Reference inflation

by Henry on December 19, 2003

Nasi Lemak (a pseudonymous UK political scientist) talks in his blog about a disturbing phenomenon. Students applying for a Ph.D. usually need good letters of reference from well-known academics to get into the better programs. One of Nasi Lemak’s former students recently asked a professor at a top US research university for a reference letter, and was told to write a draft of the letter himself, which the professor would then edit and sign. Nasi Lemak did some asking around, and found a surprising number of people who seem to believe that this is acceptable practice.

This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, assuming that the professor exercises his or her editorial prerogatives properly, cuts out any unjustified hyperbole &c. But it still isn’t wonderful. Brian Leiter has recently discussed how difficult it is to interpret the nuances of letters of recommendation. Professors tend to sing the praises even of their most mediocre students, and it takes skilled parsing of language to figure out who are the likely stars, and who are less suited to the rigors of a Ph.D. program. When the student himself or herself is writing the bulk of the letter, and choosing the language, the information content of the letter of reference is close to zero. You simply don’t know what to think when reading it.

Some student-professor interaction is appropriate in the writing of letters of reference. If your student believes that qualities x and y are important pre-requisites to getting a particular job, it’s surely reasonable for him or her to ask you to talk about the extent to which he or she possesses x or y in the letter that you write. But it seems to me that this is as far as it should go – while the student may suggest some qualities to be evaluated, the professor is fully and entirely responsible for the evaluation itself. Reference inflation is bad enough as it is; a variant of Gresham’s law means that over-inflated puff-pieces are driving out serious letters of reference. Allowing students to write their own encomiums isn’t going to help much. But perhaps Dan has the solution ; a bit more brutal honesty in advertising.

{ 40 comments }

1

PZ Myers 12.19.03 at 11:02 pm

I had a professor ask me to do that once, years ago. It was excruciating. The problem was that I had no idea about how I looked from the perspective of the prof, and modesty/honesty warred with ego.

I ended up asking my girlfriend to write it for me, which meant that the grad schools I was applying to got letters from a professor that he thought were from me that were actually from a girl having a sexual relationship with me. I’m not sure what that did to the semiotics of parsing the code of the letter, but it worked — I got into every school to which I applied!

2

Arthur D. Hlavaty 12.19.03 at 11:15 pm

Do they still have the system where the applicant waives the right to see the recommendation so as to get an honest one, then has a crony at another school request it to make sure it isn’t too honest?

3

Matthew Yglesias 12.19.03 at 11:18 pm

This is a very common practice, and not just for people seeking academic jobs. I know of at least one person who was applying for a position at our office and received an email from the would-be recommender asking him what he thought she should say. He wrote up a letter, and the recommender simply forwarded that email to us — complete with the discussion below clearly indicating that the applicant, rather than the ostensible referrer, had written the letter. Quite the faux pas.

4

Chris Martin 12.19.03 at 11:20 pm

I’m from India and when I was applying to undergrad colleges in the U.S. all the teachers I contacted expected me to write my letters of recommendation. This is standard practice in India so if anyone reading this is on an American admissions committee, please take into consideration that 99.9% of Indian students — or at least those in science and engineering — write their own letters of recommendation.

In my case I had to give up on one professor who couldn’t understand why I was asking him to write the letter. After some effort I managed to convince two others to write letters of recommendation on their own.

5

decon 12.19.03 at 11:28 pm

I fail to see the problem.

If the Professors don’t fully agree with the letter they can suggest revisions. It is their reputation, after all, that is on the line. And this is a repeated game where reputation is worth quite a bit to the recommending professor.

Plus, the student likely remembers several relevant things that the professor has forgotten. Plus, plus, the student presumably has a better idea what qualities the targeted institution is looking for. And most especially, it saves the Professor time. Wasn’t someone just going on about transaction costs earlier today?

6

js 12.19.03 at 11:30 pm

This is silly.

Assuming that the professor retains full rights to edit the letter, it makes perfect sense to have the person being reviewed prepare a draft review. He or she is unlikely to overlook any good thing that might be said about his/her work, whereas a professor, especially one running a group of 10 or 20, might well forget some of the applicant’s good deeds.

That said, any professor who doesn’t edit a letter of reference to make it honest reflection of his/her perception of the student is… well… dishonest. There are such professors, who are so afraid of being sued or whatever that they will recommend people who should be kept far away from professional work.

