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Jan 28, 2006 3:50 pm


Saturday News



Joe Ellis looks at where to place 9/11 in the context of American history.

An odd suggestion to do away with letters of recommendation in academic searches. Letters have their limits--no professor should, say, rely solely on a letter of recommendation to evaluate a candidate's scholarship. But they seem to me important tools in narrowing searches down to the finalists.

The Washington Post on how gay rights is splitting the black community--with possible major implications for the 2006 Senate race, where Dem co-frontrunner Kweisi Mfume has come out in favor of gay marriage.

More turmoil at Harvard, as Pres. Summers forces out dean of faculty (and professor of Chinese history) William Kirby.

FIRE casts a skepticaleye on the AAUW's recent claim that 62% of college students experience sexual harrassment.

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Manan Ahmed - 1/30/2006

" People without publications when they go on the market don't tend to publish much later."

Lord help naive students like meself, in that case.


Dave Stone - 1/30/2006

Fair enough. Perhaps my personal experience is intruding here. My observation of academic careers is akin to "you practice like you play." People without publications when they go on the market don't tend to publish much later. Since I _did_ have a couple of articles when I went on the market, I felt (and still feel) that should be a key indicator. It's like a factoid I've heard about mental illness--the best indicator that the problem is intractable is the thickness of the file.

And it seems to me the question is amenable to emperical verification by some bright sociology grad student. Do letters of rec correlate more highly with talent of the recommended or style of the recommender? I would guess the second.


Ralph E. Luker - 1/29/2006

Oscar, Hugo Schwyzer pointed out that the AAUP study was also subject to misinterpretation by such mainstream media as CNN. The fact is that the AAUP defined sexual harassment so broadly that it does impinge heavily on free speech. I don't quite understand why you think FIRE ought to delay its response until some poor bloke has had sexual correctness sanctions dumped all over her [or him] before lodging the complaint.


Oscar Chamberlain - 1/29/2006

As useful has FIRE has been, I find their leader's need to comment on the sexual harassment survey an example of the FIRE's tendency to seek publicity, whether or not a violation of rights is involved.

Assuming the study does overstate harrassment (a conclusion that I tend to agree with), the time to bring that up is when and if it is used to support suppression free speech.


Robert KC Johnson - 1/29/2006

Yes, I should have been clearer--I agree with Manan's point. (We basically only hire at entry-level at Brooklyn . .. ) Without letters from advisors and other senior faculty who have worked with candidates, I don't see how departments could fairly evaluate applicants, because a good part of the grad school experience isn't easily on record. I completely agree that letters are only one tool, and they obviously provide no excuse to not reading the remainder of the applicant's file.

I don't see any value in letters for more senior positions.


Manan Ahmed - 1/29/2006

I think only for your first job, maybe, you should have letters of rec. Otherwise, it should be like it is when you get ANY job in this world: a list of references that can be contacted at the Employers discretion.


Dave Stone - 1/29/2006

I was a bit surprised to see your defense of letters of recommendation, given your well-argued case against collegiality, as a subject to be taught or a criteria in personnel decisions.

Like all academics, I have read and written lots of letters. I'm not sure I remember reading a single letter that made a big difference in my conclusions.

After all, without letters of recommendation in faculty job searches, we'd be forced to look at publications, syllabi, course evaluations . . . and where's the harm in that?


Jonathan Dresner - 1/28/2006

I never had a class with him, as such, but what I've heard from China students was always good. And his attempt to reform the "CORE" curriculum was grossly overdue; it'll be interesting to see if the reform proposals have enough traction at this point to go forward without him.


John H. Lederer - 1/28/2006

"Faculty is instituting a multi-faceted plan that includes decapitalizing the school’s endowment in order to pay for the deficit."

Does "decapitalizing" mean spending the principal?


Robert KC Johnson - 1/28/2006

Indeed. I don't know Kirby well, but from what I do know, he seemed like an outstanding scholar and teacher. A disappointing move.


Jonathan Dresner - 1/28/2006

What's weird about the Kirby resignation is that I just got my latest issue of the Harvard Magazine, in which Summers vehemently denied rumors that there was trouble between them or that Kirby was on his way out. Don't believe everything you read....

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