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yes, even mediocre students deserve letters of recommendation

Yes, I believe that letters of recommendation are garbage. But if we continue to require letters, faculty have a moral obligation to write them. Why? Part of being an educator is to evaluate students for the public and as long as they subsidize us professors, we need to satisfy the external demand for assessment.

Sadly, many professors take an opposite view. Students often report that professors turn them down. That happened to me all the time in graduate school. Letters were a precious commodity reserved for the best students. That is simply wrong.  In a great post at Scatter, Older Woman explains why you should write letters for most students:

The combination of a high workload per student who needs references and claims that all letters should be excellent or not written at all leads many instructors to refuse to write letters for any but A students or students they know well.  But is this fair?

Her answer?

There are a lot of graduate and professional programs out there with widely varying degrees of selectivity. Virtually all of them require three letters of reference for an application to be complete. Getting those three letters is a nightmare for some students because they have trouble tracking down their past instructors and some they do track down refuse to write for them for reasons ranging from the student’s mediocrity to the instructor’s sabbatical or general busyness. I have had conversations in which I tell a student that the letter I could write for them would not be a very good letter and the student would say: I don’t care what it says, I just need three letters. I’ve also talked to honors students who have done independent projects and have one or two excellent letters nailed down who are still desperately shopping for somebody, anybody, to write their third letter, because no matter how good the first two letters are, the application will not be complete without the third.

My view is that all of us who are regular faculty (either tenure track or non-contingent adjuncts) should treat writing letters of reference as an often-annoying but important part of our job. These letters should be honest, and we certainly owe it to the student to tell them honestly if the letter we would be able to write would be tepid or contain negative information that would not help them. We also owe it to the student to ask them about their plans, about their perceptions of the selectivity of the program they are applying to, and whether they have done their homework in selecting a program that fits their qualifications. But if the student feels they want or need the letter anyway after this disclosure and discussion, we should write the letter.

Correct! Basically, letters are not the special property of A students. Many graduate programs simply want to know that the person did decently. Instructors are not required to write special letters for everyone. Most students just want a few sentences explaining that they showed up and did relatively decently. In fact, I think it is totally ok to write one form letter for decent, but not great, students that you can customize as you see fit. It is a requirement for large, public institutions.

Heck, you can even write short and honest letters for crummy students. A real example: In my first year teaching, a dude name Jiffy* asked me for a letter. He was a really weak student. C in intro sociology and seemed spaced out. I said, “sure, but the letter will reflect your current grade – C.” He said that was totally ok. All he wanted was a study abroad letter and all it needed to say was that he attended class and was passing. And so I wrote that letter. All I wrote was a paragraph saying that he showed up to class and would answer questions if called upon. That’s it.

I never did hear back from Jiffy but I Googled him a year ago. He’s now a successful dentist. And you know what, if I helped some dentist enjoy a semester abroad, that’s not a bad thing.

Bottom line: Quit your whining and write that letter. If you don’t think it is part of the job, get another job.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

*Not a real name.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 16, 2017 at 5:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio, teaching

3 Responses

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  1. Maybe students can ghost-write their own letters and the faculty “edit as needed”.

    The NYT’s “Ethicist” sure thought that was OK: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/magazine/mag-13Ethicist-t.html

    Like

    Occasional Letter Writer

    November 16, 2017 at 1:20 pm

  2. A student generally does not know how to write a “good” letter but asking them to write a dummy letter that gives the basic information that the letter needs to have plus anything they’d like to have said about themselves (with the understanding that you will edit for your willingness to say that) seems fine to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    olderwoman

    November 16, 2017 at 4:36 pm

  3. I empathize with faculty who ask that students write their own letters. But I think it is simply easier to have a form letter ready and ask the student to provide additional information that can be added.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    November 16, 2017 at 6:36 pm


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