I think it’s tragic that a gesture of respect and trust– asking a student to prepare his/her own review– should be characterized as it has been here.

7

PZ Myers 12.20.03 at 12:28 am

I disagree. It isn’t a gesture of respect — it’s simple laziness, replaces the perspective of the putative author with that of an unknown quantity, and removes the possibility of honest critical evaluation.

It further dilutes the value of recommendations, as well. As it now stands, I only write evaluations for students who deserve them, largely because it takes work to put these things together, and because we all know that voicing reservations in a letter is the kiss-of-death anyway. If we eliminate the barrier of work by the reviewer, a flood of empty recommendations becomes that much easier to generate.

8

[name withheld] 12.20.03 at 12:59 am

I’d agree w/ PZ. I had to do this once and found it to be awful. I also suspect that it had to do w/ an unwillingness to see this as an honest part of the job. I ended up writing more or less a form letter saying such things as “X was a student in my classes Y and Z. If found him to be [ ] as a student and thought this written works and contributions to the discussion were [ ].” So, I was able to avoid ranking myself but to point out what I wanted. Even still, I found it terribly unpleasant to do. I’ve had to write letters of rec. myself for some students in classes where I’m the TA, and have avoided this at all costs. (It does seem perfectly reasonable to ask the student to tell you what they think their strong points are, if there is anything in particular you should comment on, or should know about the programs, though.)

9

cs 12.20.03 at 1:18 am

All a bit precious and pius for my money Henry. I do it all the time in all sorts of contexts, and likewise have it done to me. I’ve even had it done to me when I’ve asked the good and great if they would be kind enough to supply endorsements for my books. A full re-write is always a very real option. And no, it’s not laziness at all, it’s simply time pressure.

10

biff3000 12.20.03 at 1:31 am

I’m only an undergrad, but I always assumed a prof had more important things to do than write another goddam letter of recommendation…. By all means, he can revise and extend, but I felt I should give him something to work with. Was I naive?

11

David Sucher 12.20.03 at 1:37 am

It’s done all the time in every field.

12

ogged 12.20.03 at 3:04 am

Yes, it’s very common, and still unjustifiable. Check Leiter’s discussion again; letters of recommendation are valuable insofar as one can parse their nuances. It matters–quite a bit–whether the professor chooses to say “outstanding” or “best in the last 15 years.” Editing a drafted letter (short of a rewriting it, in which case, what’s the point?) can’t reintroduce the sort of nuance that’s required to make letters meaningful.

13

cs 12.20.03 at 3:14 am

Why not ogged? That’s precisely what you do when you edit. Indeed, adding nuance is almost a synonym for editing.

14

laura 12.20.03 at 5:07 am

As a child of two academics, a graduate of a highly selective american liberal arts college, and a graduate student, I think this is a hideous practice. Certainly my parent who teaches at a liberal arts college considers rec-writing part of the job; it’s less so for the parent at a large university, but still not something to be sloughed off on the students themselves.

It’s lazy on the part of the faculty and really unfair to some students — here I think back to my 9th-grade teacher whose adventures in disrupting the hegemony of the classroom involved having us grade ourselves. Being a self-criticizing, honest type, I ended up getting a much lower grade than the teacher would have given me. (I won the writing prize but was nowhere near the top of the grades given.) If you asked me to write my own letter, I would be completely paralyzed with an inability to say anything good about myself. I’d probably end up confessing how little I feel I know.

15

Chet Murthy 12.20.03 at 5:29 am

How to start … grade inflation rears its ugly head.

I wonder how many people on this list are academics. I used to be
one. I flamed out of formal methods in computer science, when I
realized it wasn’t a science.

Perhaps what many people on this list don’t realize, is that, for the
past TWENTY YEARS, evaluations/reference-letters have been
progressively degraded.

I remember back at INRIA-Rocquencourt, in 1991, that a well-known
computer scientist said to me “we learn to be -measured- in our
enthusiasm”, meaning that “we have to carefully control how
enthusiastic we are about people for whom we write recommendations”.

More recently, I had a friend, who is incredibly gifted, and who had
applied to -all- the top-flight B-schools in the US, tell me that the
reason he hadn’t been accepted to even -one-, was that he’d made the
mistake of not explaining to the people writing his recommendations,
that their job was to be -advocates- for him.

