Haikus or Hagiographies?
Guido Ruggiero, October 2007
In a way letters of recommendation are the haiku of a scholar's writing: brief, pithy works that must capture the essence and personality of a person in a way that will make that individual stand out in pools of applicants that often number in the hundreds. Unfortunately, and less poetically, such letters can also be the bane of scholarly existence, consuming hours of time and reams of paper during the letter-writing season. Still they are a crucial part of the way the academy works and given the effort taken not just to write them but to read and evaluate them, they warrant serious consideration.
At the simplest level a letter of recommendation for an academic position needs to address five main issues: (1) the quality and promise of the person under consideration; (2) how and how well one knows that person; (3) the quality and promise of a person's research; (4) the quality and promise of the person as a teacher; (5) the quality and promise of the person as a colleague. The trick, however, in discussing these issues is to make the person one is writing for come alive and stand out from the mass of other people that a review committee will be evaluating in the short space of a letter. The second and biggest trick is to be honest without being negative—more on that below. Ideally a letter of recommendation should be more than one page (a page is simply too little space to accomplish the task) and less than four.
Often the discussion of the quality and promise of the person under consideration tends towards generalities and platitudes; this is hard to avoid especially as these remarks are usually introductory and can be fleshed out more fully later in the letter. Still, ideally one should look for a point or two that captures what is exceptional or particularly revealing—and in the best of cases this should be something that will be confirmed quickly in an interview situation. As interviews often are keyed by letters this is a good strategy to keep in mind for the letter as a whole. Although an honest evaluation of a candidate's weaknesses might be ideal at this point, given the reality of current letter writing practice, that is unwise. Even modest hesitation can sink a candidate. Innocent but honest killers frequently seen are: "X was quiet in seminars, but…" "X is a bit timid, but…" "X has only three chapters to go, but…" or even "X is very bright (or any other positive attribute), but…" One must even be very careful with apparently positive phrases such as "solid," "hard working," "unusual," or "creative" which are frequently misread (or correctly read) as implying more than they actually say. Clearly it would be best if this reading between the lines was not the order of the day, but as long as it is, it is crucial to choose one's words carefully—haiku carefully crafted indeed.
When one writes about how and how well one knows the person being considered one has the opportunity to build a stronger profile of personality. It is a good strategy to point such an evaluation towards the strengths that will be pointed out in the research, teaching, and collegiality sections. It is also a good strategy to speak about growth and growth potential, if applicable. One or two quick examples will give more of a feel for the person than a pile of superlatives.
In the section on the quality and promise of research, a major issue should normally be the dissertation and publications (if any) of the person being recommended. A brief review of each is essential. These reviews should focus evidently on what is strong and new, but also on where these works lead and how they fit into the field. Especially important is an evaluation of the publication potential of the dissertation and a frank but positive evaluation of what needs to be done to publish it. (Obviously, the person being recommended should already be aware of these issues and prepared to discuss them in an interview.) Another important issue to be discussed here is how the research and publication already completed has prepared the person under discussion for a future scholarly career—mastering a particularly important archive or body of literature is often a crucial preparation for a major scholarly career. If the person under consideration is more oriented towards a teaching career, however, it may well be a good strategy to limit this discussion of research and concentrate on how it relates to teaching.
Turning to teaching, clearly teaching experience and success need to be the focus of discussion, if the letter writer has information on this. But this area also provides another opportunity to bring out the personality of the individual under consideration, even if the writer does not have direct experience of that person's teaching skills to report. And, in fact, personality and commitment to teaching are often more significant in teaching success than the limited experience most young PhDs have. Again concrete examples that reveal interest in and commitment to students and teaching work well and give the letter a quick dash of depth and nuance. This discussion can then segue smoothly into a discussion of collegiality. Again personality is significant here, but it needs to be remembered that the letter should really be speaking most significantly to an academic personality; thus, it is not enough to assure that the person under consideration will be a good and friendly colleague—the crucial issue is how the person (while being all those things) will add to the intellectual life and excitement of a department or program.
