Publication Date

September 4, 2018

Perspectives Section

From the Professional Division

AHA Topic

Professional Life

Now that high season for letters of recommendation is upon us—even though, like American basketball and football, there really is no off-season anymore—it might be time to reflect on the endurance and the recent transformations of this well-worn, though not well-loved, genre.

A fountain pen writing a letter.

How can we rescue the meaningfulness of the letter of recommendation?

The profession depends on these letters: they help us vet undergrads for grad admission, assess applicants for grants, and, most importantly, evaluate job candidates. In the age of what Jerry Z. Muller has called “the tyranny of metrics,”[1] letters provide crucial, qualitative evaluations we ought to honor and cherish. But in the current job market, many of us are asked to write—and to read!—more letters than ever before, and our prose seems to get ever more formulaic. The electronic obstacle course we must negotiate to submit or access letters simply adds to the frustration of the exercise. Can we salvage the usefulness of the genre?

The letter of recommendation was already a recognizable genre in ancient Greece and was sufficiently entrenched by Cicero’s time to earn an explicit technical designation aslitterae commendaticiae, which we might translate as letters of commendation, usually for a younger client seeking favor from a new patron. For Cicero, these letters were understood not to compel but to request favor for the individual commended and “to conjure up the atmosphere [the letter’s] very existence implied: a free exchange of favors among friends.”[2] As Roger Rees argues, these ancient letters tended to glorify the author rather than the applicant—so much so that Cicero and Pliny collected and circulated the letters they had written—and to emphasize the cementing or extending of patronage networks rather than the actual merits of the candidate.[3] You know I am trustworthy; therefore, my clients will be worthy of your trust as well.

Even in antiquity, letter writers worried about undermining their own credibility by asking for too many favors for too many virtuous young men.

Even in antiquity, letter writers worried about deploying hackneyed phrases and undermining their own credibility by asking for too many favors or commending too many virtuous young men. In 45 BCE, Cicero openly expressed to a potential patron his fear that “because I am most particularly recommending so many people to you, I may be suspected of making all of my recommendations equally strong as a sort of bid for popularity[.]”[4] Like Cicero, we are still both trying to praise our “clients” and to retain our professional dignity, to obtain employment for our students, but also to help our colleagues hire wisely. Although we may have added new standards for merit and means of assessing it, we still live in the shadow of these generic constraints.

Some things have certainly changed. By the 19th century, the focus had shifted from the merits of the author to those of the candidate and, in the last century, to the latter’s accomplishments rather than his (it usually was his) character. More recently, what has changed is surely the volume of letters one writes, as well as the expected length of our encomia. As English professor Margaret Ferguson suggested in 2012, the letters seem to be getting longer as the academic job market gets worse; in English, the norm seems now to be 3–4 single-spaced pages rather than the earlier 1.5–2 pages.[5] The MLA guidelines, in fact, now explicitly recommend 2–3 pages; I have seen letters that run to 8! We have also become ever so clever in recognizing damning phrases such as “rather quiet in seminar” or “improving rapidly in his writing.”

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”). I confess, too, that I took most seriously the letters written by people I knew or whose work I esteem. I did not wish to do the persons I already respected favors, but knowing them and/or their scholarship simply offered more context in which to understand the praise being given (just as the recipients of Cicero’s letters knew what exactly to make of his rhetoric). Failing to read everything was wrong of me, I fully admit, 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.

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, I would also argue that the many different electronic formats we must use to submit these letters are adversely affecting the profession in a different way: by asking us to 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. Of course, none of us would want to go back to typing our own letters, one by one. 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. Actually, job applicants face much greater challenges in negotiating these electronic obstacle courses, but that is a different subject, on which someone with more experience ought to write a separatePerspectives piece, if not a Washington Post exposé.

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.

So, as Lenin asked, what is to be done, if we are going to rescue the meaningfulness of the letter of recommendation? Here are a few ideas. As for the author, it is helpful if a recommender gives just a small amount of relevant information to provide the sort of quasi-Ciceronian trust suggested above and to create the context we need to trust writers we don’t know: why exactly is the author the right person to describe the candidate’s individual worthiness? We don’t need Ciceronian self-promotion, but it is remarkable to me how few recommenders introduce themselves with helpful, specific context, along the lines of: “As an author of many books and articles about women in the American West and supervisor of 10 dissertations in the last 10 years, I can testify . . . .” Equally valuable might be: “As a dedicated teacher of non-traditional students, with 15 years of experience in understanding how to make European history come alive in the classroom, I can testify . . . .” Letters can tell us things that candidates can’t say themselves, such as that they managed to complete an excellent dissertation despite weak funding, an absent supervisor, or the added burden of caring for young children or an ailing parent. Everyone can count items on the CV; we can say something—specific!—about the quality of our students’ research, presentations, teaching, and publications. We can discuss the courses each applicant is each best suited to teach or what sort of administrative tasks an individual could perform with success, even panache. And we can retain our dignity by not praising what is not praiseworthy or not relevant to the hiring institution’s needs.

We can also request or even demand concision, adopting Guido Ruggiero’s 2007 advice to write “scholarly haikus” rather than hagiographies.[6] Universities advertising jobs could ask for letters of no more than two pages, and search committees could announce publicly that they would stop reading at the end of the second page. We could consider asking for letters only for candidates for the long short-list. We could counsel our advisees not to apply for jobs that they have absolutely no chance of getting. We could listen to Cicero’s warnings about not lowering one’s dignity by engaging in too much vague bathos or recommending too many persons. We need letters, as the ancients did, to “introduce” us to new people whose talents we should appreciate and to give us context to understand how their talents might or might not fit the needs of our faculties or, in the case of undergrads, our educational communities. In the era of metrics, we desperately need to hold on to and enhance our qualitative sources of information. We cannot, and should not, do without letters of recommendation. We just have to figure out how to make them count.


[1] Jerry Z. Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2018).

[2] Hannah M. Cotton, “Mirificum Genus Commendationis: Cicero and the Latin Letter of Recommendation,” in The American Journal of Philology 106, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 330–31.

[3] See R. D. Rees, “Letters of Recommendation and the Rhetoric of Praise,” in Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography, eds. Ruth Morello and A. D. Morrison (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007): 149–68.

[4] Cicero to Acilianus, in The Letters to His Friends, vol. 3 (Loeb Classical Library; Cicero, vol. 27), trans. W. Glynn Williams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), 101.

[5] Margaret Ferguson, “The Letter of Recommendation as Strange Work,” in Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 127, no. 4 (October 2012): 957.

[6] Guido Ruggiero, “Letters of Recommendation: Haikus or Hagiographies?Perspectives, October 2007.

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Suzanne Marchand
Suzanne Marchand

Louisiana State University