And, for myself, I know tat I’ve always had a single, and simple,
view: if I am not willing to call up -whoever-it-is-, to tell them
that they need to HIRE THIS PERSON, or GIVE THIS PERSON A FELLOWSHIP,
to argue it vehemently and personally, then, umm, I should not write
the recommendation.

But, otherwise, well, I should make SURE that the person for whom I
write the recommendation, actually AGREES in detail with EXACTLY what
I say. And if that “student” agrees with the wording, umm, why should
it be a problem for them to write the wording?

The only problem here, is if, in fact, I don’t agree completely.

And, y’know, in my experience, I have had a student, of whom I once
thought highly, only to change my mind, after some time, and for whom
I did not write a recommendation letter, because I could not in good
conscience recommend them. He wasn’t happy. He thought I was
screwing him. (brings to mind that bio prof at A&M who would not
write letters for students who did not believe in evolution, but I
digress).

In fact, he was superior to the vast majority of students. But that
doesn’t change anything. When I say “I recommend this person”, I mean
it — that I would hire them, and not that I would recommend them over
all the other half-wit retards that I’d never imagine even
interviewing.

I did not write the letter. He didn’t like it. My management didn’t like it.
But, y’know, writing recommendation letters is a professional
responsibility, and not a -job- responsibility. They all learned to deal.

Look — consider the SAT. In 1980, the mean was 853. In the 1990s,
it hit 900. And now, so I hear, it is greater than 1000. I have
difficulty believing that students have gotten smarter. In such a
world, where the gap between stupid and average widens and the gap
between average and brilliant narrows, what is a recommender to do?

I mean, really? He’s supposed to express his minor reservations about
some student who is far and away superior, and whom he’d hire in a
flash? Really? He’s supposed to not allow the student to check
whether they’re comfortable with the review? Or he’s supposed to
write a supposedly lukewarm review of a fool that he’d rather see the
backside of? Really?

Really?

You’re living in some wonderland! We know whether we’d prefer to see
the backside of some schmoe. And, sure, you can criticize gutless
profs who don’t say “no, I can’t write you a letter”. But don’t
critize profs who say “write me the text” — at least, they aren’t
being any MORE hypcritical.

The reality is that I will only write letters of recommendation for
students that I actually feel I can -recommend-. And for those, umm,
I ask them to write the letters, I edit, and then, they must sign off
on the edits.

And for those, umm, if I didn’t give them the chance to sign off, what
happens if one of them is like my friend, whose recommenders didn’t do
their job, and he’s not in B-school, even though he fundamentally
changed the business processes of my employer (and my employer isn’t a
-small- company by any means)?

In short, GROW UP. You might have spent your entire lives in academia,
but that isn’t the real world.

16

Chirag Kasbekar 12.20.03 at 5:31 am

Of course this is common. But I can top it.

Back when I was in college — one of the best in India — I remember that the head of the sociology department (something of a ‘socialite’; her son is a famous news anchor and her husband is a famous ex-cricketer) actually charged sociology students a fee for recommendation letters!

17

Chet Murthy 12.20.03 at 5:48 am

How to start … grade inflation rears its ugly head.

I wonder how many people on this list are academics. I used to be
one. I flamed out of formal methods in computer science, when I
realized it wasn’t a science.

Perhaps what many people on this list don’t realize, is that, for the
past TWENTY YEARS, evaluations/reference-letters have been
progressively degraded.

I remember back at INRIA-Rocquencourt, in 1991, that a well-known
computer scientist said to me “we learn to be -measured- in our
enthusiasm”, meaning that “we have to carefully control how
enthusiastic we are about people for whom we write recommendations”.

More recently, I had a friend, who is incredibly gifted, and who had
applied to -all- the top-flight B-schools in the US, tell me that the
reason he hadn’t been accepted to even -one-, was that he’d made the
mistake of not explaining to the people writing his recommendations,
that their job was to be -advocates- for him.

And, for myself, I know tat I’ve always had a single, and simple,
view: if I am not willing to call up -whoever-it-is-, to tell them
that they need to HIRE THIS PERSON, or GIVE THIS PERSON A FELLOWSHIP,
to argue it vehemently and personally, then, umm, I should not write
the recommendation.

