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Letters of recommendation - what's up with that?

It's been a while since I've blogged, or at least it really feels like it.  I've had my nose stuck in (virtual) books trying to get through my literature review - but more on that on some other blog post. I came across an article on InsideHigherEd this past week asking whether or not letters of recommendation are really necessary. My most immediate context is admissions, given that that's part of my work at the university, but the people who gave their two cents also mentioned something I had not considered: academic jobs. I won't rehash the opinions of the people who wrote for the article, but I will add my own two cents, mostly from a graduate admissions perspective. I don't have a fully formed opinion on letters of recommendation for employment purposes, but I'll add my two cents as a prospective hire (in a few years when I might be done with my EdD :p)

For admissions to graduate course of study, be it a masters program, a PhD program, or even a certificate program, I really personally don't see much value in letters of recommendation any longer.   My point of view is framed from the perspective of a student, an instructor, and a program administrator.   When I was applying for my first master's degree I bought into the rationale given to me for letters of recommendation: former professors can provide the admissions committee qualitative information about you as a learner that a transcript cannot provide.  This is all fine and dandy, and for me to worked out: I was working on-campus as an undergraduate student, and I had some professors who I had for more than one course and who were able to write letters of recommendation.  This was a privilege that I had that other students may not have had.  For my second masters I was applying to the same college, and I was applying to a new program of the college, so they looking for student, so getting recommendations wasn't that big of a deal.  Once I finished my second masters, I really didn't want to deal with more solicitations for letters of recommendation - I started to feel odd, and I kept going back to the regular well of people for recommendations.

So, I applied to two programs concurrently so that I could write one statement, and the letters of recommendation could pull double duty.  After I finished my last two masters degrees I took some time off regular, "regimented" school and programs and focused on MOOCs.  Going back to earn an EdD posed some issues as far as recommendations go.  I had previously applied to a PhD program at my university (at the college in which I earned two masters! - never heard a final decision on my application by the way), and by the time I wanted to apply to Athabasca I felt that the well had run dry for recommendations.  Former professors still gave me recommendations, but I kind of feel I was taking advantage of their kindness by asking for a recommendation for yet another degree program I wanted to pursue (don't judge, at least I complete my degree program haha 😜).  Not that I am thinking a ton past my completion of the EdD, but should I want to pursue a regimented course of study in the future (degree or certificate program) the recommendations will be an issue; not because I can't get them, but because I feel bad about asking for them - after all I am asking for someone to volunteer their time to give me a recommendation when my academic record should suffice. This is how I feel about the GRE and other entrance tests, by the way.  If you've completed undergraduate studies then the GRE is pointless - you can do academic work.  If you are unsure of the academic work capabilities of applicants, accept them provisionally.  Just my two cents.

Another lens I view this through the administrative.  Asking for letters of recommendation, and subsequently receiving them (or not) requires time.  It requires time from the student (especially in tracking down referees if they don't submit stuff in time), it requires processing time from admissions departments, and it requires reading time on the part of committees who review applications. When such a system takes that much time and effort into it, you have to ask what the benefit, or net positive gain, is.  Going back to the story I was told - the qualitative component of the transcript, basically - does make sense in theory, but in practice... not so much. 

While I don't make decisions on applications that come to my department for review, I sneak and peek at materials that come in because I need to process them.  What I've noticed is that by and large (1) recommendation are uneven, and (2) they tend to be the same, more or less, just with different names.  The unevenness is partially cultural in nature.  If you get a recommendation from someone employed at a western institution you tend to get (more or less) what you seek.  However, non-western colleagues don't use the recommendation system so for them a recommendation is just an affirmation that the student was indeed in their class, in the specific semester, and from what they remember they performed well.  The "basically the same" aspect of recommendations runs into the same problem as non-western recommendations; that is that recommendations basically boil down to: student was in class, they performed well, so accept them.  It just turns out that western colleagues are more verbose in their recommendations so they happen to add in some anecdotes of your awesomeness as a candidate, but even those anecdotes tend to run along the same wavelength most of the time:  asked interesting questions in class, was the first to post in forums, engaged fellow classmates, submitted assignments early, etc.  From an administrative perspective there is (so far as I know) no background check on these folks providing recommendations so we are taking what they are writing in good faith.

Finally, as an instructor, I am lucky, in a sense, that I haven't had to write a ton of recommendations.  I've done so a couple of times but after a few original recommendations I've basically gone back to the awesome student, accept them, here are a couple of anecdotes formula because that's life, we're not living on Lake Wobegon. I'd gladly give a recommendation to former students who did well in my classes, but it's hard to not feel like I am writing a generic letter sometimes. So why spend time writing something that feels like a template letter if I am not providing much value to the system?

In short, recommendations for admission add no value while taking away time and resources from other areas.

In terms of letters of recommendation for academic employment, on a purely theoretical basis I'd say that they are pointless too.  Both for reasons articulated in the IHE commentary piece, but also for one of the reasons that's similar to graduate program admissions: the genericness aspect.  I think having some references is fine, but I think a quick conversation (or heck, a survey-style questionnaire) would be more preferable to a letter. The reason I think it's not that useful in hiring decisions is the same reason no one gives recommendations anymore (for us regular plebes getting work), and that is that people sue if they get wind that they got a bad recommendation. Generally speaking no one will agree to give you a letter of recommendation (or reference) if they can't give you positive reviews, and HR departments just confirm dates of employment these days.  Nothing more, nothing less; otherwise they risk a lawsuit. So, if you're not getting much information about the candidate, and if the information is skewed toward the positive (because that's how the system works), then is the information you're getting valuable?  I'd say no.

So, what are your thoughts?
 Comments
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