Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Academic Reference Inflation

If you are a college professor you have written them and have read them.  Yes, I am talking about the academic letter of reference.

Writing at The Guardian, Jonathan Wolff thinks that it is time to change how we recommend students for graduate programs and jobs. He argues that academic references have become so meaningless that we should do away with them completely and begin to seek references only at the final stage of the search process.  A taste:

The US style of academic reference writing needs a serious look. Typically, job candidates compile a "dossier" that includes perhaps five or six references. And unless a reference is three or four single-spaced pages then the support is regarded as somewhat half-hearted. But usually there is not that much to tell, and so we receive, in effect, six different versions of the candidate's CV in prose form, combined with summaries of his or her PhD thesis, and a few lines of detail designed to convince that the reference writer really knows the candidate well and has been truly, deeply, impressed.

But readers of references are also writers, and so we know the rules. When reading job references our eyes glaze over until we reach the business paragraph: the one where the comparisons are made. The rule is that the more the reference writer sticks out his or her neck, the stronger the recommendation. If you say the candidate is good, that means nothing. If you say "in the top three of the cohort", again, very little. But if you say the candidate is the best this year, or for several years, or for a decade, that means something.