Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Letters of Pain and Suffering

Grading remains the worst part of the job of being a prof (which, of course, is a great job).  But writing letters of recommendation comes in second.  They come in two flavors--for PhD students looking for academic jobs and undergrads applying for grad school.*
*  Next year, I will have to start to learn how to write letters for MA students looking for real jobs.
Grad schools have mostly gone to electronic submissions (with several Canadian schools still stuck in the past including my present and future employers!  aargh!).  So, now we profs whine about the different web-based systems:
  • Why ask us each time for our mailing address and phone numbers?  No one ever calls us for these kinds of recommendations (real jobs, academic jobs sometimes).
  • Why email us a password and then make us set up a new password?  GWU and Georgetown have the exact same web-based system, but I had to do this twice.
  • Menus for the ritual "is this student top 5% or top 10% or whatever for attribute x" are inferior to buttons, which we can zip through.
Am I forgetting anything?  Well, besides pondering whether these letters actually have heaps of meaning down the line?

What do my academic readers think?

My commenters (thanks, Ron!) hate the online systems much more than I do.  I hate how they are implemented, but I much, much prefer even these annoying systems to doing it all by paper.  Paper gets lost, paper forms may not make into the correct envelope, it means envelops are part of the process, signing the back of envelopes to prove that the letter is mine can be awkward, and one has to write on the form lots of the same stuff that is annoying to type into a web-form.  I got into the habit of stapling business cards to the part of the form asking for address, phone number and such.  So, yes, we hate the web-forms, but I still prefer them to the old system (which I still have to do, especially when some Canadian schools are involved).


RonHassner said...

You're very restrained in your spewing. I'd like to spew a whole lot more about these awful systems. Some of my students apply (on my urging) to ten program or more, so I've been to one and the same website many dozens of times in the last month, have been asked time and again for the same password (only to be asked to then change it to a password I will never need to use again). I am then asked for personal info that I've already entered into the site over the last 8 years, followed by questions that are all answered in the attached letter ("How long have you known the student for?"..."Read the damn letter!"... "In what capacity?" ... "Read the damn letter!")

I'm now joining a growing group of colleagues who refuse flat out to submit letters on-line. Initially, the students will suffer the brunt of this. Eventually, the admissions programs will get the message. Here ends my spew.

Unknown said...

. . . AND the systems don't let you skip questions (and sometimes have format rules for how the answers must sound, so "read the damn letter" (which I often try) won't be accepted if they want an amount of time that is a numeral . . .

Steve Saideman said...

Ron, see my updated version of the post. I still hate paper more than the flawed online systems. Hard to cut a tongue or a finger on a web-based form.

RonHassner said...

Well, Steve, outstanding universities like Berkeley (cough, cough) have a career center that will handle the paper cuts for you. Before the "on-line submission" revolution (a great leap forward matched only by the invention of twittering as a form of communications), I would send them a single paper copy and they would mail it on my behalf to various programs a student is applying to. They cannot, of course, handle my on-line submissions for me.

SamStanton said...

I really dislike the on-line forms. If they want me to submit my letter electronically, fine, but the forms are exactly what another commentor mentioned "matched only by twittering as a form of communications". So, I agree, "read the damn letter". However, I decided today that I would rather write the letter than deal with the administrative details of filing syllabi, exams, assessments, etc.