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.

NPR’s review, with an excerpt of a LOR for a teaching position:

…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.”

Insider Higher Ed’s review, with quotes from a LOR for a tenure-track position:

“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.”

Slate’s review, with a memo regarding a scale developed to quantify the emotional impact of departmental meetings:

…“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.

Written by katherinechen

November 11, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Posted in academia, books

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6 Responses

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  1. I’ve read DCM and recommend it.



    November 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm

  2. On olderwoman’s recommendation, I’\ve ordered the book! Wish I had the courage to write such scathing letters…


    Howard Aldrich

    November 11, 2014 at 2:59 pm

  3. olderwoman, I started to read it, but all of the characters seemed to have the same voice. Does that change later in the book?


    Chris M

    November 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm

  4. Just to be clear, it is a novel written as letters of reference. I laughed out loud, honestly. At the same time, as it unfolds it gets both sadder and broader. Still, I did enjoy it.



    November 11, 2014 at 3:30 pm

  5. Chris M: Uh, the entire book is in exactly one voice. The format of the novel is entirely written in letters of reference written by the same person. It is an amusing conceit that mostly worked for me although, as I said, it got kind of broad at times. Is your comment a joke? Sorry if I’m too obtuse.



    November 11, 2014 at 5:52 pm

  6. Doh. When I heard that it was an epistolary novel, I assumed it was like all the other epistolary novels I’ve read. So I figured that the letters were by different people. Had I read more than five pages I might have eventually noticed that they were all by the same person. Sorry for my obtuseness.


    Chris M

    November 11, 2014 at 6:41 pm

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