This week and next, philosophy departments around the U.S. will be deciding whom to interview at the philosophy convention between Xmas and New Year. That means that hundreds of philosophers are now immersed in reading letters of recommendation from their professional colleagues. The experience is a curious one, since the letters (at least the ones from Americans) are written in a kind of code. (Some readers may recall the Chronicle of Higher Ed's article on "Why You Can't Trust Letters of Recommendation" from three years ago, in which yours truly and others are quoted; there is a copy accessible here. It's worth reading.)
Part of the problem with these letters--besides their uniform inflation and hyperbole--is that the code is hard to interpret. For example, letters will frequently conclude with one of the following recommendations:
I recommend X warmly/highly.
I generally assume that this is a weaker recommendation than:
I give X my highest recommendation.
But maybe not: it could depend on the writer?
And how does "highest recommendation" compare to:
I recommend X without reservation.
The same? Stronger? Does it depend on the author again?
And how does the warmly/highly recommendation compare with,
I recommend X with enthusiasm.
And does one writer who says the latter necessarily mean to convey less enthusiasm than a different writer who says,
I recommend X with great enthusiasm
I'm not always sure. Nor am I always sure whether "warmly" means the same as "highly" or whether "warmly" is really code for "not enthusiastically," and so on.
I have chatted with others, here and elsewhere, about this subject, and if there is a consensus among readers of such letters it is this: what is most meaningful in a letter of recommendation are explicit comparisons with other graduates of the program or other philosophers working in the same area. All the "warmlys," "highlys" etc. just don't help. Philosophers ought to drop them, and say, "X is the best student since Y and Z that we've had" or "X's work is comparable to the work of A and B," where A and B are employed philosophers working in that area. Such comparisons are slightly distasteful, and there's no guarantee that Y and Z, or A and B, won't see the comparisons; but there's no question they are MUCH MORE informative than the code words. (I can recall reading a letter in which I was in the comparison class for the candidate, and the letter writer said, among other things, that the candidate is "less pugnacious" than Brian Leiter. That, of course, was true, but since everyone is less pugnacious than me, that wasn't too informative!)
So philosophers: let's drop the code words, and make real comparisons. And let's try for more candor too!