Reference Inflation

REFERENCE INFLATION….Henry Farrell is unhappy with the state of the art in recommendation writing:

One of Nasi Lemak?s former students recently asked a professor at a top US research university for a reference letter, and was told to write a draft of the letter himself, which the professor would then edit and sign. Nasi Lemak did some asking around, and found a surprising number of people who seem to believe that this is acceptable practice.

I’m not very keen on this kind of thing either, but it’s pretty common in the business world too. I know a lot of managers who barely even write annual reviews anymore: instead, they ask their people to write a “self-review” that then magically turns into the annual review itself with only cursory editing.

It actually makes a lot of sense to find out what your subordinates think of their own performance, but most of what I’ve seen goes way beyond that and is really little more than laziness or incompetence. I’ve always felt that taking the time to write a serious and reasonably comprehensive annual review is a sign of respect to one’s subordinates, and foisting it off on them means that either you don’t give a damn or else you don’t know them well enough to write a genuine review. Either way, I don’t like it.

Henry also talks about “reference inflation,” the fact that references for potential grad students are all so glowing these days that it’s nearly impossible to tell the stars from the grunts. Again, the same is true in the business world, and it’s common knowledge that if you call someone for a reference you should be very skeptical if it’s anything less than stellar.

Of course, some professors are just very good at writing clever references. My favorite was a reference I got from a professor who ran a summer program in math I attended between my junior and senior year in high school. He had offered to write references for any of us, so even though I actually did pretty poorly in the program I asked him for one. After I got to Caltech I was curious to see what it said, and the key sentence went like this: “Although Kevin did not perform at the level of Mr. X or Miss Y, he is a talented student blah blah blah.”

And this was exactly right. Of course, Mr. X and Miss Y were both absolutely brilliant Caltech students who were alumni of his program, so saying that I wasn’t at their level was sort of like saying that I didn’t play tennis as well as John McEnroe. He was able to (sort of) say that I wasn’t exactly a star, but say it in such a way that it didn’t hurt me. Thanks Dr. Deaton!

(Or not. In the end, a lousy reference might have been all for the best. Who knows?)