2C Wednesday; January 4,2012 // The Staterent
THE JUNK DRAWER
Wednesday, January 4, 2012 // The Statement
With letters of recommendation,
an old tradition persists
letter from the editors
by dylan cinti and jennifer xu
Stashu Kybartas is a senior
lecturer in the University's
Department of Screen Arts and
Cultures. He usually teaches
three classes a term and performs
a number of other administrative
duties. He teaches so much that
he hasn't had time to pursue his
own creative work. Kybartas has
been at the University for 11years
- but under current University
policy, he'll never be eligible for
Why is that?
In this issue you'll read an
article addressing this and
other questions surrounding the
complex and divisive issue of
tenure at the University. It's an
article that operates on both a
micro and macro level, pairing
very personal stories with broad
data about the spectrum of tenure
attainment at the University.
While it may not provide
definitive answers, the article
will undoubtedly prompt some
With investigative journalism,
you have to look at the big picture
in order to understand the small
one, and vice versa. An article
just about numbers lacks a
human element, while an article
comprised only of people's stories
lacks a factual basis. Successful
investigative journalism lies in
the merging of these two factors
and in the creation of something
illuminating and accessible.
As its name suggests, The
Statement is geared toward the
kind of hard-hitting coverage
that will get people thinking
and talking. For us, this means
coverage that's backed up by
evidence and interesting stories.
So at the same time you read
Kybartas's story, you'll discover
that half of the Screen Arts and
Cultures Department's faculty
are lecturers like him, whereas
only 16 percent for the entire
College of Literature, Science and
the Arts faculty is comprised of
But we live in a digital age, and
so for us, investigative journalism
extends beyond reporting and
number-crunching and into the
vast and ever-expanding realm of
Starting this semester we're
introducing The Tangent, a blog
that will supplement our main
stories with videos and behind-
the-scenes peeks into how articles
came to fruition. Additionally,
we're introducing polling on
our stories, so that you can voice
feedback to articles with the click
of a button. We also have a Twitter,
so that discussions that start here
can continue online. It will all
come full circle when we compile
reader comments, poll feedback
and tweets and publish them on
We're looking to you to help us
make a statement.
tweets of the week
Kim Jung II died. I call his sunglasses.
'9 D nc
................ ..... .. . ............. . ..... ... .. .................... ........ ..... _.............. _... ........ ........... -.... .. .. ........ ...... ........... . . .. ... .. ..... .. . ... .. .. ....... . ......... ..
Very Rude Tweets e ryvude Iweet s
Kim Jong II apparently died of "pancreatic cancer"...or
"karma" as the rest of the World calls it.
..8 Dy C.
Trevor S :trcvso e ect ri
"Don't stop bereaving..." -Kim Jong II's final
instructions for the nation
Adrian Chen /frnch d r ni
FYI, Kim Jong-un is adding you all to his "To Kill" list
for these tweets.
status update: joseph lichterman
by jennifer xu michigan daily editor in chief
Who's your favorite movie character?
Ferris Bueller. He was, and still is, the epitome of
What are you currently reading?
"Three and Out," John U. Bacon's behind-the-scenes
book on the RichRod era. It's a fascinating look at
how this University really works.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I secretly like any movie with Rachel McAdams in
it. It's weird.
Describe a really good meal you recently had in
I love any meal at Zingerman's. The pickles are the
best part. Old and garlicy is the way to go.
by Jacob Axelrad
John Rubadeau writes more
than 100 letters of recommenda-
tion each year. The senior lec-
turer in the English Department
says he writes such a high number
because of the close relationships
he builds with students, allowing
him to write letters that reflect
students' personalities instead
of canned assessments of candi-
But at a university with more
than 20,000 undergraduates,
finding that ideal reference letter
that says something genuine can
Chemistry Lecturer Kathleen
Nolta acknowledged this diffi-
culty, admitting she doesn't know
all of the students who request
recommendation letters from
her. Still, she said she sympa-
thizes with these students, many
of whom will apply to medical
school after leaving her class.
"I will not refuse to write for
any student because some of
them are only in large classes,
so for those students, it's almost
impossible to get to know their
professors," she said.
If just obtaining a reference
letter is hard, then it is even more
difficult for a student to receive a
recommendation that sets him or
her apart from the crowd. Such
obstacles beg the question as to
whether the system of reference
letters is still effective to our gen-
The lowdown on getting a
Obtaining a letter begins
with the Reference Letter Ser-
vice at the University's Career
Center. Every year, about 6,000
new letters are processed and
10,000 student files are sent to
employers and graduate schools,
according to the Career Center's
A student opens a file with the
RLS for a fee of $25. In turn, rec-
ommenders submit one copy of
the student's letter to the RLS,
which is maintained for five
years after the file is first opened.
As long as students have a file,
they can request that their letters
be sent to any employer or gradu-
ate school of their choice.
