It is academic reference season. Every day I receive requests from former and current students, or people whose work I have read or examined, or met in a lift, to write in support of their application for further study or for academic jobs. I’m usually happy to do my bit. But as these references accumulate in files around the world, I do wonder how many of them will ever be read.
Data protection has taken the fun out of reference writing, and hence the fun out of reference reading. Gone are the days when it was possible to write on a plain note card “Grab him if you can,” as apparently Gilbert Ryle, professor of philosophy at Oxford, did for one of his students in the 1960s. Or in the strangulated prose of Isaiah Berlin, in his recommendation for the brilliant legal philosopher HLA Hart, “What he is tortured by is the thought that he will never be better than [AC] Ewing and will never hold other views than Ewing. He realises himself that this is not a very exciting state of mind to be in … Nevertheless … he cannot be worse than Ewing, who, after all, is … in his own way, not contemptible.”
These days one has to keep in mind that the person you are writing for may eventually see the reference. Accordingly, reference inflation has set in, and everyone is simply wonderful. One reference writer has said of several of his PhD students, “He reminds me of the young Wittgenstein.” (That’s right! He can never get his shirt to stay tucked in either!) Perhaps the oddest comment I’ve seen is “Pound for pound she is the best philosopher in the department.” What can that mean? She’s not very good, but on the other hand she is really small?