Everyone in the faculty hiring process, it seems, complains about letters of recommendation. Professors don't have time for all the requests they get from their graduate students. And those just starting off their careers hate having to ask for the letters to be freshened up, and paying to have them sent off to jobs that are likely a long shot.
The Modern Language Association is trying to offer some relief for job seekers and letter writers. New guidelines,  published in draft form last year,  have now been approved. And they urge self-restraint by departments doing searches.
First, the guidelines urge that "hiring committees set a clear limit of three to four letters in job ads for assistant professor positions." And the MLA also cautions against using phrases such as “send at least three letters of recommendation,” noting that such language "can easily be interpreted as signifying that having more than three letters is desirable."
Second, the guidelines suggest that committees consider not requiring letters at the beginning stage of a search, when many search committees receive hundreds of applications.
"Consider whether the committee needs to see all letters for all applicants at the first stage of selection," the guidelines say. "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. Other faculty readers rely on recommendations in making initial decisions about candidates. The expected size of your applicant pool could be one factor in your department’s decision about whether to request letters up front.
"In the United Kingdom, reference letters are normally solicited only for finalists in a junior job search, and this practice has been adopted by some institutions of higher learning in the United States. Moreover, some academic institutions in the United States no longer require letters of recommendation at any stage of the hiring process; instead, they require contact information for three to four references and arrange to speak with them if the candidate becomes a finalist. Finally, consider the mailing or electronic-submission costs graduate student applicants will incur under your current procedures."
Judging from an unscientific review of job listings on the MLA site and on Inside Higher Ed's jobs service, many search committees are already satisfied with three letters of recommendation (despite horror stories that circulate about jobs requiring twice that). But the MLA may have a harder sales job on the idea that letters may not be needed for the first stage of review. Most ads appear to require letters at the initial stage of application, and many do so even for one-year visiting positions, not just tenure-track jobs.
Margaret W. Ferguson, president of the MLA and a professor of English at the University of California at Davis, said that the MLA would share its recommendations with chairs and others. She said this is an issue on which most graduate students, faculty members and administrators seem to agree, so change should be possible.
Many search chairs may just follow past practice, she noted. "But we can reach enough people so that somebody on the search committee can say 'have you thought about doing it this way?' "