Upon requesting a letter, stu-
dents can choose to waive their
right to view the letter, giving the
writer greater reign to say what
he or she really thinks about an
applicant. Yet Linguistics Prof.
Robin Queen said in recent years,
letters of recommendation have
been demonstrated to be artifi-
cially enthusiastic, presenting all
applicants as though they were at
the top of their class.
"It's not the case that letters
of recommendation really tell
you, 'Here's the top two percent
of candidates. Here's the top five
percent. Here's the top 10 per-
cent,' " she said. "They all tend
to be, 'Everyone's in the top one
That can make it hard to dis-
tinguish between candidates.
Queen said the competitive
nature of graduate school admis-
sions creates a system in which
anything less than the top cat-
egory looks bad, a mentality that
follows the increasing trend of
inflation among undergraduate
"A C is actually an average
grade," Queen said. "But stu-
dents see a C as basically failing.
So that same shift has happened
in recommendation letters."
Queen also said studies done
by Profs. Frances Trix and
Carolyn Psenka of Wayne State
University have shown that
both letter writers and letter
readers may have unintentional
cognitive biases, which could
lead to negative repercussions
for one applicant group over
The paper, "Exploring the
Color of Glass: Letters of Recom-
mendation for Female and Male
Medical Faculty," studied people
applying for academic positions
in medical schools. Recommend-
ers talked about men's research
abilities and women's teaching
and nurturing abilities, indicating
an unintentional gender bias. This
goes for ethnicity as well as gen-
der, Queen said.
Those evaluating and reading
letters and resumes may also har-
bor an unintentional bias.
She gave the example a differ-
ent study done by professors at
the Massachusetts Institute for
Technology and the University
of Chicago Graduate school of
Business in which identical fake
resumes were sent to employers,
with the difference that one set
had male names and the other had
female names. The study showed
that those with male names were
more likely to be hired.
This same study was replicated
with ethnically marked names
and stereotypically white names.
The ethnically marked names got
fewer callbacks than their generi-
cally white counterparts.
"The basic story there is that
this is not an intentional bias
exactly, but there is a kind of
cultural bias around this kind of
thing," Queen said.
Are letters even relevant
Many graduate and profes-
sional schools require two to
five letters with a combination
of academic and non-academic
According to English Lec-
turer Cody Walker, a former
graduate . admissions officer,
"hyperbole is the order of the
day" when it comes to letters,
so admissions committees must
determine whether the recom-
mender worked from a template
or if something special about the
student caught the professor's
Recommendation letters also
don't enjoy the cachet they once
RLS supervisor Mariella
Mecozzi explained that while
letters are still important for
graduate and professional school
applications and jobs in aca-
demia, they are not as important
when it comes to other jobs.
"Jobs can be very specific by
nature," she said.
She pointed out that a phone
reference allows the employer to
get the specific feedback they're
"Your typical undergraduate
student ... would be better advised
to have three to five people that
agree to speak on their behalf,"
The benefits of an old-
For students, contacting teach-
ers who may not even remembeF
your face is uncomfortable and
ineffective. And as a teacher, it
may seem like a thankless task of
writing letter after letter for stu-
dents you could barely know.
But for many at the University,
letters do actually make a difP
ference in the grand scheme of
Though Nolta admits the pro-
cess can be cumbersome, she said
it's an essential component of a stu-
dent's time as an undergraduate.
"Is it an obstacle? Yes. Is it a
good growth experience? Abso-
lutely," she said, adding that it
encourages interaction among
teachers and students.
LSA senior Alex Myong agrees.
Applying to medical schools-
Myong said he was forced to
reach outside his comfort zone
and make connections with pro-
fessors he could have otherwise
"It kind of forces you to find
professors who fill requirements
instead of the professors you're
closest with," Myong said.
For Rubadeau, letters are vital.
"That's the joy of life, to get to
know people and become friends
with people," Rubadeau said. "If
I have a chance to help someone
out in his or her career, then I'll
help him or her out. And I enjoy
Walker bemoaned the process
but added that he finds satisfac-
tion in writing letters.
While a simple phone call
could be quicker and easier, the
act of writing - of actually sit-
ting down with a student in mind
and crafting a letter on his or her
behalf - is a bonding experience
for both the student and the prow
fessor, Walker said.
"Being about to do it, I hate,"
Walker said. "Having it in my cal-
endar feels oppressive in the way
that sitting down to write a Ph.D.
dissertation felt oppressive. But
actually doing it is usually kind of
interesting and having done it is
There's a pay-it-forward men-
tality among professors across
departments, Walker said.
After all, none of them would
be where they are today if it
weren't for professors writing
So the tradition persists.
"I think there's some sense of
ethical or karmic obligation to
keep it going as long as it's still the,
system," Walker said.
Check out The Statement's blog, The Tangent, for
additional graphs, interviews, links and a conversation
with the cover story writer, updated throughout the week.