Campus beat: U prof calls for an end to a frenzy of letters

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • February 5, 2014 - 8:02 PM

As an English professor, Julie Schumacher has received more than 1,600 letters of recommendation in the past six months.

Guess how many she read?

Less than half, she admits. And many of those — written on behalf of prospective grad students or faculty members — were just skimmed.

Schumacher, who teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota, acknowledged the growing pileup of unread letters in an unusually candid essay, “The Gristmill of Praise,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week.

In it, she takes aim at what she says is an increasing, and increasingly absurd, practice in the academic world.

Part of the job, as a professor, is reviewing applications to graduate programs — in her case, the master of fine arts in creative writing, which draws hundreds of applicants for a handful of slots. Each comes with three letters of recommendation.

“I confess I didn’t even click through the forest of links to access the letters unless the fiction was stellar — meaning that more than 800 carefully composed missives of praise went unread,” she wrote.

At the same time, she readily admits to “contributing to this mania” herself, writing 50 to 100 recommendations a year that she suspects “will be skimmed at best.”

After watching the cycle repeat itself for 18 years, she felt the need to vent. “I kept thinking, where are all these letters going?” she said in an interview. “Why are we all writing letters that aren’t being read?”

Among her complaints: “Most letters of reference, as pieces of writing, are awfully dull,” wrote Schumacher, who is also a novelist. Often, they’re filled with hyperbole. “ ‘Brilliant’ describes almost anyone of moderate intelligence.”

She used the essay to call for a fresh look at the practice. “I’m all for advocating for my students,” she said. But colleges could curb the letter mill, she suggests, by asking only finalists for letters of recommendation.

That could be tricky, she admits. But it would save a ton of letters from going unread.

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