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abolish letters of recommendation?

Fabio

Over at the evil twin blog, Organizations and Markets, there’s a debate about the usefulness of letters of recommendation (here and here). Critics usually say the following:

  • Inflation – you don’t want your student to look bad so every student is “the best in 30 years.”
  • Fear of reprisal – If you say something bad, you may be legally liable, or your student will hate you.
  • Misinterpretation – You try to say something serious, but it gets twisted. Example: “hard working” is often interpreted as “not imaginative.” How hard working became a bad character trait is beyond me, but people do read letters that way.
  • Cynicism and office politics – You say nice things just to get rid of people you don’t like.
  • Favoritism – you like your students for personal reasons, not accomplishment.
  • Low added value- what do they tell you that past performance/test scores doesn’t tell you? Aren’t interviews informative enough, especially those long multi-day interviews in academia?

The critics are right – letters are meaningless for these reasons. In fact, private firms usually don’t even bother and will ask for references who get called, because phone conversations are a bit more candid than letters.

But I will stand by them when it comes to faculty hiring, especially junior faculty. Why? Faculty hiring is about finding people who are exceptional and some people may work in unorthodox ways. A person may do work that is very interesting and important, but doesn’t come with the standard seal of approval (the “right” journal or the “right” adviser). Unless you relegate promotion and hiring to journal and book editors, you probably value letters for exactly this reason. In that case, a letter may help explain the importance of work to non-specialists. I still believe that most letters are not helpful. However, for that special 1% that you’re searching for, a rare non-puffed & thoughtful letter can be exactly what you need.

Bonus round: Read Deirdre McCloskey’s take on letters of recommendation. She’s totally against them: The Insanity of Letters of Recommendation. Also, an essay on intentional misreadings of letters. Hat tip to Dick Langlois.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 29, 2007 at 1:39 am

Posted in academia, fabio

15 Responses

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  1. Hard-working. Wasn’t there a something similar to this regarding race and the NBA? I recall complaints that white players would be referred to as hard-working (or some equivalent), the allegedly racist implication being that the white guys had had to work hard to get where they were while black players had the advantage of natural ability. (Funny, but I don’t recall anything like this in music — “the dedicated and hard-working Stan Getz.”)

    As for letters, in faculty searches I look for a high ratio of information to evaluation. The ones that are useful are those that tell me what someone has done. I try to mentally edit out all the evaluative adjectives. And when I have to write letters myself, I try to follow the same principle.

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    Jay Livingston

    November 29, 2007 at 12:31 pm

  2. I hate playing Levi-Strauss, but of course “hard working” is a terrible way to refer to a student. But not as a free-standing adjective. It is precisely (as noted by Jay) because it immediately activates its binary oppossite: “a natural.” It is certainly a blind spot of academia in general and sociology in particular (because it most conflicts with the stated ideologies of the discipline), that “effortless creativity” is the ideal. So what you really say when you say somebody is hard working is that “they are not a natural. Now between you and everybody else we know that that is truly the highest compliment: “she just gets sociology; she’s a natural!”

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    Omar

    November 29, 2007 at 12:58 pm

  3. Omar, are you (and the rest of the profession) on crack?? We all know that being a productive scholar is about combining your talent with a willingness to work. We all know people in grad school who were smart, but simply did not have the ability to simply put their butt in a chair and refine their work till it was publishable. So why on earth is saying that a person works hard excludes talent? Saying they work hard is a signal that will get actually be published and isn’t what it’s all about?

    And to Jay: If someone said that Larry Bird has no natural talent but scores a zillion points because he works hard, I’d hire the guy in a minute!!

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    fabiorojas

    November 29, 2007 at 4:40 pm

  4. James Brown was a natural, but also the hardest working man in show business.

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    Kieran

    November 29, 2007 at 6:04 pm

  5. Dear Professor Healey,

    I am writing to recommend James Brown. He is the hardest working student I have ever taught at Soul University. In over thirty years of teaching, I have never had such a intensely dedicated student, nor one as well dressed. Just ask Jerome.

    But don’t think that’s a euphemism and James has no talent. James is clearly the funkiest student I have ever taught. The guy is a natural. From his “shimmy shimmy” to his naturally excellent hair, the man oozes grit, spirit, and swing. James is a walking incarnation of all 100% organic groove.

    Normally, I’d say that you should call me if you need anymore information about James or his application, but I won’t be in my office to answer the phone. Instead, I’ll be on tour with the J.B.’s I’ll be on the bus, heading to Chicago, and working hard on my guitar licks with the Minister of the New Super Heavy Funk.

    Sincerely,
    Fabio

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    Fabio Rojas

    November 29, 2007 at 6:32 pm

  6. Dear Professor Rojas,

    thank you for your letter of recommendation. Please be assured that the search committee will take it into account as we make our decision, weighing its content in proportion to its attention to detail.

