Sunday, September 8, 2013

And the Little Fleas shall have Lesser Fleas: Being a modest proposal for the evaluation of letters of recommendation.

Fellow Miserians, I believe I have made a breakthrough in the conundrum of reference letters.  On the one hand, it is the norm that one only writes letters for those applicants one can recomment.  And this is a noble sentiment - if you can't write something nice, you shouldnt write anything at all.  On the other hand, (and maybe it's just my STEM background showing) I've always held that a theory which explains everything doesn't really explain anything at all.  So by extension, if reference letters recommend everyone, then they recommend nobody. 

And so it is that whenever I have to read and evaluate applications (to grad school, for scholarships, jobs, whatever), I invariably find that the reference letters have slightly less practical utility than my own (male) nipples.  They are the vestigial nubs of something that might have served a real function in a very different set of circumstances (and usually there's two, but sometimes you get a third).

As I sat pondering this, in the outgoing water of my bath, it suddenly hit me - get reference letters for the reference letters!  It's so simple.  Each person who supplies a letter of reference shall submit two (occasionally three) letters from colleagues familiar with their reference letter writing, which can be used to evaluate the letter of reference.

I am sure the administration will enthusiastically support my initiative.  It costs no money, builds on existing administrative infrastructure, leaves a documented paper trail and has the patina of objectivity.  The evaluation of our reference letters could even be metricized for use in promotion and tenure decisions.  What's for an admin not to love?

I offer here are a few humble examples to illustrate:
Professor Plotz has a real eye for talent.  I have had the good fortune to read dozens of his recommendations and each student is better than the one before.  I can tell, because he describes each student as 'literally the best student I have ever taught.'  Plotz's remarkable ability to recruit ever better and better students into his lab is a true asset to our department.

Dr. Dunkleplunk is an absolute saint.  He has a kind word for all, and sees the good in everyone.  His commitment to the students' 'self of steam' is exemplary.  All of his students pass with flying colours.  I am certain that without his tireless efforts, many of our students would have tragically stopped believing in the power of their dreams long ago.

Sam Straydhup is a brilliant scholar and an inspiring teacher.  Were I to voice any criticism it is that Sam is a perfectionist, who tends to damn students with faint praise.  Stingy with grades, Sam tends to withold A+ from students simply because their work 'wasn't perfect'.  Fortunately, Sam has been assigned to take a module offered by our campus professional re-education office, and I am confident that she can improve her commitment to student success.

.... and so ad infinitum.


  1. I tend to take the advice of a colleague of mine, to always be honest, and always to include some area in which the applicant has problems.

    Rec letters in which everybody always walks *above* the water are as useful as GPAs from high schools in which 20% of the graduating class are valedictorians.

  2. As Jules says in Pulp Fiction, allow me to retort. I am this year in the PTR committee at my school (Urban Commuting College in the Midwest), and one candidate was denied tenure on the basis, mainly, of the letters describing his scholarship. Three letters, two of them tenuous and didn't say at any point that they supported the promotion; the other letter added some scathing opinions on the same scholarship. Teaching and service were good, though.

    1. Woof. Do you know enough about his field to assess it? Is his work controversial in some way, not enough of it, or what?

      Add this to the list of things to worry about in academia : (

    2. One peer-reviewed article in 8 years of extended TT..., four-five "in preparation" arts, and teaching presentations, many, many teaching presentations

  3. I was backstabbed as an astronomy undergraduate by a professor who treated me very unfairly and two-facedly. So, for many years I followed the supposedly standard procedure of telling a student whenever I couldn't write a good letter of recommendation, and then writing a bad or generic one ("Joe Blow is a nice guy, got an A in my class," which never helps) in the rare cases in which the student is dumb enough to want one anyway.

    Then I got to mentor a grad student who didn't and couldn't understand significant figures (which are normally taught to science majors in the first class of introductory chemistry, on the very first day of college), turned in written reports that were clearly the least he thought he could get by with and read like sloppy papers by freshpersons, couldn't program a computer in any language and dropped the course I told him to take to remedy this, and who with no warning took 5 weeks' summer vacation as we were observing a prime scientific opportunity and therefore dumping all the work on me, but then this was perhaps just as well since he left the observatory dome open on the last morning of his run.

    I was angry that his letters of recommendation were all so good. Sorry, Stella, but if someone who richly deserves a boot in the groin asks me for a hug, it's difficult for me to withhold the boot. This is particularly so when the hug will make a mess of the person's life anyway, by producing an unemployable Ph.D. in a glutted market. It's like leading a lamb to the slaughter (or a cute duck to the plumb sauce): I won’t do it.

    1. @R&G: As far as reference letters for the reference letters go, I hope you mean that the process stops at the second iteration, much like "Rinse, lather, and repeat" is supposed to mean. If not, it will take only 20 iterations before every man-jack and woman-jill in the academic community will be writing a letter every time anyone wants one, which should happen on average over 7000 times per day (more often during November and December, of course).

    2. Frod--

      Your problem is that obviously those that recommended your student lied, or the student suddenly had a nervous breakdown. If this guy was given expansive, detailed, and stellar recs, something is going on.

      If every prof said "no" to a person they were tentative about, these people would not get recs and would not end up in grad school.

      It's not like this sort of shit doesn't continue at the faculty/administrative level. We're stuck with a colleague now whose former colleagues were obviously eager to get rid of, because they praised him to the skies. The sun rose and set on him. We hired him, and it's like we hired this guy's evil twin. Everything, everything that his recommendations cited (great teacher, wonderful human being, much loved) was wrong. He's a pompous asshole roundly disliked by all. I saw the situation in reverse when we were eager to get rid of our VPAA. "He's wonderful! Wow! What a guy!" He's someone else's problem, now.

      My guess these days, however, with recs, is that profs are so fucking lazy they ask the student/job candidate to write it, and then just sign it.

      Honestly, if I were in a position where health/lives were at stake (say I taught nursing), I could see giving a bad rec. But otherwise, "recommendation" means "recommendation." Just say no if you can't recommend. If everyone does, no recs, no grad school, no job.

    3. But if you are dependent on him to continue to run the general-ed labs smoothly, and if a meddling provost gave him an award he didn't deserve because someone in his office thought his GPA was a full point higher than it was (honestly, how they can make the mistake in the FIRST digit from a 2 to a 3), it's not so easy. I told my gradflake to his face and in writing that if I wrote that he walked on water, he'd be unlikely to get into a Ph.D. program with a GRE score in the teens. So, when the time came to write the letter, I wrote one that was completely honest.

      And do you know what happened? He got into a 4th-tier Ph.D. program anyway! So if he gets a job with that degree, it'll be the first ever.

  4. A colleague of mine, in response to the current atmosphere of needing to "be careful" about writing negative things in reference letters (sheesh, what has the world come to?), offers the following points in a reference letter for students he doesn't think are any good:
    - the student usually arrived on time in the morning
    - the student had a pretty good record of coming to the lab every day
    - the student carried out proper lab safety when wearing a lab coat and not wearing open-toed shoes

    He figured that any competent supervisor thinking about taking on the student would be able to read between the lines and get the gist of the reference letter, considering that the highest praise being offered was about showing up on time.