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Along with teaching and research, many professors feel like they’ve got another full-time job each fall: writing letters of recommendation. Between graduate students seeking jobs and undergraduates seeking admission to graduate school and other opportunities, professors easily spend hours each week drafting such letters -- even as their relevance in the digital age and current job market remains largely unexamined.

To streamline the process for recommending graduate students for professorships and postdoctoral positions and to begin a dialogue on the future of letter writing, the Modern Language Association has drafted a statement on the matter.

For some time now, I have had conversations with graduate students and faculty members about the difficulties in requesting and writing recommendation letters,” Margaret Ferguson, MLA first vice president and professor of English at the University of California at Davis, says in the proposal she penned. “In the current stressful and often enigmatic competition for academic jobs and fellowships, students wonder how many letters are really required (perhaps over and above the number stated in a job advertisement), about what an effective letter looks like, and about who will write them the most effective letter.”

"Effective" has also become a mysterious term, Ferguson wrote. Gone are the days when a letter was effective if it landed the candidate a job; institutions now require multiple letters and other means of assessment, making for “very few ways for the writer to gauge the value of his or letter – or even to know what systems of value are stake.”

She continued: "Moreover, when departments request (or simply accept) six or more letters for each applicant, faculty letter writers (who are of course also often readers of job dossiers) cannot help being aware that the labor and time of writing letters are out of sync with the labor and time devoted to reading them (especially at the early stages of a job search)."

While faculty members say that writing letters of recommendation for mentees can be highly rewarding, the high numbers of letters being requested is a source of frustration, since that also means that those seeking recommendations aren't just approaching mentors with whom they have worked closely but a wider circle that includes people who can't know as much about them.

That “long simmering” issue has been made worse by the bleak job market, Ferguson said in an interview, with more qualified candidates competing for fewer jobs at more varied institution types. That means more work for letter writers, who often tweak their letters for different audiences.

To illuminate this corner of academic work, Ferguson drafted the following principles for letter writing, based on discussions with colleagues and suggestions from the MLA’s Executive Council, and from her own personal experience (she estimated she writes at least one letter each a day for six consecutive weeks each year):

  1. Hiring departments should consider only requiring letters of recommendation for finalists or semifinalists. “With electronic communication resources, there is no longer a need to have all parts of a dossier submitted at the same time,” the proposal reads, noting that letters tend to be more tailored to the applicant the later in the job search they are drafted. “Many faculty readers of dossiers say that they don’t read letters of recommendation carefully until the applicant is at the ‘long short list’ stage of the selection process.”
  2. Hiring departments also should consider limiting the number of required letters to three (or four, in cases where proof of multiple competencies is required). “At present there is considerable confusion on the part of graduate students about how many letters are ‘really’ needed,” the proposal says, noting that some students ask for up to 10, while other students who rely only on a dissertation director and another faculty member to write a “separate” teaching letter feel “doomed.” This can be overcome by departments' holding robust discussions about how many letters are needed, and by letter writers' taking a more “holistic” approach to describing students’ work. Search committees can give such limits "heft" by stating in MLA Job Information List ads that they'll read just the first three or four letters in a dossier.
  3. Consider appropriate length and content. Letters longer than three pages may compete with student’s “intellectual project” rather than support it.
  4. Graduate students should request letters "well in advance." The exact period remains undefined, but should allow faculty sufficient time to observe students teaching in order to be able to comment knowledgeably on their syllabuses, evaluations and classroom practices, as well as on their scholarship.
  5. Directors of graduate studies should consider reviewing all letters of recommendation for students entering the job market, or entrust another faculty member to do so, as was the norm before digital uploading of letters became standard.
  6. Academic administrators should consult with language and literature department chairs before instating word limits, which can create more work for letter writers. Administrators also should talk to their counterparts at other institutions about how “rapid and unstandardized” changes in application material standards are affecting letter writers in fields were detailed narrative evaluations are the norm.
  7. In letters for postdoctoral fellowships, recommended page or word length limits are better than cutting off text in mid-sentence automatically in electronic forms.
  8. Letter writers should always work under the assumption that the subject will read the letter, as even signed waivers to that right may not stand up in legal proceedings. The University of Alabama at Huntsville, for example, includes such a clause in a document about letters of recommendation.

