Jerome Shea       April 1, 2012      Weekend Wonk

The letter of recommendation, usually for a student applying to grad school or for a new PhD applying for her first real teaching job, is a fact of academic life and a venerable tradition. In the past two weeks I have written three, though two were for the same student and were essentially variations on a theme for two similar programs. Over the years I have written countless recommendations. I hope they helped. I am pretty sure that none of them hurt. That student applying to two UK grad schools was accepted by her first choice within a week, and York University told her that her recommendations were a deciding factor in their decision. I suspect that my colleague’s letter—I asked Megan who else had written—made the real difference.

I don’t think I do a poor job of it, but I always feel that I should write more or dig deeper. One school of thought, however, says that more than one page is a no-no, so I take comfort in that, usually writing exactly one page. I have a rough formula down. I always start with, “X has asked for a letter of recommendation to your program and I am [happy/delighted] to oblige him.” (“Overjoyed” seems a bit much, even fey. Forget “ecstatic.”) Then I talk about my connection to the student: the courses that he took from me, what grades he got, that sort of thing. I usually describe my courses as challenging and that the student rose to the challenge. I also ask the student to give me some stuff that I can bounce of off. (“I’m told that X won the award for [whatever], doubtless deserved.”) I always like to point out—if true—that the student was a very conscientious and hard worker. If the recipient takes that as code for “not very bright, a drudge,” well, that’s a risk I’ll take. I refuse to make myself crazy. If the applicant is not just a student but a friend, I say so, and why he became a friend. I then try to wind up with something short but memorable, maybe a chiasmus: “Your program will be excellent for X and X will be excellent for your program. I hope you will give his application the good hard look it deserves.”

It used to be that recommendations were confidential, the applicant never allowed to see them. Often you were obliged to scrawl your signature across the sealed envelope flap. Real secret agent stuff; I’m surprised that we weren’t told to write in invisible ink. That policy has been relaxed somewhat in the last few years. Often the student has a choice and checks a box: to see or not to see. Then she has to guess what her choice will say to the recipient: is she so secure that she does not need to see the recommendation, or is she really insecure and probably unworthy? But then, suppose the recommendation is toxic…. See above: making yourself crazy.

I will not write a recommendation unless I can help the student’s cause, and I do turn some requests down. In other words, I would never knowingly sabotage a student. But everyone has stories about the poisoned recommendation. “I would be delighted to write, dear boy!” says Professor Viper, and then proceeds—who knows how or when that poor student somehow offended the guy–to damn the blighter in three vitriolic pages. A career nipped in the bud. I suspect that most such stories are academic urban legends, but some may be true and I hope the Professor Vipers of this world get poisoned recommendations for the afterlife. A colleague once told me that ending a recommendation by writing, “If there’s anything else you need, feel free to give me a call” really means “Give me a call and I’ll tell you off the record what I really think of this loser that I have just recommended.” God help us.

It’s not that chicanery doesn’t go on. There is what I call the con job or the old switcheroo. Some years ago, UNM was in the market to fill an administrative position. One of the finalists looked very good, but in a spirit of due diligence they called several people at his old employ to double check. Well, according to the folks at University X, this fellow could practically walk on water, they were devastated at the possibility of losing him though of course he had a right to further his career, etc., etc. Turns out, they knew that he had his hand deep into the cookie jar but didn’t want the public embarrassment of charging him. So UNM, where he quickly stuck his hand in OUR cookie jar, became the patsy. Moral: if a recommendation seems too good to be true, it probably is.

What to do? Praise the applicant to the skies and she might look, literally, too good to be true. Mention a couple of weak spots to try to make her seem human like the rest of us, and a big “loser” flag might pop up.

Such a delicate and sometimes depressing dance it is.

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