But, otherwise, well, I should make SURE that the person for whom I
write the recommendation, actually AGREES in detail with EXACTLY what
I say. And if that “student” agrees with the wording, umm, why should
it be a problem for them to write the wording?

The only problem here, is if, in fact, I don’t agree completely.

And, y’know, in my experience, I have had a student, of whom I once
thought highly, only to change my mind, after some time, and for whom
I did not write a recommendation letter, because I could not in good
conscience recommend them. He wasn’t happy. He thought I was
screwing him. (brings to mind that bio prof at A&M who would not
write letters for students who did not believe in evolution, but I
digress).

In fact, he was superior to the vast majority of students. But that
doesn’t change anything. When I say “I recommend this person”, I mean
it — that I would hire them, and not that I would recommend them over
all the other half-wit retards that I’d never imagine even
interviewing.

I did not write the letter. He didn’t like it. My management didn’t like it.
But, y’know, writing recommendation letters is a professional
responsibility, and not a -job- responsibility. They all learned to deal.

Look — consider the SAT. In 1980, the mean was 853. In the 1990s,
it hit 900. And now, so I hear, it is greater than 1000. I have
difficulty believing that students have gotten smarter. In such a
world, where the gap between stupid and average widens and the gap
between average and brilliant narrows, what is a recommender to do?

I mean, really? He’s supposed to express his minor reservations about
some student who is far and away superior, and whom he’d hire in a
flash? Really? He’s supposed to not allow the student to check
whether they’re comfortable with the review? Or he’s supposed to
write a supposedly lukewarm review of a fool that he’d rather see the
backside of? Really?

Really?

You’re living in some wonderland! We know whether we’d prefer to see
the backside of some schmoe. And, sure, you can criticize gutless
profs who don’t say “no, I can’t write you a letter”. But don’t
critize profs who say “write me the text” — at least, they aren’t
being any MORE hypcritical.

The reality is that I will only write letters of recommendation for
students that I actually feel I can -recommend-. And for those, umm,
I ask them to write the letters, I edit, and then, they must sign off
on the edits.

And for those, umm, if I didn’t give them the chance to sign off, what
happens if one of them is like my friend, whose recommenders didn’t do
their job, and he’s not in B-school, even though he fundamentally
changed the business processes of my employer (and my employer isn’t a
-small- company by any means)?

In short, GROW UP. You might have spent your entire lives in academia,
but that isn’t the real world.

18

Don Hosek 12.20.03 at 6:53 am

When I applied to my current program, I provided a brief outline of what I did in the context of the relationship with the professor that made their recommendation worthwhile. Partly this was because in all cases, it had been a number of years since I had been in class with those professors, but it was also to make the recommendation-writing process a bit easier. I don’t think that I would have been comfortable writing the actual letter, but providing information to help jog the prof’s memory seemed more than reasonable to me.

19

Chris Bertram 12.20.03 at 9:21 am

I hear of a disciplinary case (at a university other than my own) where a student needed a reference for a postgraduate degree application and couldn’t get hold of a particular academic to write for him (the academic was in Africa somewhere). The student forged a reference but this was somehow discovered. When the self-written and forged reference was disclosed at a subsequent hearing, it turned out it was more critical of the student than the missing academic would have been.

20

harryj 12.20.03 at 10:48 am

When the dread day of judgement comes, when the last post has sounded, I believe that god will say “write down your assessment of your life and the judgement you deserve” How very terrible!

21

Nasi Lemak 12.20.03 at 10:58 am

Wow. (thanks Henry!). I’m not sure any of the pro-practice replies has quite convinced me that this is a helpful or professionally valid practice. Most of all I am surprised that this sort of conversation doesn’t seem to have been had within the profession, one way or another.

Either this is an OK practice and we can all get several days a year back and ignore references when doing job searches; or it’s an unacceptable practice and people who do it should be subject to professional sanction. ISTM the least acceptable outcome is where an unknown number of references have been written by students, who may have either over- or under-stated their qualities, and possibly edited by the person who claims to have written them.

22

cs 12.20.03 at 11:14 am

I reckon politicians should be made to write all their own speeches too; and it’s about time those godamn comedians thought up all their own jokes.

23

cs 12.20.03 at 12:54 pm

Different professions have different expectations; we all know that politicians don’t write their speeches. On the other hand records (in any genre) tend to distinguish the performer of a song from the one who wrote it; films distinguish between actor, writer, director and what have you. In blogging, clearly, there is a good reason not to play with other peoples’ identities like this.