Ferguson said she hopes to present a revised set of statements to MLA’s Executive Council later this fall, based in large part from input from commenters on the draft posted on the association website.

Feedback so far is mixed, with many professors praising Ferguson’s suggestions and others calling for further reform.

Many of the comments supported MLA's proposal to limit the number of letters required by hiring committees, with some proposing to eliminate them all together.

“Just as a thought experiment: what if hiring departments and universities no longer required letters of recommendation at all in the job search process?” George Justice, dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at Arizona State University commented. “What would we really lose?”

In an interview, Justice said academe could be better-served by transitioning to a reference-based model, whereby search committees contact faculty references about only the final few candidates. Instead of an exercise in “hermeneutics,” trying to read between the lines for a letter writer’s true assessment of a candidate, he said, a conversation by phone or e-mail could lead to a more nuanced, “honest take.” The traditional letter of recommendation is just one aspect of an academic hiring process that is “antiquated beyond belief,” he added.

Asked if a candidate could paint a complete picture of his or her teaching, scholarship and other accomplishments in a dossier absent letters of recommendation, Justice said, “You’d better be able to.”

But some, including Tilottama Rajan, professor of English at the University of Western Ontario, opposed number limits on letters, arguing that while all letters may be "good," not all letters are "excellent."

"While it may be that my/our positive letters are largely useless, I do think that the student’s application letter, record, writing sample and recommendation letters make up a package," she wrote. "To reduce this package to just the application letter and C.V. is to reduce the applicant’s chance to make his or her case, while on the other hand it isn’t a lot of extra work for me to send the standard letter I’ve already written for a student in whom I really believe to a few more places (or to a dossier service)."

To limit or eliminate letters of recommendation in a student's dossier also would make for a single "filter" for applications, she added, through which "Ivy League students become semifinalists, others do not; amongst Canadian universities (where I am), only [the University of] Toronto counts. Etc. The hiring committee is likely to use the application letter as an initial filter, and perhaps not move beyond that in many cases, but the materials should all be there."

Addressing a perceived bias toward recommendations coming from faculty at elite institutions, other commenters advocated for a “blind” process, in which the name and college or university of the letter-writer would remain hidden from the hiring committee.

Gaurav Desai, associate professor of English and African and African Diaspora studies at Tulane University, wrote: “Most committees, I suspect, put more weight to institutional affiliations and celebrity status of the recommenders than to the actual content of the letters. In the inevitable instance of then being faced with a number of superlative letters from the same few individuals the tendency is to mine the letters for any ‘red flags’ that they may raise. I confess that over the years I have put less and less weight on such letters especially when they come from within the U.S.” (The problem isn't as severe when letters come from certain other countries, he said.)

In an e-mail, Gaurav said he’d also support limiting the number of references (to two or three) at the finalist stage, or a reference-based model. “Committees can judge the merits of an application without the usually generically superlative letters that come along with them."

Commenter Marguerite Waller, professor of English and women's studies at the University of California at Riverside, wrote in support of some of MLA's proposals but warned against moving toward too standard a letter format, away from the essence of the letter tradition. She said she's believed in the persuasive power of recommendation rhetoric ever since one of her letters helped a nontraditional student get a seat at Yale Law School decades ago. 

"When I am reading files, I want to hear, in the voice of the recommender, about who this candidate is and why s/he would be a really good colleague," Waller said in an e-mail.

Yet other professors argued for more qualitative guidance on letter writing -- such as on disclosing disability or other traits.

Amy Vidali, assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado at Denver who has written about disability disclosure in letters of recommendation, wrote: "While letter writers may believe it [is] 'common sense' to avoid disclosing particular traits (such as marital status, sexuality, or race), disability is frequently disclosed in problematic ways, and there are more and more disabled candidates moving up in our ranks (appropriately, I think!). Perhaps we can make suggestions not only on how we disclose (letter length, when required, etc.), but what we write, even if that opens a large can of worms."

Ferguson called that request for guidance important, and one she'll consider as she adjusts the guiding principles for final MLA approval. If it becomes a formal document, it would set something of a precedent, at least among humanities professional organizations. The American Historical Association, for example, only has only addressed the matter in essays in its Perspectives journal.

There’s no reason the MLA’s recommendations can’t be adopted by other organizations and disciplines to bring some order to a system that is, by many accounts, "out of control," Ferguson said.

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