MOVING TO FRONT FROM JANUARY 21, 2010, SINCE IT'S LETTER-WRITING SEASON.
A young philosopher writes:
We all know how important letters of reference are and how much weight they have in the decision who to interview at the APA or at least for making the first cut. There were comments in an earlier thread on this blog that seem to suggest that at some point of the decision process this is the most important factor and many of my colleagues share this view.
The problem is the following: not every letter writer seems to be playing the same game. And I am not referring to the notorious US/UK difference in this respect. Some professors are very explicit about giving comparative statements about their student, e.g., “she is among the best three students I have ever had” and then if this professor does not make such a statement in the case of another student, it is to be assumed that this student is not so great. But there are professors who do not follow the same rules in their letters: they just never make comparative statements. And this is true of some excellent philosophers from some excellent departments. So how are we supposed to assess these letters? Are we, letter readers, supposed to know the idiosyncratic habits of all letter writers?
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.
Thoughts from readers on these issues? Signed comments preferred, as usual; submit the comment only once, it may take awhile to appear.