The Letters Can Wait

American Historical Association says hiring committees shouldn't ask for letters of recommendation until candidates pass a first look.

February 12, 2019
 

The American Historical Association’s governing council recently approved changing the organization’s Guidelines for the Hiring Process to encourage hiring institutions to request reference letters only from candidates who have passed the initial screening, upon requesting additional materials or before video or conference interviews.

"Given the current academic job market, having applicants provide letters of recommendation only after the initial screening stage can reduce stress and unnecessary paperwork for candidates, letter-writers and hiring committees," the updated policy reads.

James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said that students often have to pay their dossier system to have letters sent out, meaning they’re “shelling out money when the odds of being hired are long.” Graduate advisers and other references also write “a lot of letters for candidates who are eliminated quickly from a search,” and so are “better off spending more time on letters at a later stage, when the odds are higher,” he added.

Suzanne Marchand, Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University and a councilor for the AHA’s Professional Division, wrote about the problem in a column called “Letters of Rec: An Ancient Genre in Need of a Modern Update” for the association’s Perspectives on History in September. “Letters have grown so bathetic that in the last job searches I chaired, I confess, I hardly looked at the letters for the general pool of candidates (over 150 in each search, many of them, apparently, ‘our best student ever’),” she said.

Failing to read everything “was wrong of me,” Marchand wrote, “but I am quite certain that this is a general, if not universal, practice these days, especially with so many applicants who are fully worthy of obtaining a place in our ‘households.’ It is at least a trifle more democratic than one of the other regularly practiced alternatives: examining only the author’s letterhead.”

Marchand also lamented the complexity of submitting and accessing letters electronically, saying that if “the scale of searches, the length of letters, and the fear of damning with faint praise is making letters of rec less meaningful or valuable,” aren’t enough, committees also much “be experts not in history, but in data management and computing skills. Every letter seems to need to be submitted through some unique system, often with login and password protections; one has to convert, scan, download, upload.”

No one would want to return to typing letters one by one, she said, but the "very presumption that electronic systems make all of this simpler has perhaps actually enabled the world we have now, where everyone asks for and expects long letters, tailored to each occasion, sent yesterday.”

The Modern Language Association’s 2014 statement on letters of recommendation also cites concerns about costs to students and advises committees to consider whether they need “to see all letters for all applicants at the first stage of selection.” Some faculty readers of dossiers “don’t read letters of recommendation carefully, or at all, until the applicant is at the semifinalist or finalist stage,” it says. “Other faculty readers rely on recommendations in making initial decisions about candidates.”

The expected size of the applicant pool “could be one factor in your department’s decision about whether to request letters up front,” MLA’s statement continues, noting that reference letters are normally required only for the top four finalists in junior job searches in Britain and that that practice has been adopted by some U.S. institutions. Some American institutions no longer require letters of recommendation at all and instead call finalists’ references, it says.

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, said, “My guess is that we’ll follow AHA’s lead on this.” Such a change would be “consistent with our recent recommendations to make the job search easier on the candidate, such as eliminating convention interviews, which are so costly for the candidates,” she added.

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