Friday, December 10, 2021

The LOR system (part 3): Unmanageable?

This is the third in a five-part series on the Letter of Recommendation (LOR) system, describing feedback received in spring 2021 by Ronit Stahl and Mitra Sharafi to an online poll and survey. Here are parts 1 and 2.

At the heart of our survey were two questions:

1. Does the LOR system feel manageable to you? 

2. What are the biggest obstacles or challenges built into the LOR system (at a structural level)? 

We share a sample of answers to these questions together. Much of this feedback was critical of the LOR system and, especially the increasingly labor-intensive and administratively unmanageable elements of a system that do not live up to the promise of reducing, in the words of one respondent, “the inherent problems of elitism, bias, secrecy, and wasted time.”

For example, from the perspective of letter-writers:

  • It causes an immense amount of work for certain faculty and is not particularly useful in many situations

  • As someone writing more than 30-35 letters for undergraduates and graduates, each tailored to a particular application, the process feels cumbersome, labor-intensive and frustrating.

  • I read a lot of letters and I write a lot of letters because I am in a place with a relatively large set of graduate programs and lots of undergraduates. The biggest obstacle is that there is little oversight over LOR: so some folks are not writing letters that represent the applicants' work. I have been stunned to see what some of my colleagues write when I have the rare chance to read their letters. The second (structural) feature is that the more you read the better you get. I have noticed that for folks who have less practice, the letters are not that helpful to the candidate. Finally, a third structural problem: I know that some committees are "reading the letterhead" … which is really the worst sort of elitism.

  • I think the bigger question is about how little many referees know about how to write an effective letter. That has a distorting effect on hiring/appointment almost inevitably selects those whose referees know to write knowledgeably and in a way that targets the particular appointment.

  • [Q. Biggest obstacle:] That requesters feel obliged to waive their rights to the letter and that so much thoughtful analysis - and actionable pre-publication feedback - goes unheard. I tell students that their letter will be received better if they waive their rights, but I always tell them the general outline of what I plan to write, and I offer to share it if they wish to see it. Overall, I think more transparency would be better.

  • [Q. Biggest obstacle:] In my field, History, the outrageous and unthinking requirement of LOR for all entry level applications. Why are applicants required to submit complete applications? This wastes everyone's time and leads to rote, low-quality LOR, wasting their function. An application should require a cover letter and CV. Finalists should submit complete applications.

  • They offer little in the contexts that I read them. I am not through my tenure cycle yet, so I have yet to sit in on tenure meetings or vote on tenure and promotion cases, so perhaps it is useful there (but maybe not the 9-12 letters required at my institution). I find that I don't even read (or just skim for red flags) most letters of recommendation for grants, job applications, and PhD applications because they are all the same and typically glowing ("this person is the very best there is in the whole world. . . ").

  • [Q. Biggest obstacle:] Time. From an applicant perspective, it is suddenly a huge disadvantage to have an advisor with a lot of students for example. That has nothing to do with whether you are a good candidate or not. I know someone whose recommender won't write letters if they don't think s/he has a good chance at the job.

More after the jump.

Some respondents specifically and emphatically identified the problem of implicit and explicit bias as their major critique of the LOR system:

  • I also often find them gendered in [...] ways that make me uncomfortable. For instance, I find that letters for female job applicants often discuss their personality (she is "personable" or a "generous teacher") whereas men are described as "intellectually rigorous" or "creative thinkers." I also see lots of class bias, particularly in letters for PhD applicants ("his GRE scores may indicate a natural intelligence, but he did not go to a top school"). 

  • Did I mention yet that studies show even letter writers with the best intentions can use raced, gendered, classed, and other language that can disadvantage a candidate and amplify the unconscious biases of the application committee?

  • It privileges the old-boys network, the language encodes gendered, racial and social hierarchies, and privileges who knows whom more than merit of the applicant.

From the perspective of letter-requesters (often students or recent graduates) critical of the LOR system, the combination of administrative and emotional energy required to “manage up” not only deters applications but also amplifies structural, financial, and individual inequalities:

  • I have not applied to positions on as many occasions as I have because of the LOR requirement.

  • As a student I feel the LOR system is feudal and patronizing. If my research statement, teaching statement, CV and other documents are not deemed sufficient to assess my potential, what can LORs really do to change that? LORs simply exacerbates a power structure and makes it worse for students who face abuse, harassment and unjust treatment from their advisors. At an individual level, LORs strip students of all self-respect [by] having to constantly beg for letters…. Having to go back repeatedly to faculty who have been dismissive and have let you down in the past in order for you to be able to submit your applications, is demeaning. On top of it all, we blindly expect that our faculty is helping us with their letters and not undercutting our efforts by writing too short, unhelpful or generic letters.

  • As a student who is currently on the job market I have had to juggle between 5 letter writers for a total of above 40 applications... letter writers [generally] expect students to get the paid dossier services which I think is is a system-generated need and the student has to bear the brunt of producing it - money-wise and self-respect wise.

  • As a TT assistant professor, contacting mentors for letters feels difficult and sometimes humiliating, and I often wonder what is getting written. The uncertainty erodes trust and is traumatic.

  • It is important to remember the huge emotional energy outlay that goes into asking such a personal favor from someone ideally as senior to you and prestige-laden as possible. Then, too, there is the constant monitoring to make sure that the letters have been actually written and turned in on time, emailing letter writers to remind them of impending due-dates without sounding needy or pushy. Finally, there is the ongoing account-keeping and anxiety of asking for too many personalized letters from any one person over any given period of time. I have indeed lost a fellowship because a letter writer forgot to submit a letter before.

