Draft Statement on Letters of Recommendation
Thank you to all the members whose thoughtful feedback helped the Executive Council and me revise these guidelines. The final statement will be posted on mla.org, and a link will be added to this post in February.
I welcome your frank opinions on a new MLA document that would, if approved by the Executive Council, outline some best practices for those who write, request, or read letters of recommendation for graduate students seeking employment or postdoctoral fellowships in MLA fields.
For some time now, I have had conversations with graduate students and faculty members about the difficulties in requesting and writing recommendation letters. 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. Faculty members also wonder what makes a letter effective. Even the term effective is enigmatic in the present network of academic social relations, as a comparison of current letters with those written in the past dramatically shows. The genre has a long and multicultural history; from what I have been able to reconstruct of it, the (almost always male) letter writer typically knew whether his letter was effective by whether its recipient did or did not give the recommended candidate the position or service respectfully requested on his or her behalf by the letter writer. Today, in contrast, institutions require multiple letters and typically delegate tasks of judgment to committees with several members who read dossiers that contain the candidate’s self-recommending letter along with letters from several knowledgeable (but not disinterested) faculty members, and there are very few ways for the writer to gauge the value of his or her letter—or even to know what systems of value are at stake. It is no wonder that some faculty members find the work of writing letters time-consuming, perplexing, and sometimes unrewarding; they know that a single negative phrase can harm a student’s application for a job or fellowship, but they have little evidence that entirely positive letters help students achieve their goals.
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). Recognizing that the terrible academic job market is at the root of many problems that faculty members encounter as they attempt to help their advanced PhD students gain an academic position, I think that the MLA can make some useful suggestions for best practices in this small but important arena of academic work.
The following draft proposals distill some of the arguments presented in a longer and more historical form in an article I wrote for the special topic Work in the October 2012 issue of PMLA, coordinated by Vicky Unruh, and incorporate suggestions from an Executive Council discussion in May 2013. The recommendations are modeled in part on those in the document entitled “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members: Recommendations and Evaluative Questions.” Prepared by the MLA Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession, that document has been sent to department chairs, university administrators, and MLA members who are graduate students and professors in both tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the committee’s suggestions are bearing fruit in some places.
I hope to bring a revised statement to the council in October 2013, incorporating your suggestions. I would be grateful for your comments on the recommendations below as well as for your suggestions for other possible recommendations. During the council’s discussion in May, there were differing views on limiting the number of recommendations (outlined in point 7), so I also invite you to comment specifically on that issue. Documents recommending changes in professional behavior are most likely to be read if they have been debated and revised in the process of being produced. I hope you will participate in that process now!
Thank you, and all best wishes,
First Vice President
- Faculty letter writers should consider whether the length and content of their recommendation are appropriate in relation to the student’s letter of application. Some faculty members who write letters of more than three pages may be offering descriptions of the student’s intellectual project that compete with, rather than support, the student’s account of his or her project.
- Graduate students should ask faculty members for letters of recommendation well in advance of going on the job market so that letter writers can visit graduate students’ classes to gain firsthand knowledge of their teaching practices. The corollary of this recommendation is that faculty letter writers, especially but not only dissertation directors, should be able to comment knowledgeably on the students’ syllabi, student evaluations, and classroom practices. Many postdoctoral fellowships require some teaching as well as a strong intellectual project, so faculty letter writers, especially dissertation directors, should be prepared to write an informed letter that speaks to both pedagogical and scholarly issues.
- Directors of graduate studies should consider reviewing all letters of recommendation written for students going on the academic job market. Alternatively, graduate directors or department chairs could ask a trusted faculty member to perform this service, which could include proofreading as well as fact-checking (e.g., how many courses the graduate student has taught) or discrepancies in projections about important matters such as the dissertation completion date. Reviewing of students’ recommendations was a standard practice in many departments and other academic units before electronic uploading of individual letters became the norm. Some departments may have found ways to continue the reviewing practice in the digital age. (If your department has done so, please describe its process in your comments.)
- Hiring departments (and deans who oversee departmental hiring protocols) should consider requiring letters of recommendation only for finalists or semifinalists in a job search rather than for all applicants. With electronic communication resources, there is no longer a need to have all parts of a dossier submitted at the same time. 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. (Note: It’s my sense that faculty members could tailor their letters more effectively if asked to comment at a later stage of the hiring process—but I don’t want to make the possibility of such tailoring, which involves extra work and which some of us already do, a linchpin for this general recommendation.)
- Deans and provosts should consult with department chairs in language and literature departments before making decisions (or delegating them to human resources administrators) about adopting a platform that has an automatic limit on words or on characters for uploaded letters of recommendation. Setting automatic length limits requires extra work from recommendation writers, who submit many letters for many students applying to different institutions. Academic administrators should also consult with their counterparts in other institutions about how the rapid and unstandardized changes in the reception of job search materials are affecting the labor time of faculty members in fields where detailed narrative evaluations are the norm.
- Administrators in agencies and foundations that award postdoctoral fellowships should consider changing automatic word or character limits for recommendations if such limits have been set for the convenience of the staff or of outside reviewers. Stating clearly in the directions to letter writers that letters should not exceed two or three pages is reasonable; cutting off letters automatically is not. To find that your letter must stop in midsentence (or midword!) creates bad will and a collective loss of faculty time. Moreover, if faculty members think carefully about the above proposal, concerning the appropriate length for most letters, the automatic cutoffs introduced by electronic uploading procedures may become unnecessary. That is, fellowship administrators can join a field of negotiation and debate rather than allow technology to decide on an issue that has not yet been adequately discussed in the profession.
- Hiring departments should consider limiting the number of required letters of recommendation to three (four, perhaps, when the position requires competence in more than one area). At present, there is considerable confusion on the part of graduate students about how many letters are “really” needed; some students are asking for—and receiving—as many as nine or ten letters while other students (especially those going on the market for the first time) feel doomed to failure because they have letters coming only from their dissertation committee members and perhaps from someone else who will write a “separate” teaching letter. If letter writers adopt a holistic approach to their letters and if students request letters in advance, allowing letter writers time not only to observe classes but also to comment on job search materials and writing samples, departments could at least have a robust discussion of how many letters are “really” needed for candidates for a certain job. Once such a decision is made, departments could give it heft by stating clearly in their MLA Job Information List advertisement that the search committee will read only the first (three? four?) letters in any dossier.
- Faculty members who write letters of recommendation for graduate students (or undergraduates or colleagues) should carefully consider the legal opinion that “recommendations should be written on the assumption that the subject will read the letter.” This opinion, formulated by lawyers employed by the University of Alabama, Huntsville, occurs in a document that examines, among other things relevant to faculty recommendation writers, a student’s right, granted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), to read statements about him or her. While students may waive this right on the letter of recommendation form, faculty letter writers should understand that such waivers may not hold up in a legal proceeding. (Note: Confidentiality is also a vexed issue in external review letters; some states prohibit public universities from keeping letters of evaluation confidential. That issue might be taken up in these proposals.)