I had naively assumed that, in an academic context, where X is providing a recommendation of Y, it is actually X’s recommendation of Y. If it’s largely or wholly Y’s recommendation of Y perhaps we need to know? This has nothing to do with piety – it has everything to do with how useful a recommendation is.

Since you have said above that you do this all the time, for example, I now know exactly how seriously to take a reference I might receive from you. It would be tremendously helpful if co-authored references/recommendations were explicitly advertised as such, and I hope you will consider giving co-authorship credits to people who write their recommendations for you – written by Y, edited and approved by X, that sort of thing.

This post, of course, was not

24

cs 12.20.03 at 1:30 pm

Hang on Nasi. Don’t get consumed in your own purity. I take 100 per cent reponsibility for every reference I sign, and would never sign anything that I didn’t 100 per cent agree with. I expect all the good and great who sign references I have drafted for them to sign to do exactly the same. Time to start thinking about the difference between taking responsibility and being fully accountable, and doing donkey work ol’ son. Then again, perhaps where you come from you have stacks of leisure hours for donkey work, or perhaps you don’t do many references. How would I know? Where I come from we’re a little bit on the busy side, but try all the same to help as many deserving students as possible. Do you drink from cows you didn’t milk yourself? Oh, the shame!

25

Nasi Lemak 12.20.03 at 2:13 pm

It sounds to me like you really, really need to think about agenda-setting and the difference between “agree with” and “would write”. I wonder why you’re (presumably) not willing to write, at the bottom of each recommendation, “original draft by student, edited and 100% agreed-with by referee” if you actually think it’s just as good.

26

cs 12.20.03 at 2:38 pm

I’m not into admin, but by all means nasi, put it to the faculty and I’ll roll with majority opinion. I mean, who gives a flying …

I reckon we should also propose that actors should say who wrote their lines straight after they say them; that politicians should announce that they are only agreeing with what their speech writers served up to them; that authors should highlight their research assistants’ work in a different font inside their books; that teachers should tell their students where they learned this and that technique as they use it; that parents should keep a diary everyday so that their kids can see everything they just copied off their own parents, that … why, I even heard that Adam Smith didn’t really think up what he wrote .. the cheating bugger just synthesised everything that was already prepared for him … dirty false swine … where are the bloody authenticity police … it’s not fair I tell you …nothing’s real … not even Santa … maybe I didn’t even think up this comment all by myself … aaaahh … nobody told me there would be days like this.

27

Nasi Lemak 12.20.03 at 2:47 pm

Oh dear god. It’s got nothing to do with “authenticity” as of works of art.

References/recommendations get what-you-might-call respect on the assumption that they are actually by the person they say they are. Yours aren’t, but they probably get treated with more respect than they deserve because of the very norm you are breaking. It’s also treating your students badly, but why should you care, eh?

28

cs 12.20.03 at 2:54 pm

OK, Nasi, … now you’ve really done it … go ahead, make a joke … have fun … but you’ll get no references from me ol’ chum, and that’s final … even if you draft it yourself and I agree with every single word … no use in begging … my mind’s made up … see if I care. Harrumph.

29

Keith 12.20.03 at 2:56 pm

In my field — philosophy — I still assume when I read letters of rec. for potential grad students that what I am reading was actually written by the person who signed the letter and was not drafter by the student being recommended, and even that the letter was then *not* shown to the student for her/his approval. If the letter was written by the student herself and then edited & approved by the person who signed it, and this were clearly indicated, I would give the letter far less weight, but wouldn’t feel anything slimy had been done. If the student wrote the letter and this is not clearly noted, that strikes me as fraud.

But that’s because of the expectations in my field. Of course, if it really is assumed in certain other fields that this mere editing/approving is how things are done, then there is no fraud involved. (There is no fraud involved in a politician delivering a speech written not by herself, though there would be if I were invited to give a talk at a philosophy department and read someone else’s paper, without acknowledging it as such. (If I did acknowledge it as such, I’d be stupid, but not a fraud.))

And of course, I’m not an expert on what the expectations are in fields other than my own. Still, like Nasi, above, I take it as significant if these letters don’t announce that they were produced in that way, and wonder what would happen to their effectiveness if that were explicitly acknowledged. If they’d then be less effective, that would be at least some reason to think that expectations are not as clear-cut as some seem to think.

