feeding the bureaucratic machine: letters of rec and other documents
At orgtheory, we’ve repeatedly discussed whether letters of recommendation (LOR) are useful or not. For some committees and tasks, LOR can help decision-making a lot – for example, undergraduate admissions, graduate school admissions, and tenure for professors. But for other committees and matters, LOR serve a per forma function and are less likely to impart information useful for decision-making. Worse, LOR can increase workloads for letter-writers, especially when they are at institutions that do not offer support for this kind of bureaucratic task.*
Nonetheless, committed letter-writers dutifully carry out their responsibilities, especially since LOR can be consequential.** As Fabio, olderwoman, David Meyer, and others have pointed out, writing effective LOR is an art, with carefully coded language that require fluency on the parts of both letter-writers and letter-readers. Otherwise, what one letter-writer might view as effusive could be interpreted as a lukewarm endorsement by readers; hyperbolic letters with hierarchical rankings ( i.e., “best student ever”) might be considered suspect. But what if LOR and related documents were brutally honest about their contexts, rather than merely following convention?
A recently published novel Dear Committee Members takes aim at these bureaucratic documents and their institutions’ crumbling support. Julie Schumacher‘s novel unfolds as a series of documents composed by a professor for various audiences. Check out the following reviews for tidbits.
…Take, for instance, this gem of a recommendation Fitger writes on behalf of a young colleague applying for a teaching position in “Comp/Rhetoric” at another college: “Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move. … You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.”
“Good luck to her and to all of us… and congratulations on the tenure-track line. We aren’t hiring in the liberal arts at Payne…. We who are senior and tenured are seated in the first car of a roller coaster with a broken track, and we’re scribbling and grading our way to the death fall at the top.”
…“I’ve been keeping a log,” Fitger writes to his department’s interim chair (an outside professor from sociology), “of department meetings ranked according to the level of trauma, with a 1 indicating mild contentiousness, a 3 signifying uncontrolled shouting, and a 5 leading to at least one nervous breakdown and/or immediate referral to the crisis center run by the Office of Mental Health.”
For more, author Julie Schumacher shares her take on LOR here.
*At elite and well-resourced/organized universities, a well-oiled bureaucratic machinery – in the case of Harvard College, the House system – helps grinds out LOR for students applying to graduate schools. Contrast this with state schools, where letter-writers are on their own.
**As those of us who have served on committees know, missing letters can torpedo a promising applicant’s chance at being awarded grants and fellowship applications, etc.