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Ho-Ho-Ho, It's Letter of Recommendation Season
It's an evergreen obligation that never seems to end--but maybe it should
It’s that time of year again: that’s right, today’s essay is about letters of recommendation and calls attention to an ongoing series at Legal History Blog. On Wednesday, I will comment on how letters of recommendation are only one way that we make application processes difficult for everyone—and even raise barriers to discovering talent in the process. This post is relevant within and beyond academic circles and is also free to all, so please:
One of the essential tasks of academic life is assessing students. We evaluate them constantly: exams, grades, comments, individual conferences, self-assessments, and conversations about students with each other.
Most consequentially, perhaps, letters of recommendation (LORs) propel our students on to the Next Big Thing. It seems that no application for anything is complete without them. But, of course, some applications are more of a life turning point than others. I would suggest that study abroad programs are very low stakes, even though they can be revelatory moments for the young. But which school a student will continue to, whether a college, graduate, or professional program, is really important. And all letters are essential to the student when they are required to complete an application.
For graduate students, letters for job, post-doc, and grant applications are also, for a mentor, a responsibility that can continue well into the next several decades. For example, where I used to work, it was standard operating procedure to ask the Ph.D. thesis advisor for a letter at tenure time that assessed the candidate’s development since graduate school, a document that evaluated 7-15 years of development. And even I have asked a former dissertation advisor to write for fellowships when appropriate.
We grumble about these letters. At the same time, we know that it is one of the most important things we do as educators: put our reputations to work to help others. Yet, we rarely ask why—beyond the fact that students need them—LORs are necessary or whether they serve a useful function.
At Legal History Blog, UC-Berkeley’s Ronit Stahl, who teaches in a history department, and UW-Madison’s Mitra Sharafi, who teaches at a law school, decided to do just that. Usefully, they point out that the only reason students need these letters is that we, the faculty, require them. So the question is: why?
In the first part of three posts in what will be a five-part series, Stahl and Sharafti explain that they:
wanted to hear more from other scholars in law and history. Were they struggling with the LOR system as much as we were? How and why has the LOR system become more unwieldy over time? Most importantly, what can be done to make the system more manageable and worthwhile for everyone involved? (One notable difference between law and history is that law school admissions are run through a centralized system, requiring faculty to upload a single letter. Another is that unlike tenure-track history jobs, most tenure-track law jobs require recommendations by phone call, not by letter.)
Trust busy lawyers to find a more efficient way to recommend folks, right?
In any case, Stahl and Sharafi did a little research among their peers and quickly identified two prominent issues that should frame the discussion. One is that students often feel guilty for asking faculty to write these critical documents, and we should all remember to reassure our students that we know, not just that they didn't create the system, but that it creates burdens on them too. Second, the LOR system has changed over time, if slightly, to recognize that there are often 40-50 times as many applicants for any one job or grad school opening; and multiple times more for college, fellowships, and other desirable opportunities. Many academic departments, for example, now only ask for letters for finalists.
But do even finalists need letters? Are LORs useful? What do we want from then? What do they reveal? And are they driving inequality at a moment when most programs claim to want more diverse graduate and professional cohorts, more diverse faculty, and to lower barriers to access by economically and socially disenfranchised people?
Writing and submitting letters of recommendation has become a significant aspect of a faculty workload, and some faculty are spending a day a month writing them. Because faculty teaching is also distributed unevenly, the LOR system “creates extra work for certain faculty -- many of whom are women, people of color, or untenured faculty -- who students view as accessible.”
When decision-makers cull applications before asking for LORs, the turnaround time for letters shrinks. Students who seem to be asking at the last minute may be using all the lead time they have been permitted.
New LOR submission technologies have made things worse. Remember all of these paper recommendations, where students had to give you an envelope with a stamp? Now, all online submission systems are different, and each requires faculty to create accounts and share data as a prerequisite to completing an obligation to a student. These systems also infer a letter tailored to each recipient rather than a single letter shared across platforms.
The recommendation season used to occupy a few weeks in the fall: that is no longer true, and writing LORs now extends throughout the year.
Faculty are overwhelmed by the LOR system and doubt its utility. When reading LORs, we often find that these documents are not particularly helpful in assessing the student’s promise. There are particularly vivid comments about this in part 3 that suggest the system has become unmanageable.
Sound familiar? Tune in on Wednesday, when I will respond to the points that have already been raised in this excellent series and suggest alternatives to the LOR. Leave comments below for issues that particularly interest you.
Every once in a while, Bari Weiss’s Common Sense really delivers. Those of us who subscribe know that Weiss rarely writes her Substack anymore and instead platforms other people. Today it’s Amanda Knox, famously accused of killing a friend while studying abroad in Italy and then acquitted. Her topic? It’s alleged Theranos scammer Elizabeth Holmes and Jeffrey Epstein gal pal Ghislaine Maxwell are currently on trial. Knox raises the question of women being on trial for the crimes of men: unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough in teasing out our intense cultural fascination with crime. But the essay is like a traffic accident—you cannot not look. (December 13, 2021)
Those of us who took University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Substack were delighted to see her elevation to the New York Times’s opinion page. This week she has posted a critical essay about what she calls “scam culture,” an internet-driven acceleration of disinformation and anti-institutional conversation across every sphere of life. “A scam is a strategy or arrangement intentionally designed to benefit a few participants by obscuring the risk or cost for other participants,” she writes. Scamming, she writes, “has not only lost its stigma but is also valorized,” making myriad daily interactions inherently hostile. (December 10, 2021)
Oriana Gonzalez, Ashley Gold, and Jacque Schrag of Axios assess a potential post-Roe landscape in which telemedicine will not save us—us being pregnant people who live in states already hostile to abortion. These new laws are worth following since they are not only relevant to abortion but also to any medical treatment that is controversial on the right. “Almost half of U.S. states have banned, or tightly restricted abortion pills — two medicines named Mifepristone and Misoprostol — and more could soon follow suit,” Gonzalez, Gold, and Schrag report, citing outright bans in Texas and Indiana. Prediction? The next abortion lawsuit will be a test of the Interstate Commerce clause. (December 1, 2021)