If the expectations are fuzzy, then those letter writers who actually write the letters that they sign should start explicitly stating in their letters that they wrote them themselves. I guess that’s what I’d do if things started getting fuzzy in philosophy.

(It would be interesting to see then if those who merely edit/approve would then start also putting on their letters that they wrote them themselves, giving the rationalization that this false statement isn’t so bad, since surely there is an expectation that such a lie will be told.)

30

cs 12.20.03 at 3:18 pm

As the token representative of the 21st century on this thread, I hereby vote myself off the medieval survivor show.

31

Timothy Burke 12.20.03 at 3:51 pm

1. Yes, it’s common in many fields to have the recommendee write his own reference.

2. Yes, it sucks to do this and I wouldn’t do it even if I was the last person on earth writing references myself. I write my own; I ask students for supporting materials like their own personal statements and such, to give me a sense of how they self-present, but I write my own letter. That’s what I’m PAID to do: it’s an integral part of my job as a teacher. If it’s not part of your job description, then I can well see why you would not regard this level of care and attention as either feasible or desirable. Fine. But for someone in my position, in my kind of institution, it would be lazy and sleazy to have students write their own letters.

3. Yes, it makes a difference in some cases to write a reference yourself. I agree there are many “nuisance” recommendations out there where it hardly matters what you say. I’m constantly annoyed at how many foreign study programs require recommendations from faculty, because I know full well that they’re only trying to make sure that the student isn’t a psychotic axe murderer, that there is very little filtering going on. But having sat at the other end in a wide variety of cases (searches for faculty, grant awards to grad students, competitions of various kinds) I can tell all the doubters in this thread that you can spot generic and self-written references in a minute, and when they’re stacked against carefully written evaluations that give you a specific sense of the candidate’s strengths and character, they’re worthless. The only thing they do is assure you that the candidate knows some faculty or other recommenders well enough to get a letter out of them, and most of us know that doesn’t have to be anything more than having been one of 400 students in a class and getting an A in the course. Big whoop.

In particular, recommenders may forget that if they’re recommending more than one person for the same post or award, and they lavish the same generic compliments on both, the recommendations become especially worthless.

British academics are famously reserved in their references, and I can tell you that the consequence is that their evaluation actually means something, and is read seriously. Even American academics who are highly *specific* in their praise get read with care in those situations where it matters.

To recap: if a reference letter is being asked for as a mere formality, then the contents don’t matter. If the rest of the candidate’s c.v. or resume won’t survive scrutiny into the later rounds of a selection process, then the reference letters will never matter–no one looks at them in the first round. But if it’s a selective process where highly competitive candidates will stack up against each other in the last rounds and need to be distinguished by small differences, the content of recommendations may matter a great deal.

If you’ve got any professional pride whatsoever, and you believe that part of your professional obligations is to aid deserving junior colleagues or students in later endeavors through quality recommendations, for heaven’s sake, write the reference yourself. It shows if you did and it shows if you didn’t. Trust me.

32

cs 12.20.03 at 4:06 pm

I’m only staying in this, you know, from the 21st century, because I can’t tell if you guys would be seriously offended, or could be interested in a less pompous perspective.

Turn your head around. I’ve read buckets of recommendations. I hate recommendations. I read the guts, and put the rest in the who knows basket. If you ever get down to reference nuance, you will never be sure … therefore you may go another lap on the rest of the guts. Bottom-line: a reference can, at, most, force closer scrutiny of the substance. Get smart. Ask the students to give you the guts, and you do a once over polish. If you’re spending longer, you should be reviewed. Frankly, if you’re spending longer you’re just gonna waste my time at the other end.

33

zaoem 12.20.03 at 4:41 pm

It is indeed a very common practice. The other day a student when asking for a reference, actually sent a self-written letter along. The danger for the student here is that she may end up with very similar letters of recommendation, which ought to signal something about how the letters were generated.

I don’t like this practice, but on the other hand most profs who write their own letters, simply have a standard A, B, or C-letter that they then adjust with some pertinent information. The usefulness of the letter depends entirely on the added content of this info (such as in what percentile of the class my student ranked). I don’t necessarily believe that adjusted versions of A or B letters contain so much more information than an edited personal letter. (this holds for students you had in classes only, ph.D students that you have worked with intensely obviously deserve their own letter).

