What were job references like in the old days?
Anyone who has been involved in academic job interviews and selection -- especially for early career posts -- knows how important the references are. The candidates in question probably have very few publications that you can read; you need a supportive but honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses from someone who knows them.
Anyone who has recently been involved will also know how difficult it is to get a supportive but honest assessment. The current rhetoric is of unadulterated praise, sometimes (I fear) laughably dishonest. It's worse among American referees, but the Brits are fast catching up. In writing the instructions to referees for our college research fellowship competition a few years ago, I added some phrase to the effect of "an unadulterated eulogy will not help your candidate". I can't say that it had much effect among the persistent offenders.
I always vow to write to these with a few simple queries. "Could you please compare Dr Y whom you rate this year as "the most brilliant student you have ever taught" with Dr Z of whom you said the same last year. It would help the committee to know which in your view was absolutely the most brilliant". But I never quite get round to it.
Anyway, clearing out my study, I found some references for a Cambridge job, advertised and appointed well over 20 years ago.
They were both better and worse than their modern equivalent.
As they are so old, and as some of the candidates -- let alone the referees -- are long dead, I think it is OK to give you some anonymized quotes from these. (I have changed anything that could possibly, even at this distance, lead to identification -- including gender.)
For a start, what was worse?
That's simple: the sexism. For almost every married woman in the pack, the referee felt bound to say that she was "happily married" (how did they know -- and would we have looked worse on an imminent divorcee, anyway?), and that the husband was very happy for his wife to have a job. A few launched into the childcare arrangements, while suggesting that we would obviously want to talk more about this at the interview. Thank God that's now illegal.
But these references were mostly a lot more helpful than today's; they were prepared to talk about the weaknesses of the candidates and occasionally ventured a joke or two.
Try this for an alert to a weakness. "First a criticism. Repetitiveness -- no, rather verbosity. On a random sample of pages I thought that I could cut about 10% merely by verbal pruning. But X is well aware of this and is at the moment practising a little discipline."
Or this for a comment on the candidate's match to the job description. "He is not the first person that I would have thought of for this particular post . . . although he would be competent to discharge it."
Or this. ""I do not think he has done much, if any, teaching, and I suspect he is not particularly gifted as a teacher. I have found him rather diffident and unforthcoming in conversation. I would advise an interviewing committee, and I believe he deserves to be interviewed, to concentrate its attention on this area."
Or this for a warning note. "As an undergraduate she showed a tendency to indulge a taste for slightly eccentric philological speculation. I have no doubt . . . that this tendency is now well under control."
Then again, try this for a compliment. "I've never had any reason to suspect him of bluff or oneupmanship even in the sort of conversation where relatively sober scholars are liable to overbid their hands."
Or this. "If he were a bit flashier at interview, he would have got some kind of job by now, I feel."
And how about this for support but not yet. "She sometimes has so many ideas at once, that she is not quite sure which to talk about first. . . . I am convinced that she will be successful soon when she applies for a research fellowship. I am not at all sure that she should at this stage of her career take a teaching post."
True, you might say that all this was old school prejudice, or unsupported assertion, or self-promoting cleverness on the part of the referee. But compared to the sewers of praise you find now, it was jolly helpful.