(Still) Damning with Faint Praise

I am in the midst of reading applications for a graduate fellowship.  I can't tell you which one, but in a way that doesn't matter.  At this point in my career I have read hundreds of applications to our own graduate program here at the University of Minnesota, have evaluated more fellowship, grant, and job applications than I can count, and have read a respectable number of promotion and tenure files.  And the problem of unintentional bias in letters of recommendation is common across all of these evaluative processes.

I have read an extraordinary number of letters of recommendation, and written more than my own share.  (This is no doubt why I love Julie Schumacher's new novel, Dear Committee Memberswhich is right up there with Moo in the genius, precision, and hilarity of its academic satire.) There are of course conventions for the letter-of-recommendation genre, and of course, not everyone follows them. The occasional poorly socialized soul and the iconoclast either do not know the rules or defy them on principle, as do some Very Senior Scholars who feel they have earned the right to be irascible.  And there are always a few people who are simply lazy.

Most of those who do the recommending, though, are neither lazy nor irascible; they are genuinely trying to help their students or junior colleagues to succeed and their senior colleagues to have accurate information to help with making difficult evaluations on a deadline.  Most people, most of the time, do their best, and this is true of letter-writers, by and large.

So I wonder how many of the well-meaning 100+ professors whose prose I'm reading just this week, just in this one competition, realize how they bias their letters against women and applicants of color and first-generation students?

I wasn't going to post about this, because I don't know if I have much that is truly new to add to this subject, which has received a great deal of attention already. And, with many more applications in my electronic queue, I don't have time to do the research to document what has and has not already been covered on the topic.  (I do though want to refer you to some resources for combating bias in your own letters -- for example, see this excellent short "cheatsheet" oriented to those writing for women in technical fields.  For those who want to see some basic research, this article on gender bias can generate a good and thoughtful critique of one's own practice.  But it's just a start. There's a lot more out there if you want to go and get up to speed.)

What I can contribute is a brief summary of my own experience this week about how well-meaning recommenders may unintentionally bias the perceptions they give of applicants who are female, of color, or first-generation-college-students:

1) Faint praise.  This has been mentioned before; one specific and gendered variant is talking about how hard-working a female applicant is while talking about how innovative and exciting and brilliant a male applicant is. But more generally, I am seeing a pattern in which recommenders describe some folks as 'accomplished' and 'smart' and 'hardworking' while others are described as 'one of the brightest students I have ever worked with' or 'likely to change the field' or 'doing truly important work'.  And while of course this may reflect actual differences in what the applicant has accomplished or is capable of, that does not stack up with what I am reading in the applicants' own descriptions of their ideas and research plans.

2) Credit for the basics.  For the white male applicants, none of the letter writers emphasizes that the person has mastered the basics -- attending class consistently, excelling at introductory research techniques (descriptive statistics, for example), employing sound logic in constructing a research question and research design.  

3) Not enough focus on the ideas.  A focus on the ideas can derail the impetus to talk about how "competent" and "hardworking" and "organized" the applicant is (if a woman or a person of color or a first generation college student), and it can also make it harder to use generic enthusiastic adjectives for the privileged ("Chad is just brilliant!").  A focus on the ideas means the writer has to engage with the substance of what the applicant proposes to do, the questions being posed, the plans being laid out, and has to say very specifically why the ideas are good, what about them is innovative, what impact this stream of research might potentially have, etc.  Letters that focus on the ideas and the specifics are harder to write and take more time; they are also more influential.  They are more helpful and they convince the reader that the writer has something to say that should be taken into account.

Again, these are not new points, but they bear repeating for the simple reason that this keeps happening even though at this point we all surely "know better."  We all do this, unless we have some sort of consistent practice that helps us to develop critical self-awareness and gain enough distance to perceive our own bias. Sometimes those practices can be as simple as checking a cheat-sheet, reading a blog post about bias, or talking with a colleague before we sit down to write. Anything that brings this issue to the forefront of our minds before we begin to evaluate someone's work is a good practice.  Proof-reading what we write with an eye to unintended bias can also be extremely helpful.

Case in point, as I read over this blog post I realized I had initially - and completely unintentionally - damned both Schumacher and Smiley with faint praise by saying that "Dear Committee Members is right up there with Moo in the perceptiveness of its academic satire." But then I edited that statement because it's simply not adequate.  These two women, winners of the Thurber Prize and the Pulitzer Prize, respectively, are more than merely perceptive.  Their humor is razor-sharp and they both lay bare the inanities of academic life, skewering the proud and the powerful and the absurd, while also maintaining a certain humanity, even empathy, in how they treat their protagonists. Their work is stunning, and you should make time to read it.  

There, now, that's a recommendation.