34

Jonathan 12.20.03 at 4:54 pm

I’m in the final spasms of the postdoc-application process now, and in the last months I’ve had six people dutifully churning out letters of reference. It’s a thankless task, but they really only have to write it once and then send it out with minor edits. I think it’s easier, too, to write a letter for someone you’ve actually worked with, rather than for (say) an undergraduate who you may have had only fairly modest interactions with.

I agree with the pro-`ghostwriting’ crowd that its easier all around, etc, but I also agree with Nasi that it’s fundamentally dishonest and that the difference between agree-with and would-write is significant. All of my references (save one) wrote theirs from scratch; the other did what I think is a thoroughly acceptable compromise; he asked me to send him a list of two or three things that I’d like to have pointed out in a letter for me.

Whether he included them in the end I don’t know, but it gave me a chance to make some points that he might not have thought of, as well as trying to emphasize complementary things in my application materials and the letters; yet it left him the actual task of composing the letter.

I’ll let y’all know in a few months how well it worked.

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jonathan 12.20.03 at 5:02 pm

Oh, and a seperate point; I’m not sure I believe in the `inflation’ idea in this case. People have been writing bona fides for — well, I imagine for a few thousand years, but certainly for a few centuries. People have been lazy since well before the present day, and the stakes involved in a good reference is the same now as ever — a good job, prestigious post, what have you.

We’d all like to remember that academia was purer and more noble back when we first started, and that our supervisor’s supervisor agonized for weeks about what to say in their letters before going through the time-consuming process of carving it into stone, but I don’t see any evidence of this being new thing.

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cs 12.20.03 at 5:18 pm

Jonathon, I appreciated that. What you express to me is the value in representation from the other side an equation, so to speak. Best.

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Timothy Burke 12.20.03 at 5:47 pm

CS, it would be nice if you’d be a little less categorically expansive about your own perspective and experience. Whatever works for you as a reader of recommendations and a writer, ok. I can only tell you that in BOTH roles, I recognize a difference between the reference written by its ostensible author and the reference written generically by the candidate (or by an uncaring author), and that the difference is meaningful to me, especially when I’m trying to make a distinction about the comparable substance that two candidates bring to a job.

I can only tell you that there have been many, many cases in grant competitions I’ve had to judge where the details that one referees provided made the difference for those of us wondering about some specific issue in the grant application, whether it was the way a candidate proposed to do his/her research, or the general skills and talents of the candidate. And equally, where generic, inflated, possibly self-written references did not help a candidate who needed some extra explanation or context from a knowledgable referee to help get him/her over the hump.

So you’ve got your experience and I’ve got mine. I know full well that mine does not extend to all contexts and all circumstances, but I equally know it’s valid in many. I also know full well that I’m an employee of an institution that specifically offers personalized attention from faculty to students, so it’s part of my job to write references and write them attentively. That’s not true for everyone or in every circumstance, and so my sense of obligation would not hold universally.

Is it so hard to recognize that in other directions, rather than casting yourself as the representative of the “the 21st Century” and everyone else a hopeless archaism? It may come as a surprise to you, but different professions legitimately have different norms and different requirements without being “backward” or “forward”.

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ac 12.20.03 at 6:02 pm

If this much controversy is generated by the authorship of recommendation letters, I’d like to hear commentary on the practice of professors putting their names on the papers published by their graduate students. I sat as an expert observing a deposition in a lawsuit in which a renowned professor of computer science at a top-five US university disclaimed having detailed knowledge of the work in a paper with his name on it saying that it was “a matter of courtesy” that students placed their advisor’s name on the paper.

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cs 12.21.03 at 1:36 am

Fair enough timothy. You’re right of course. In mitigation, I plead categorical over reaction to prior categorical over reactions.

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SqueakyRat 12.21.03 at 2:16 am

This is a vile practice, and the people who defend it are shameless.

But having said that, there is a real problem that is driving this corruption: a gigantic increase in the demand for letters of recommendation, letters for tenure review (much more demanding), letters to dean’s committees reviewing departmental tenure recommendations, letters even for third-year review of junior faculty, letters of reference for every conceivable program that students might apply for, letters in support of grant applications . . . this stuff has gone completely out of control. Academics are just being driven nuts by this stuff.

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