British vs. American Recommendations

I remember last year talking with someone about British-style recommendations, which have tripped up more than a few Brits applying for jobs in the US. The upshot is that British recommendations are honest: this student is average, with good teaching but relatively mediocre writing. In the American version, this would be: this student is an exemplary teacher, whose focus on his/her pedagogy is not something that will show under research on a CV, but is something that should, given his/her ability to bring to bear her research to students going on in the discipline….

Apparently, Brits applying to US jobs will get passed up since the above review, which can actually mean you’re the best candidate at a given institution, sounds like you’re the worst to apply in a number of years. The way the Brits find out about this is when they hire one of those stupendous Americans—according to their recommendations—only to find out that they are good teachers with mediocre writing…

Which is something I’m thinking about today as I’m writing a recommendation, trying to find some new way to say that this is really a great and good student…


  1. Indeed, this is true of Europe in general, compared to the US. The reasons, not surprisingly, find root in American litigation fears. These have managed to work their way into the very fabric of things, it seems, such that one can’t even assume it is intentional. The result produces letters that always have to be read between-the-lines.

    All of which makes me wonder what academic letters of recommendation have to do with Amber Valletta having been photographed, as suggested above. Clearly something’s afoot.

    1. Yeah, those ads for similar posts on wordpress are odd. (Or are they?) But I think part of it is litigation, but I don’t think that’s front in my mind when I’m writing one and avoid certain words; it’s just the practice. In other words, I think one can write an average recommendation and not face a law suit. (I hope.) For me, I know that anything bad in a recommendation isn’t put into context, but its read as “this person must be truly awful.” In a way I wish we had a better system, like the Europeans. Part of it is a culture that everything and everyone is wonderful. Heck that might be true, but not everything and everyone is wonderful at scholarly work in philosophy….

Comments are closed.