An article in Quartz leads to this piece at Gawker on how reference letters have a basis in discrimination, particularly against Jews, and should be abolished as gatekeeping entrance requirements to academic establishments, residences, and awards. You know, I have to say I agree. Pr at least, I’d be happy to just not have to write them for any reason. They’re like book reviews for me. I agonize over them. I’ve done about five in the last year and they’re an enormous amount of work. I mean, I’ll do it because they’re my students and colleagues, etc., but being a non-academic poet in a world dominated by academics, there’s a part of me that goes, listen… Ask someone who has a cushy tenure track position. This is actually part of their job they get paid for. Of course, I never would. They’re good people, and I’m honoured to be thought of at all, as I age into obscurity. But besides any gatekeeping work they do, they also keep both the referee and the referred super distracted with what amounts to pointless busy work.
Reference letters, in addition to just being a pain in the ass, have an anti-Semitic origin story in the U.S. “In the 1920s, the heads of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton decided they were admitting too many Jewish students,” writes Sarah Todd in a recent article for Quartz, citing Jerome Karabel’s history of Ivy League admissions, The Chosen. “Until that point, acceptances had been determined largely by students’ scores on entrance exams, giving administrators little control over who made the cut.” The letters were instituted as a subjective criterion, a way to say, well, yes, this Jewish student over here has higher test scores, but this non-Jewish student has a glowing recommendation from an alum, so.
That the practice has endured at the undergraduate level is bad enough; that it has been adopted by most higher-level literary institutions in the country, all of whom claim diversity as a central aim, is revolting. The letters were not only born of discrimination, but carry it forward. For a writer to know someone they can ask for a reference, especially one that might move the needle, means they have already been admitted to an exclusive institution, or more likely, several. Those who haven’t — marginalized people, people who cannot afford to attend a fancy university, people with no generational connections, people who do not live in literary New York City — are out of luck.