Thursday, December 16, 2021

The LOR system (part 5): Possible fixes

 This is the final installment in a five-part series on the Letter of Recommendation (LOR) system. In spring 2021, Ronit Stahl and Mitra Sharafi conducted an online poll and survey among scholars, mostly in law and history. Here are parts 1, 2, 3 and 4. This final post steps back from the feedback we received to add our own thoughts. 

Sometimes all it takes is asking why.


“Why do we need letters of recommendation?” I (Ronit) asked a campus program on whose faculty advisory board I sit. Somewhat flummoxed, a couple of faculty and staff mustered answers, several of which amounted to “because we always have” or “because someone on campus told us this was a ‘best practice.’”


I pressed on: “what purpose do they serve?” Eventually, the answer became clear: the program wanted to ensure that graduate advisors knew about and approved their students’ participation in this program. “Great,” I replied, “a form ought to do the trick.” And so we moved from a formal letter of recommendation to a form on which an advisor simply had to sign that they were aware of and supported their student.

Sometimes it takes more than one person to ask. During the conversation described above, I had allies, other faculty who agreed that letters of recommendation were unnecessary for the program. More recently, a postdoc program at BU changed their application to require only names and contact info from applicants up front, with references to be requested from applicants who make it further in the process. As Professor Kecia Ali’s tweet and replies suggest, it’s likely the change came from multiple people pressing the university to shift.

There are encouraging signs of change elsewhere, too. The Law and Society Association is eliminating its former requirement of letters of nomination for prizes based on single works (like books, articles, dissertations, and papers). And funding agencies organizations like the Social Science Research Council and American Institute for Indian Studies are no longer requiring LORs.

More after the jump.

There are no perfect solutions to the LOR overload we described in parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this series. As the previous posts showed, there are genuinely different views on the role and value of letters of recommendation. We can see how this conversation is playing out in real time. It’s fall, it’s the middle of job application season and thus, like clockwork, people grumble privately and publicly. And people -- including letter writers and search chairs -- disagree about the need for and timing of LORs in job searches. 

The best way forward is far from clear, but there are options for relieving the pressure and stress writ large.  

First and foremost, we can ask what purpose do letters serve and--crucially--is there an alternative? One reason letter writing becomes so onerous is because they’re requested so frequently -- for many archival grants, summer programs, and internal campus certificates along with dissertation finishing fellowships, postdocs, and jobs. In some cases, especially the smaller grants and shorter programs, applications are seeking support from an advisor for a student to participate, or confirmation about progress in a program. In these cases, a form signaling this support or noting progress ought to be sufficient. Sometimes, there is concern about “fit” -- fit between a project and an archive, fit between an applicant and a program goal, fit between a candidate and a fellowship priority. What would happen if the application asked this directly of the applicant rather than relying on an LOR as a proxy or to fill in the gaps? If we start by rethinking letters for short term and smaller amounts, it’s possible that the reduction in frequency will help mitigate some of the LOR fatigue. For instance, the Käte Hamburger Kolleg in Münster required no LORs for its virtual and residential fellowships on “Legal Unity and Pluralism” this past spring.

Yet even if we distinguish between threshold cases (admissions, jobs) and grant/fellowship opportunities, the question remains: what purpose do LORs serve? One of the strongest arguments for LORs is that letter writers can contextualize a project and highlight its significance better than a candidate can; that is, while an applicant provides the view from the dance floor, a letter writer is peering in from the balcony and sees the bigger picture  If we accept this view, it’s still reasonable to ask when this letter is most valuable and how the process of requesting, submitting, and reading letters could be made simpler and easier.

Those who strongly favor letters up front often argue that they’re necessary to winnow a field. But what stage of winnowing? How much do they matter in moving from 300 applicants to 25 applicants? Much of the angst of letter requesters sits at this nexus: the sense that a letter is futile when hundreds of people are vying for a job and they may not even get an interview. One argument for waiting to request a letter until a committee is moving from a long short list to a shortlist to interview is that this is the moment at which the contextualization provided by letter writers is most useful. 

Furthermore, using letters as a winnowing tool may well exclude the wrong applicants: letters favor those bold (or at least comfortable enough) to ask, not those who are the best or most serious candidates. It entrenches a system that favors the confident and those already in the know, not those who are anxious or learning how the process works. (Notably, even as a tenured faculty member at an elite institution, I find it stressful to ask for letters of recommendation.) If programs want the best and most serious candidates, especially those from historically marginalized communities, requesting multiple letters of recommendation at the beginning of the process may well drive them away rather than welcome them in.

Recently I suggested on Twitter that it might be helpful to run an experiment: if a department has requested letters for a search (for a postdoc or a job), the search committee could be divided into two groups. One group reads files with letters and one group reads files without letters. Do their short lists (of 25 to consider for interviews or of 12 to interview) differ? If not (or not significantly), it suggests that letters aren’t that necessary. If so, it would be valuable to think about how the lists differ: did using letters lift up some candidates from unheralded programs or whose own descriptions of their work were less confident? Or did using letters reinforce the value of letterhead prestige or name recognition?

Asking these questions might lead to rethinking when and how letters of recommendation are requested and used and thereby alleviate a source of stress for applicants and letter writers alike. But, to be clear, asking why we use letters doesn’t always work. This fall, I decided not to apply to a residential fellowship that matches my current project because my life got complicated and asking for multiple letters fell through the cracks. I wrote to the head of the center, a faculty member I know and have worked with before, to explain that the letter of recommendation requirement became an obstacle for me. I wondered if, in the future, the program could rethink these required letters, emphasizing that they can be a burden on both writers and requesters. The director responded quickly but firmly: no, letters were necessary for the program to be able to identify the best people from a large pool of applicants in a range of disciplinary areas a selection committee may not know well. I’m not yet convinced this is true, but I mention this (cordial) disagreement because while not every effort will end in success, it’s still worth trying to open the conversation. Why do we need letters? What purpose do they serve? Are there other, less stressful and less time consuming ways to achieve the same goals? 


 To borrow from our survey results, we could require LORs only for the later stages of TT job searches. Or less ambitiously, LORs could be eliminated for “smaller-ticket” academic goods like archive fellowships or undergraduate study abroad spots. Or we could only require LORs for “person-based” positions (like TT jobs), not project-based ones (like fellowships, where the proposal should speak for itself). There could be more page limits, online forms, and phone or zoom calls. And if we really want to dream, we can picture a return to the dossier system or the creation of a centralized system like LSAC for other disciplines.That would take a big push. But maybe there are cracks already showing. Many of you seem to think so. We hope that those of you who share our concerns will, when possible, ask questions, suggest alternatives, and advocate for new systems. And, then, most importantly, share what you’ve learned. 


--posted by Mitra Sharafi