But otherwise I think letters should contain nothing but praise. Then the least praised candidates will (on the whole) be the weakest. In my opinion, given that so many letters are purely letters of why the candidate is recommended (rather than what the candidate is like, good and bad), letter-writers ought to leave out irrelevant concerns (e.g. "the candidate's disability, which is otherwise not mentioned at all in the application, is barely noticeable and does affect her performance at all"), out-of-date concerns ("when I first saw her teach she did a terrible job, but she's much better now"), and outright criticism ("one thing he does badly is z"). Admittedly this last category is one I have mixed feelings about, but so few letters mention such things that I think it's unfair to the candidate to include them.     


  1. What I think is bad is the refusal to write a letter of recommendation (as opposed to one of reference). Why bring up bad points if they are not relevant?

    I imagine this happens because people agree to write a letter, even though they don't have praise to give, but don't want (or are afraid, etc.) to say "no" to the person who asks for the letter.

    Have you ever refused to write a letter for someone who asked? I'm sure that's an icky situation. (I've never had to refuse, but I can imagine that it will happen sooner or later.) But I'd like to believe that I'd rather say "no" rather than put myself in a position to write a letter that I don't really stand behind.

    Of course, I've had to write letters for students who I thought were good and who would do well in their future endeavors, even if I didn't think they were great. But I don't see the need to say things like that. Of course, I've seen instructions for online recommendations (for grad schools and also for teacher ed programs) that explicitly ask for the referee to make such distinctions.

    On the other hand, I wonder whether the fact that a person asks you to write a letter, when this person should realize that you would not give them a good recommendation, might be a good reason to write a "reference" letter? Of course, maybe this goes back to the first point: maybe I should have the courage to ask such a person why they think they would get a "good" letter of reference from me...

  2. That could be it. Thoughtlessness is another possibility too. If people who write relatively bad, i.e. negative, letters do so because they don't really think the person is that great, and these are the best people the person could find to write on their behalf, then maybe it isn't a mistake, or unfair, to count these letters against an applicant. But I don't think it's clear enough what's going on to be sure about any conclusions. Personally I think letter-writers should go by the rule: first do no harm. And I wish someone would read over each file and pull anything potentially harmful. But maybe that's not realistic.

    I did say no to a request for a reference once, but I didn't have to do it face-to-face, so it wasn't too bad. This was a former student who wanted to apply to graduate school. I just reminded him of the grades he got in my courses (two Cs, I think) and suggested that he ought to ask someone else for this reason alone. He saw my point.