Fixing the Broken Letter-of-Recommendation Process

Writers and applicants should collaborate to reduce the power differential, among other benefits, write Rebecca E. Burnett, Rebekah Fitzsimmons, Courtney A. Hoffman and Patricia R. Taylor.

June 14, 2022
 
 
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As equity problems in the academy have come under necessary scrutiny, many academics have identified letters of recommendation as a common site for problems of increased inequity at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. In theory, letters of recommendation are meant to contextualize an applicant’s more formal documents and draw upon the ethos of more experienced professionals to assess the applicant’s skills and potential.

But, in practice, letters of recommendation are one of the mechanisms frequently used in academic and professional application processes that largely dehumanize and objectify individual applicants. In the worst circumstances, they are weaponized against candidates. Even well-meaning writers may write letters containing language bias or an inappropriate disclosure of personal information such as the applicant’s race, gender identity, sexuality, child-rearing status or disability.

Such problems are particularly acute because the applicant is vulnerable: they have little to no power to correct errors of fact, implication or perception. In fact, applicants may not be aware the problems exist at all, because colleges and universities can claim the responsibility of the letter writer is not to the applicant but to the institutions themselves—with some even requiring applicants to sign away their rights to see letters.

In the absence of a larger systemic change, writers who want equity are left to compose letters in this system even when they believe it is fundamentally flawed. We are proposing an intervention on this individual level based on our own practices: letter writers can resist institutions’ expectations and collaborate with applicants in the letter-writing process to grant the applicant greater agency. Such collaboration can decrease inequities and dehumanization by changing the power dynamics to better balance the applicant and institutions.

For us, collaboration occurs as a way for both writer and applicant to determine how and what to say about the applicant. While the writer ultimately controls the final content of a letter, including the applicant in the process of composing the letter allows for the creation of a narrative about the applicant that fits with the overall construction of their professional identity through their materials. Collaborative writing occurs on a spectrum of contribution, gauged so both participants are comfortable in the process. We are not suggesting applicants write the letter and writers sign off on it. Instead, we suggest that writers and applicants work together to produce content about the applicant while maintaining a balance between the writer’s objective understanding of the applicant’s abilities and knowledge, on the one hand, and the applicant’s deeper understanding of their own experiences, on the other.

Our process is flexible, with five steps that can be modified or repeated for individual situations.

  1. Request. The applicant asks the writer for a letter and provides information about the application opportunity.
  2. Collect. The writer asks the applicant for foundational documents, including their résumé and/or CV, draft letters of application, and any other materials relevant to the application. The writer also asks for a short list of what the applicant hopes can be emphasized.
  3. Draft. The writer drafts the argument, using information from the collected materials and their own experience with the applicant.
  4. Collaborate. The letter writer moves the draft to a collaborative space—such as Google Docs—and meets with the applicant, sometimes repeatedly, to review the letter’s purpose, organization, evidence, language and accuracy. When the applicant and writer disagree about material or language, they negotiate until both are satisfied. If concerns about content cannot be resolved, the applicant or the writer may choose not to move forward with submission.
  5. Review. The applicant and the writer edit the letter. The writer, individually, makes all final decisions and provides a copy of the letter to both the applicant and any institutions that require direct submission.

Each of us started with this basic process but adapted it over time to match our own comfort levels and to accommodate the distinct needs of each applicant.

One of us, Rebecca Burnett, has been writing collaborative letters of recommendation for more than two decades—primarily with colleagues, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. The other three of us participated in this process with Rebecca and were impressed with the advantages. So, as we moved into positions where we, too, became responsible for writing letters, we began to use the same approach with our own students.

The benefits are numerous, resolving a number of the ethical problems we mentioned before. Four are particularly important.

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  • Collaborating on letters of recommendation can reduce the power differential between the applicant and writer. Jeffrey Fallis, a lecturer at Georgia College & State University, reinforces that collaboration in writing recommendation letters “achieves the dual function of demystification and humanization. The collaboration takes more time, but it gives more substance, individuality and depth to the letters (and relationships) that result.”
  • Collaboration helps reduce the likelihood that inappropriate personal information will be disclosed. Bianca Batti, an independent scholar from Los Angeles, supports the collaborative process because it reinforces the appropriateness of the information that’s included and “helps me ensure my students’ voices are heard and that their lived experiences are visible in the materials we develop together.”
  • Collaborative letters of recommendation extend possibilities for interaction with students. Jonathan Shelley, assistant professor at St. John Fisher College, notes, “Collaborating on these letters with students invites a conversation about their goals in the class and college at large, learning more about who they are.”
  • Collaboration increases the accuracy of the information and reduces the likelihood of errors of fact and language bias. Nick Sturm, a lecturer at Georgia State University, says that a valuable outcome in collaborating on recommendation letters is “eliminating bias and participating in the construction of one’s own narrative.”

The collaboration we advocate and practice is not perfect; it remains fraught with problems, situated in a larger context that most professionals recognize needs to change. A number of people have called for the elimination of letters of recommendation from academic applications entirely.

In the absence of this kind of large-scale change, we see this collaborative process as one step toward reforming an inequitable and dehumanizing process that individuals can enact. We urge those running or participating in job search committees to reconsider how these letters function from the institutional side of the process. Other changes—especially clarifying in job ads when and how letters will be requested, demystifying the ways in which the committee will use letters, requesting letters later in the hiring process and openly discussing ways to read them productively within the context of hiring—can help further dispel the inequity of the process at a local level.

All too often, we hear about academics abusing their power over their mentees. The system seems structured to allow bad actors to exercise hierarchies and, unfortunately, our letter-writing process does not eliminate such behaviors if writers are already prone to them. Our goals should be to increase our awareness by recognizing the potential for misuse of power and decrease the inequities and dehumanization inhabiting our networks of action, both on individual and systemic levels.

We argue that a collaborative letter-writing practice, one that encourages applicants to enact their own power and contribute to their own narratives, is a step toward deconstructing some of the toxic hierarchies inherent to the academic system. While our collaborative process is not perfect, in our experience, it produces more ethical and equitable letters than conventional practice. Humanistic educational traditions should be built on the foundations of ethical and equitable systems, and our letter-writing process contributes to that goal.

Bio

Rebecca E. Burnett recently retired as director of writing and communication at Georgia Institute of Technology, where she held an endowed professorship in the School of Literature, Media and Communication and is now a professor emerita. Rebekah Fitzsimmons is an assistant teaching professor of professional communication at Carnegie Mellon University. Courtney A. Hoffman is assistant director of the writing and communication program and a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology. Patricia R. Taylor was a Marion L. Brittain fellow from 2013 to 2016 and is currently an assistant teaching professor in the Dornsife Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

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