Monitoring Job Letters

I’m curious about whether letters of recommendation for students on the market are read centrally–say by the supervisor or placement officer–in your department. If so, how do you give feedback on letters. Sometimes people in my department treat it like a freedom of expression problem, but that can’t be the right way to think about it.

While it may not be possible to give unsolicited “feedback” in any direct manner to a faculty member about his or her letter of recommendation, there are other means than monitoring the content of letters to improve best practices.  The department chair, along with the placement officer, can reach out to faculty in constructive ways, including holding a “best practices” session to discuss a range of placement issues, including how such letters are best constructed.  The aims, I think, should be both to help the individual students and to convey an appropriate sense of the department’s training and educational strengths.  I think we all understand that there might be resistance if the session were perceived as a “how to” session, but a larger strategy session aimed at getting the best placement results could have really salutary effects, intended and unintended.  The session can consist of constructive conversation among faculty about what information is appropriate, relevant, and genuinely helpful in letters of recommendation.  Most central to your concerns, it might also be helpful to make faculty aware of some of the existing literature regarding gender differences in content of letters.

Here are two places to start:

Trix, F. & Psenka, C. (2003). “Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation

for female and male medical faculty.” Discourse & Society, 14(2), 191-220.



2 thoughts on “Monitoring Job Letters

  1. While I value Teal’s point about making letter-writers aware of gender differences in content of letters, there are also racial differences which can be deeply problematic. Is a racial minority student who stands up for himself labeled as a “righteous activist”? Or referred to as “one of the most promising minority philosophers we’ve seen”? There are all manner of ways to give back-handed compliments.

    My main point of reply, however, is that it is very hard for folks to combat their own implicit biases. A second reader BETWEEN the letter-writer and the dossier-reader is really necessary. The program from which I graduated had a designated faculty member to whom candidates on the job market were supposed to ask their letter-writers to send a copy of the letter before compiling the dossier. This person’s job, I take it, was not only to make sure that letter-writers did indeed complete a letter, but to make sure that they did so adequately. I know conversations had been had in the department about bias in letter-writing but do not know for sure whether scanning for bias was part of the designated faculty member’s job. This is, of course, different from making sure no damning letters are sent. It is making sure the damnation is not due to prejudice or lack of care in constructing the letter.

    This has its issues in terms of freedom of expression, of course, and could be badly abused. However, it also has its merits in terms of detecting bias since debiasing oneself is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, according to psych literature. We like to think, as philosophers, that if we are on the lookout for fallacies we can simply avoid them. Alas, not so. Would that it were.


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