  • [As a job candidate, the LOR system] was very infantilizing and disempowering…letter writers...were clearly overburdened and thus getting them to write things on time, making sure they had enough notice, etc was burdensome.

  • Extremely stressful for people to ask for [letters], even when they are granted; recommenders often miss deadlines; requires either cost to send (Interfolio) or repeated emailing of recommenders; with people applying for 50+ things, number becomes unmanageable; need for letters makes it hard to apply for things on short notice; at early career stages, [it] can require student or recent grad to continue to ask for things from committee members or advisor even if they no longer want contact.

  • [Q. Biggest obstacle:] (1) the lack of structure or rhythm (especially true at the Ph.D. level re has become a year-round hunt); (2) the scale - the awfulness of the job market and competitiveness of fellowships mean that the hunt is unending. I worry tremendously about the emotional toll for students and the toll on their teaching, research, and lives generally.

On the other hand, some respondents continue to see value in LORs, especially endorsing their use in providing context, information, and significance that applicants cannot always relay easily:

  • Contextualization of particular projects within larger intellectual currents. Background explaining the transcripts and life histories of students.

  • I think the biggest contribution is that a letter-writer can say things that the candidate cannot or feels too shy to say; I often ask my students what I should include that they could not say themselves, and they are very forthright about what would be helpful. I often write something special that I don't think a committee might otherwise see -- how much care the applicant takes with grading and giving feedback to students, or how they handled a particular crisis or challenge, perhaps how they work in groups or support their peers. I have read very strong letters that explain that the student struggled with a particular skill in their first year, but overcame it through practice. I have also found letters that situate the project in the specialists' fields very helpful; sometimes a new PhD can't fully voice why their work is revolutionary (and women, URM, first-gen applicants sometimes find this type of claim hard to make in their cover letters). I have read LORs where the writer says "this person has two children and really needs the job," so would be a little [cautious] on this aspect.

  • How could one imagine hiring systems for law school and/or history and/or clerkship appointments or grants without [LORs]?

  • The role letters serve depends greatly on the level (undergraduate vs. graduate) and the purpose/position. Many letters for undergraduates are really about basic things - dependability, working independently as well as in a group, reading, writing and oral skills. . . . Such letters can and should be short - not over 1 1/2 pages. For graduate students LORs serve a range of important functions. Often, especially early on, a professor can better see the broader significance or potential in a student's work than the student can and/or at least better express it. There can also be personal details -- that with a student's permission -- can be shared more fully or at least differently than a student can express them. They offer the potential to more fully describe a student's work and to draw out what is a single line on a CV...letters can open doors for students to opportunities that otherwise might be closed to them.

  • [Letters can] explain and contextualize an applicant’s work, to explain institutional practices and backgrounds (particularly for international students)

  • LORs give agency to the professors: we can put things in our own words. We can REUSE the same letter for different purposes. Letters of recommendation allow the hiring committee to understand something about the student as a person, not just as an intellect.

  • I am deeply committed to teaching and to helping students I teach (both undergraduate and graduate) achieve their professional aspirations. I have always spent more time on teaching and mentoring (I include letter writing in this category) than the "system" credits. It contributes to the pace of publication for me being slower. But that is in part because of a choice on my part. When I take on a Ph.D. advisee or join a Ph.D. committee with a commitment to writing for the student, I feel responsible for doing everything I can to contribute to that student's intellectual development, research success, and professional development… For me, letters are both a personal commitment and a way of paying [mentorship] forward.

And some had mixed views of the LOR system, acknowledging some benefits as well as built-in challenges:

  • Letters of recommendation can be very helpful. They can help a candidate immensely when letter writers are able to describe a project more completely and with perspective the candidate does not possess. This is especially true when letters are hidden from the applicant. Letters of recommendation can be very unhelpful. They can unfairly help a candidate when readers privilege Big Name writers at Big Name institutions over the actual content of letters. They can unfairly hurt a candidate when writers say nasty or inaccurate things, as occasionally occurs. This is especially true when the letters are hidden from the candidate.

  • However bad this system is, I think the "old boy" system that still reigns in much law school and clerkship hiring is worse, reinforces the law school hierarchy, and forces hiring without thinking about what really matters in a scholarly career. Forcing or encouraging letter writing moves mentors to spend a little time thinking about qualities that actually matter.

  • LOR offer at least two values. One, perspective and context from experienced scholars. Two, weed out unserious applicants, because LOR are time consuming to request and to write. Both values have equally serious disadvantages.

  • I think personal recommendations have the quality of, when done well, holistic review, that goes beyond quick / linear metrics like grades, especially in law school. But this can as easily be done on the phone or as a point of reference (although that is compromised in its own ways)

  • LORs may be more valuable when they describe the person (ex. for a TT job or postdoc) than when they describe a single project (ex. for a grant). For the latter, the other application materials (especially the proposal) should be sufficient. 

  • Contrary to some of the comments that have appeared online, I find letters of recommendation invaluable, now that I am more generally in the role of reading them - as a search committee chair, tenure evaluator, or fellowship/grant evaluator. The fact of the matter is that there are times when someone else - a dissertation adviser for instance - can explain the significance and promise of a project better than an applicant can. Letters are valuable, however, only if they are specifically tailored to the opportunity at hand and include concrete examples of the subject's experience, readiness, or need for this opportunity. The downside of that is that letters are a lot of work - but alas, one-page generic letters from Interfolio are, frankly, relatively worthless and don't advance a candidate, even if they are written on the letterhead of fancy colleges. 

In sum, most of our respondents agreed that the volume and logistics of the current LOR system feel unmanageable, but there was a mix of views on the value of LORs. 

Up next: respondents’ thoughts on ways to reform the system.

--posted by Mitra Sharafi