The Heavy Unseen Labor of Writing Reference Letters

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By Cheryl Foster, Rebecca Millsop and Doug Reed

It’s October and the requests are starting to pile up. They’re multiplying so fast they feel like an anvil-weight of duty perpetually hanging over your head. They refuse to dissipate as the semester progresses, no matter how well you schedule your time or keep track of deadlines. And the worst part is: The sheer amount of work required to meet these demands goes hidden, uncredited, and unsupported.

We are referring to the mountain of requests that some faculty members receive to write letters of reference for students.

The academic year has a rhythm, and many of us strive to anticipate the workflow and move with it as best we can. Much of the workload is required and assessed: teaching, serving on committees, preparing for conferences, writing and reviewing scholarly papers. That predictable and manageable framework is disrupted, however, by the steady stream (which can become a flood) of reference requests.

As with many aspects of the academic profession, some types of labor are valued more highly than others — and some go virtually unseen, never playing a role in promotion, tenure, or retention. Letter-writing is in the latter group. In any department, the burden of it falls heaviest on those who teach well and lightest on those who don’t pull their weight in the classroom.

The faculty members writing the most letters are the same ones already going the extra mile for little — and usually no — compensation or recognition. They are the kind of professors who learn students’ names, keep pace with innovations in teaching, remain in command over their subject matter, and shape their courses according to an ethic of care.

So they are at particular risk of burnout when it comes to keeping up with letter requests.

Even while this type of faculty labor is underassessed and underappreciated, it plays a fundamental role in a well-functioning institution and in the lives of faculty members and students.

For a strong teacher, the demand for substantive letters of reference from students is unrelenting. You try to cope by predicting and planning for "seasonal" points along the calendar year. The first requests arrive in early fall from students seeking prestigious British fellowships, followed fast by those applying to the Fulbright program and then to graduate school.

No time to breathe, though, because in January come the deadlines for law schools and for big civic fellowships like Truman and Boren. Once those are finished, the reference requests for campus-leadership, tour-guiding, and summer-orientation jobs start up — followed by letters for summer internships. Some students are still asking for recommendations for medical-school applications in early summer. If you teach graduate students, there’s also the recommendation letters you have to write for their job applications. And if you are a good colleague, you will be asked to write references for someone’s promotion and tenure, outside letters for their tenure case at other institutions.

All of that letter-writing is labor-intensive — assuming you take it seriously (and students can usually tell which professors will and which ones won’t). Writing something meaningful is no mere act of rote output. To conceive, compose, and refine effective recommendation letters involves meeting with students one-on-one, reviewing their work, learning about the particular program or scholarship, and then attending to the craft of writing an interesting, engaging, and honest letter.

We could make many other points regarding the ethics of letter-writing — and what you owe to those whom you agree to support. But that’s not our purpose here. Rather, it’s to shine a spotlight on how the writing of reference letters exerts an undue and uncredited burden on strong classroom teachers.

They receive far more requests, proportionally and literally, than the instructors whom students perceive as indifferent or less engaged with their teaching. That contributes to an inequitable allocation of workload across the faculty, broadly and within each department. The problem is compounded at mid-to-large-size institutions with bigger class sizes and students of widely diverse abilities and academic backgrounds.

In short, the numbers add up. With another season of letter-writing underway, we believe it’s time to identify, analyze, and value this unacknowledged burden on effective teachers. The problem begins early on in the academic career and affects faculty members at all stages and on all tracks. How many of us were ever taught how to write an effective reference?

If you’re an assistant professor who makes an effort to connect with students, you may end up with far too many reference requests at a time when you should be focused on publishing, teaching, and service. Unfortunately, all the time you spend writing reference letters won’t "count" much in your tenure case.

Maybe you’re a contingent instructor on a teaching-only track. With a high teaching load and a visible commitment to students, you may be on the receiving end of more reference requests than your tenure-track counterparts. With no credit or reward for the many hours you spend writing letters for students, your effort is little short of pure altruism.

Even as a senior professor, you may well encounter this problem, albeit from a different route. Older and less edgy than new hires, your senior rank and prestigious title will make you a valued reference — and even more so if students think you’re a good teacher.

At every rank, then, strong teaching carries with it an invisible burden that needs to emerge as an explicit dimension of faculty workload. So what are we recommending?

  • Departments and institutions as a whole must find ways to bring the work of reference letter-writing into the light and incorporate it into the regular process of faculty review. Normalize and reward this kind of labor, and more faculty members will have an incentive to do it, thus distributing the letters workload much more evenly than it is now.
  • Administrators should collect data on how this phenomenon plays out on their campus. How many requests do faculty members at different ranks receive? Who bears the burden most in various departments? How do the demand for letters affect excellent teachers disproportionately?

This labor is already being done unseen. Collecting and analyzing such data is the first step toward granting good teachers a reprieve from their undue share of this workload and figuring out how to reward this work in a just and equitable manner.

Cheryl Foster is a professor of philosophy at the University of Rhode Island, Rebecca Millsop is a lecturer in philosophy at the university, and Doug Reed is an assistant professor of philosophy there.


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