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Are Letters of Recommendation Necessary?

UVenus writers weigh in on the relevance of recommendation letters. 

November 28, 2017
 
 

Last month, a professor at Colorado University Boulder’s Center for Values and Public Policy argued that “the practice of soliciting letters of recommendation for academic positions is both foolish and immoral.” The long-standing academic practice was deemed immoral on several grounds, most notably the fact that it relies upon connections to “big name” scholars and encourages inflated accounts of the beneficiary’s scholarship and accomplishments, discouraging applicants who haven’t had the opportunity (read: privilege) to work with scholars in top ten schools and/or have a network of colleagues who are extremely honest and/or therefore unwilling to inflate another’s accomplishments.

Is the author correct? Should we prohibit the practice, or limit it at the very least? Or are letters of recommendation a necessary evil? What would your life look like without letters of recommendation, either as the author of said letters or the beneficiary?

Bonnie Stewart, University of Prince Edward Island

I live both sides of this equation, to an extent. I’ve taught in higher ed over many years, and having also recently completed a Ph.D, I’ve thrown my hat into a few academic competitions. Thus I write letters - though more often for collegial awards or Ph.D admittance - and I ask for them. And while I dislike the latter more than the former, I’m not sure much of value is coming out of most of it.

North American academia’s reliance on recommendation letters not only represents a false reflection of contemporary higher ed, it reinforces unethical labour and power structures within the field. Letters are only meaningful if they’re read. The scale of the academic market today serves to make reading highly unlikely, if not impossible in most contexts.  As academic positions become increasingly rare, asking for letters of recommendation for all 200 - or 500! - applicants to a single position creates an extraordinary waste of labour: unless committees take on the gargantuan job of vetting every single letter attached to every single application, most of those letters will never see the light of day.  The list of referees will simply be scanned for name recognition, devaluing the actual effort of writing while escalating disciplinary prestige economies.

Letters not only favour those with prestigious connections, but those who don’t mind bothering people, regularly. I was fortunate to build a profile and network that includes influential scholars in my field, but I still have a relatively limited pool of letter writers unless I start asking people who truthfully can’t speak to my work. As a junior colleague who is sensitive to the emotional and material labour involved in letter writing, and as someone who tries to be considerate people’s time and labour even when status differentials aren’t involved (and here they absolutely are), asking for letters is a major barrier to me even bothering to apply for a position. If the last time I asked, I didn’t even get an interview, going back to the well feels like a potential waste of both the letter writer’s time and my own.

Beyond that, do we want an academia keeps privileging the kind of people who have no compunction repeatedly asking for others’ free labour for their own benefit? Academia is a reputational economy, but its increasing precarity as a professional field means it is no longer an economy where the rewards for free service labour outweigh the costs. In our publishing systems, our referral systems, and our tenure and promotion systems, we need to begin accounting for the tacit labour these systems rely on, and considering whether and how they are distributed equitably and rewarded fairly.

According to one of my own generous letter writers, British job competitions tend to ask for letters only from short-listed candidates. I would love to see this become the standard in more North American fields as well: name-dropping will still occur in CVs and cover letters, if committees are interested in candidates telegraphing their connections. But judging candidates based on their actual applications and saving them the time and stress of requesting, co-ordinating and checking on senior colleagues’ letters until they are actually short-listed would do NOTHING except make the process more humane for scholars applying, referring, and evaluating applications.

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten (Lund University, Sweden)

I agree with everything that Bonnie said above and just wanted to add a European perspective to the recommendation letter debate. There are certainly differences across the different national academic traditions in Europe, but as a rule, recommendation letters are seldom required. Certainly they are not common for admissions to Master's level programs, where transcripts of grades, certificates from internships and summer schools and a CV are seen as sufficient. Even for PhD programs, recommendations are not an essential element in the application. The reason behind it is that potential job candidates must stand on their own merits and that employers should not rely on a subjective evaluation coming from someone else. By this logic, recommendation letters are not necessary.

In the case of academic job applications, as Bonnie was saying, in Europe (not just the UK) recommendations are invited only for the shortlisted candidates, who are asked to provide the names of a couple of referees. These do not necessarily need to supply written recommendations but can be interviewed by the recruiting university via telephone or Skype. The referees provide an assessment of the candidate’s performance and are a form of “certification” for the claims the candidate made in their application. Moreover, they give insight into how it is to collaborate with the candidate in real life. The more trustworthy (and well-known) the referees, the better the network of the job applicant, so certainly in this respect recommendations (in letter or in interview form) are necessary.

Janni Aragon, University of Victoria, BC, Canada

The letters of recommendation are important to making the long list for hiring purposes. When I’ve sat on hiring committees, the letters are perused and at times people will take painful notes from the letters and refer to these notes at the department meetings. Yes, our sub-fields can feel small in these moments when we know the letter writers; however, overall the letters are usually a good indicator of the candidates’ record, research promise, teaching ability, and overall sense of how they will fit in to the department.

I typically would review the cover letter, teaching dossier, and the letters first, then I would review the rest of the package. I will end with this point, the factions in a department that his hiring are complicated and in some instances the politics of the department culture truly affects the hiring process and the letters always seemed to counter this.

 
Readers, what do you think? Are recommendation letters still relevant?

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