    Sincerely,

    Kieran Healy [sic]

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    Kieran

    November 30, 2007 at 12:56 am

  7. Well, there is “what we all know” and then there’s the implicit criteria according to which choices are made (especially at elite institutions). Everybody knows that work is important. We all “work hard” (so that’s the first knock on the work hard thing it’s a platitude). Yet precisely because of that, if you mention that a person “is a hard worker” in a letter, that will immediately be interpreted, not as stating the obvious (how could this person have such an impressive CV if they didn’t work hard?), but as this person really needs to work hard. Most departments, especially the supra elite, don’t want people who peaked in their 6th year of grad school, and much less people who peaked due to perspiration. What they want to hear is: imagine what this person could do if they really were in an environment in which they could go nuts and really work hard. This has to imply that they haven’t stretched themselves to their capacities, and indeed implies that they have been kind of dogging it a bit (this is fairly obvious in sports talent evaluation, and I think it applies in academia). So the trick in is precisely to be able to convey that, yes this person has done all of this stuff without having had to work that hard, (of course you want to euphemize this as much as possible). I bet that that would play much better in most elite places than “hard worker” ever would any day of the week.

    My surprise in this exchange is that you are pretending like you don’t know this (having graduated from Chicago [!!!]) so my guess is that you are just faking it and playing devil’s advocate for the sake of a good argument (or maybe that’s what Bourdieu meant by the unconscious of an institution).

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    Omar

    November 30, 2007 at 2:04 pm

  8. Omar, I know that people believe what you wrote, but I don’t, and I’m not playing devil’s advocate. When I write a letter, I have a simple model of success in my mind. I need to communicate to people that Student X has what it takes:

    success= skills + talent + persistence/hard work.

    Great scholars usually have all three, and a little luck. At the junior level, it’s can be very hard to see who has these three traits. Even if the person has the right publications, maybe that is due to the adviser, or maybe they worked very little on a paper and were lucky to get it in, which is not the normal way to publish papers.

    What “hard work” tells me is that the person can survive in the long haul and will not need instant gratification. This is important when papers and books get rejected and you need to do a lot of extra work. An ethic of work and organization skills means that the person can complete ambitious projects and deal with bumps on the road. And that is a scarce commodity – not a lot of people have it, especially among students.

    Finally, here is what I learned at Chicago about graduate education. A lot of people have raw brains, but few have the focus and concentration needed to actually convert brains into results. Personally, I consider myself to be rather average among Chicago graduate students. However, I have been to get more stuff done because I have a very focused work schedule and I don’t quit, even when I’m feeling horrible. I am also willing to do extra effort that other people might balk at. Talent is a necessary but sufficient condition.

    PS. If you want to see the perversity of the “culture of raw talent,” look at nearly any elite academic program. You will always see a few scholars who had one or two brilliant pieces as grad students or junior profs, but burned out since then. Why? Their career was based on solving problems with raw talent and relatively little hard work. You’ll notice that the successful folks are those who combined the work ethic with talent and understood that some problems are not amenable to raw talent, and require a huge amount of additional effort. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to long and productive careers.

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    Fabio Rojas

    November 30, 2007 at 6:21 pm

  9. Fabio is correct: Omar is on crack.

    All departments I know of are interested in both creativity and productivity. Since creativity is in the eye of the beholder, the only thing that is useful about letters is in fact whether they reveal someone to be a hard worker and committed scholar. This helps separate out the lazy but lucky with a couple of splashy publications (but who will almost certainly prove to be flash-in-the-pan types) from those who will have successful careers.

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    Steve Morgan

    November 30, 2007 at 8:25 pm

  10. Fabio– From our discussions, I thought you told undergrads taking your business & society course:

    success = work + (skill + talent) + mentorship

    in more or less that order of importance.

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    elizp

    December 1, 2007 at 3:08 am

  11. […] of recommendation: the need for Fabio at Orgtheory, after linking to several online resources which argue against the practice, and …: But I will stand by them when it comes to faculty hiring, especially junior faculty. Why? Faculty […]

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  12. […] abolish letters of recommendation? […]

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  13. […] bunch of letters of recommendation this semester. ¬†Engaging in this exercise brought back to mind an amusing debate that I had with Fabio in what seems like a thousand years ago. In this exchange Fabio defended—what I still think to be the hopelessly […]

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  14. […] leave a comment » There’s a pretty wide spread feeling that letters of recommendation are very inefficient. Scatter has a very good discussion here, check out olderwoman’s comment. Leiter Report, a professional philosophy blog, has a very nice discussion of how people may not know the “code” when writing the letters, and thus unintentionally damage their students. On this blog, I’ve proposed eliminating letters of recommendation in many cases. […]

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  15. […] my students or not. Upon obtaining my job I was not given the code, so I wouldn’t mind abolishing them. As long as they are around (and students can help me out a bit), though, I guess I will need to […]

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