This is the second in a five-part series on the Letter of Recommendation (LOR) system, describing feedback received in spring 2021 by Mitra Sharafi and Ronit Stahl to an online poll and survey. Part 1 is here.
How has the Letter of Recommendation (LOR) system changed in recent years? As historians, we recognize that processes are not static. Attention to the ways in which the LOR system has changed may provide useful insights into both benefits and drawbacks.
Some respondents to our survey underscored that the mechanism of letter submission has altered how the LOR system--and expectations around it--operate.
As a writer, there are too many different systems and they each require separate accounts and log-ins and agreeing to terms and conditions pages that I feel pressured to agree to even when I don't like the terms.
It has become increasingly unwieldy as institutions move to online submissions. There is also an increasing expectation of tailored letters. When I was a graduate student looking for a job, my recommenders submitted one letter to a dossier service, run by the graduate school, which then sent out the letters as I requested them in a packet with a university seal. That morphed into the online dossier services, where I submitted one letter and the students used the service to send out the letters. Now institutions have their own online systems that no longer accept letters from online services, so I have to submit individual letters for each job--and that often means as many as 20 submissions with different portals, all with different deadlines. The online submission system has the perverse effect of making it seem "easier" to obtain letters. So I now write letters for a range of things that did not require them in the past: study abroad for undergrads, other undergrad programs, small research grants for undergrads and grad students, etc.
The manageability question has also changed over the course of my years of teaching. When I first began teaching in the mid-1990s there was a rhythm to the job market. Letter writing was concentrated in the late summer and early fall. That hasn't been true now for a number of years. The students I work with are applying for positions basically year round with each position or fellowship asking them to jump through a different set of hoops, so that they're not only writing new cover letters, but a whole variety of other required statements, each tailored to the given position/"fellowship." I worry greatly about this burden on them. It is what concerns me most. This also has meant that there is no longer a cycle or rhythm to letter writing; it is ongoing and unending… It is striking to me how fundamentally LORs have changed [over the last century]. It is clear that the burden of letter writing has dramatically increased. I think about my letters which range from 2 to 3 (or sometimes 4, although a letter should never be that long) pages and compare them to letters from the 1920s or 1940s, which were brief: a few sentences or a paragraph, with often multiple potential candidates referred to in the same letter. Equally brief were the statements that faculty submitted to university placement files for students. And briefer still was the phone call, where a man was taken simply on the recommendation of his advisor. This was all before there was a "job market." It was a closed, discriminatory system. Many of us who spend countless hours today writing letters for students were completely closed out of or marginalized in that system.
Because of the rise of individual (non-centralized) online submission systems, one respondent noted a greater expectation that letters will be tailored to each opportunity:
The generic letter no longer seems enough. Some job-search chairs have asked me to email letters directly or even send them as a hard copy--the implication being that they don't want the standard letter, but something tailored for them. Students also increasingly ask me to tailor each letter. I would do that as a matter of course, in the past, if the student fits into two related, but distinct fields, say women's history and legal history. But there is now the presumption from the people running searches that the candidates and I are not taking them seriously with a standard letter. There is no value attached to the content: that it takes me hours to summarize and evaluate the work for a letter. Why would it be good to change that for each job? The work is the work; I can't change it or make it more what they're looking for with my letter.
Faculty who have been dedicated letter writers for decades thus identify three major changes, some of which were intended to create a more equitable system but all of which increase the workload and burden of LORs: (1) the administrative effort required to submit LORs through multiple, distinct portals; (2) the writing time devoted to tailoring letters to particular programmatic and institutional needs; and (3) the unrelenting nature of LORs, demanded all year long, sometimes with very little notice.
In our next installment, we share answers to the two central questions of the survey:
Does the LOR system feel manageable to you?
What are the biggest obstacles or challenges built into the LOR system (at a structural level)?