Signal Extraction Problems: Recommendation Letters

28 June 2007 at 6:29 am 4 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Some kinds of recommendation letters need careful interpretation. A letter written for a student to help him or her study abroad usually doesn’t need much interpretation. But a letter written by a colleague for a colleague to a colleague is a different matter. One reason is that writers of recommendation letters differ. Some express themselves very directly, others more indirectly. The same words mean different things to different people. “Solid research” may mean “boring and unimaginative” to one person, but may mean, well, “solid” to another person.  

Another reason is that recommendation letters can be used strategically, such as to get rid of unwanted persons. I confess that on one occassion I have written a glowing recommendation letter for somebody that I thought my School would be best served by getting rid of. The person in question was very smart, but obnoxious. What I did in the letter was to strongly praise the person’s scholarly qualities, but I didn’t mention anything about personal qualities (which was no doubt to the benefit of the relevant person). That way, the letter wasn’t dishonest (I think).

The highest praise that academics give each other is something like, “(S)he is very smart — and nice, too.”  Is this what we should look for, that is, we should be suspicious if the “nice” part is left out? What other indications are there? How does the O&M readership handle the recommendation letter signal extraction problem?

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Ephemera, Institutions.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. REW  |  28 June 2007 at 3:08 pm

    This is why the telephone was invented. (and smoke-filled brasseries) Unambiguous signals are passed verbally between persons that matter to the transaction to which the recommendation is attached.

    I also use the who-didn’t-write-a letter filter. For P&T letters, which of the usual suspects were left off the solicitation list? For recommendations of graduate students, who on the committee was avoided? (Big red flag when the dissertation advisor is absent). Also, is the eminence gris of the student’s department/research group in or out?

    Nearly all recommendations that I have read for search committees have been blunt tools for assessment.

  • 2. Hamish Barney  |  28 June 2007 at 4:36 pm

    The law in Germany has made writing a negative reference extremely difficult. Unless the referee can definitively prove the negative claims about the person being referred in court the referee can be sued. As a result a small industry has started up helping people say the things they want to say without leaving themselves open to being sued. There are, for instance, phrase books that let you say negative things in a nice way so as not to be liable.

  • 3. Hamish Barney  |  28 June 2007 at 5:06 pm

    I forgot to mention employers are obligated by law to write references for their employees in Germany so they can’t even refuse to write a reference for an employee that they don’t want ot to endorse.

  • 4. Dick Langlois  |  29 June 2007 at 3:46 pm

    I’m not sure I have anything to add to the discussion. But I wanted to note that Nicolai’s remark about academic priase was the subject of one of Deirdre McCloskey’s columns in The Eastern Economic Journal: “He’s smart. And he’s a nice guy, too.” She also denounced the very idea of letters of recommendation.

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