Again in the best of all possible worlds all five of these points should go beyond the person under consideration to discuss briefly how a candidate's strengths in these areas would make that person a fine addition to the department or program being written to—and the more specific these connections are, the more effective the letter would be. Unfortunately, with the slow but real increase in the number of jobs available, more and more scholars are forced to adopt the necessary strategy of general letters of recommendation reproduced and sent out by placement services. Obviously while these save scholarly sanity and even mean that one might be able to do some writing on one's own work in the letter-writing season, they mean that one cannot tailor letters to the individual departments or programs to which a person is applying. A strategy that helps overcome this problem to a degree is to ask the people one is writing for to keep one abreast of each application made. When one knows someone in the department that they are applying to, it is then possible to write a brief e-mail reiterating the person's strongest points and outlining how they fit in that specific program. There are two other strategies that are still occasionally used: the call from a friend and colleague confirming what they have written and the call from the well-placed scholar affirming the same. While such calls can often be useful and revealing, they do have a down side. As they are not in writing they can present a problem in interpretation and reportage. It may actually be best practice to note in a candidate's file that a positive call was made from professor X and leave it at that or ask the caller to confirm their remarks in an e-mail or in writing. Reports of phone conversations passed on in the corridors or revealed in meetings can be confusing and disruptive and, unfortunately, can be used in unethical ways to support or undermine a candidate.
Implicit in all of the above is the fact that the person that one is writing for really has one's strong support. In my opinion it is crucial to not write letters for people one does not feel one can support strongly. It is not clear which is worse—a weak letter that offers faint support or a strong letter that is undeserved. In the end nothing is gained by either; in the first case at the least the letter damages a person's chances, in the second a person may get to the interview stage but usually falls short because she or he does not live up to the promises of the letter. Thus, while it is not a pleasant task, it is necessary to say "no" when a candidate is weak. It is also usually necessary to say "no" when one is not familiar with or no longer familiar with the work of someone who asks you to write for them. One caveat, however, may apply in such cases. If one feels that one has something positive to say about a particular aspect of the work of an individual but not enough to be a primary writer for them—one might suggest that one could serve as a secondary writer commenting only upon aspects that one is capable of discussing knowledgably. In that case the person being written for should understand that the letter will not be a major one and the letter itself should also be clear about this fact and why the letter writer was willing to write.
I have written this overview of letter writing strictly from the perspective of letters in support of applications for positions, but most of the same issues arise in letters written for grants. Clearly in such letters teaching and collegiality should play a lesser role, although letters in support of applications to research centers evidently should consider collegiality. And obviously the discussion of publications and research experience should be carefully oriented towards the research proposed and the time table for that research. Given the number of letters written for grants, however, it might be valuable to consider curtailing the number of these letters requested by granting agencies and review committees, especially when a grant is a small one or in a narrow area. As letters are uniformly positive and grant applications invariably require a detailed research proposal as well, it does not seem like limiting the number of letters accompanying such applications would necessarily handicap the candidate or the review committees involved.
In conclusion, undoubtedly the two biggest problems faced in writing recommendations are the tendency to write vague, general letters that lean towards hyperbole and the need to avoid negative evaluations. For the first, specifics and concrete analysis of the candidate's strengths are essential in the limited space of the letter format—again, scholarly haiku. For the second, as noted earlier, in the best of possible worlds it would be proper for letters of recommendation could be more frank about a candidate's weaknesses. But realistically that is not going to happen because the AHA recommends it (or even mandates it) and there is little hope of a groundswell from the scholarly ranks to write more frank letters. Perhaps the best response is a rigorous policy about who one agrees to write for and clear specific letters that will give a review committee a good idea of the individual being written for and that candidate's strengths.
—Guido Ruggiero is professor of history at the University of Miami.