Recommendation Inflation

clarence.jpgThough many law schools have become vigilant about stopping grade inflation, what about “recommendation inflation?” Recommendations can become difficult to write well if one is unaware of the prevalence of superlatives in others’ assessments. Consider this observation from an English professor: “The level of praise is so high that any assessment short of ‘brilliant’ can look tepid. That means that any consideration of a candidate’s weakness is probably a kiss of death.”

The inflation here is particularly pernicious because simple observations like that can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Though the confidentiality of recommendations is supposed to ensure candor, privacy laws also make it highly unlikely that anyone can ever fully compare what one recommender has written on behalf of a range of applicants.

Lior Strahilevitz has argued that there is “often an essential conflict between information privacy protections and antidiscrimination principles,” because “the government can publish previously private information about individuals so as to discourage decisionmakers’ reliance on problematic proxies.” Reflecting on that proposal, I thought that one solution to recommendation inflation would be to establish a norm among recommendation writers to disclose how many times they called someone “the best student I have taught,” “in the top 1% of students,” etc.

But I sense that the impulse to quantify & disclose here is probably misplaced. To return to the Chron article I cited at the beginning, perhaps there are some more creative ways out of the problem. Though this style of recommending is directed to humanities graduate students, it could be translated to other fields:

One of our sources made a great comparison between the challenge of writing a letter of reference and the task facing Clarence, the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life: “Clarence elucidates the importance of George Bailey’s life by showing George what it would have been like if George had never been born. A great letter explains what a field or discipline would have been like if the candidate had never contributed to it, and thereby establishes the candidate’s contribution.”

Ah, the wisdom of Frank Capra. Perhaps narratives have as much a place as numbers in the assessment of excellence.

Photo Credit: It’s a Wonderful Life (George and Clarence).

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