The Letter of Recommendation: Resisting Anonymity

Early October seems to be the time for letters of recommendation. Students begin to apply for spring-semester opportunities like study abroad or internships. Some ambitious seniors begin to contact me about applications to graduate school that will be due in January or February. Recent requests from students have prompted me to think again about the place of this somewhat humble activity in the life of the professor–humble not because unimportant but written for a limited audience. Because the forms of these letters are so familiar, readers attend closely what is said and what remains unsaid, so they can be difficult to write well. Students should consider carefully the consequences of large seminars and web-based course work, including MOOCs, which may hinder the ability of university professors to provide a service to undergraduate students that students deserve, to attest in a recommendation that they merit strong consideration for a selective study program, an internship, graduate study, or employment. To ensure that a professor can support your application based on familiarity with your work, I conclude with a handful of tips for student who seek such letters. Your effort can make it much easier for me to write a strong letter of support.

When seeking letters of recommendation, you should understand a few basic cultural contexts, some which are particular to U.S. institutions. First, you are asking a service of the professor. You should seek recommendations from faculty who are employed full-time as a professor, who are compensated in part for providing services like writing your letter. In other words, writing your recommendation is part of the job. If you seek a recommendation from an instructor employed on a per-course basis, they are in no sense compensated by their institution for writing a letter for you. Also, these observations are drawn mostly from work at U.S. institutions and employment. The forms for letters of recommendation from international institutions vary significantly according to various cultural contexts. The level of praise lavished on candidates may differ not only because of the merits of individual candidates but by differing cultural conventions about student evaluation. The more pressing matter is not whether high praise or mere acknowledgment of presence is merited or formulaic—and one that is near impossible to overcome unless readers have knowledge of wider cultural conventions or specific institutional practices—but the challenge of recent transformations in education, which are making letters of recommendation more difficult to write without the significant contribution of students who seek such support.

The letter, though a humble genre, has the potential for an outsized effect on the lives of individual students. In fact, though I have a standard speech in which I offer letters of recommendation at the end of a course (which I’ve reprised at conclusion of this post) the number of requests that I receive is quite small. Now that I have several years on the same campus, I receive four or five requests per semester. Yet I teach some 100 to 150 students per academic year. So the mere act of requesting a letter of recommendation is often a sign that the student’s work is well above average. The rate of requests is somewhat higher when I teach honors students in smaller seminars, but still it is unlikely that the rate of requests ever reaches ten percent of the students in my classroom. I teach at a public university, and its selectivity is not comparable to prestigious universities, but the students who are at the top of their classes here can succeed anywhere. With advantages of educational opportunity afforded by social connections and financial resources, they could compete with the students at more selective universities. And given that many of my students drag their real-life struggles against significant odds behind them like a burdensome tail, one can discern in their struggles signs of future promise, which are at least as promising as stellar list of achievements that their more privileged peers flaunt with twitchy extravagance. Nonetheless, it is not an exaggeration to notice that in the significant majority of cases students who request letters of recommendation merit high praise.

When you decide to seek a letter of recommendation, be aware that it is very difficult to recall your paper from 1 of six I received last semester on “The Yellow Wall-Paper” or one of twenty on a paper with an assigned topic. When I am teaching two classes with 30 students, I am likely to forget most names within 4 or 5 months. Recent examples of requests include one who sought a letter in support of her (pronouns in this and all future references are by random coin flip to preserve anonymity) desire to transfer to another university three semesters after attending my literary history class. Though I remembered the student vaguely, the 200 or so students in the interim since I last saw her had obscured my memory. With the assistance of two papers that the student forwarded I was able to recall the student’s work, but I inquired whether she had more recent faculty members who could offer more timely support. Her answer, No. The reason: most of student’s other classes were introductory courses either taught in a large auditorium seminar or as a web-based course with a comparable degree of anonymity. I had chatted with the student briefly two or three times after class, and the reason she sought a recommendation was simply that to acquire the requisite number of support letters the student had to reach back three semesters to ensure that enough professors had known her on a first-name basis. Last semester I taught a web-based senior seminar, and a few weeks ago a student from that seminar requested a letter of support for admission to a graduate program. His work was recognizable (and the course is recent enough) that this letter will be easy to write, but I would not know him if I passed him in the Satterfield Hall, the building that houses the English department at Kent State. Surely we have crossed paths, but his face and voice remain a mystery because I have never connected the name on an electronic roster or grade book to an in-the-flesh human being.

If contact with professors on a personal basis is so rare or if the educational mode of distance learning produces the anonymous faces in a MOOC, how can professors serve promising students by providing affirmation to and testimony about their achievements? De Quincey’s opium eater in the “rocking waters of the ocean” had a psychotropic vision: “the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces.” If the online education trend is inevitably toward this DeQuincean nightmare, students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend public universities will have even fewer opportunities to draw from professionally connected professors and other mentors. If the advantage of an education is at least in part the opportunity to make connections—and if unpaid internships also contribute to a crushing debt burden—one of the seldom-acknowledged costs of web-based education and auditorium seminars is the structural tendency toward anonymity, which makes the human connections that provide concrete support for particular opportunities in letters of recommendation almost impossible for students to acquire.

If universities are evaluated on whether they can help to engage students with employment opportunities, the increasing anonymity that is forced on students with adjunct or part-time professors, large seminars, and online learning should be a significant concern. When such forms of instruction become pervasive, they limit opportunities for faculty to know students well enough to provide authentic letters of support. If you are a student at an institution in which classroom time is dominated by large seminars and online courses, you must take extra steps to get to know a professor who may in the future write a recommendation. Office hours, though few students use them, are one of the opportunities to take advantage if you will seek the professor’s recommendation to support any type of application for employment, scholarship, or advanced study. Another unfortunate fact, as I have discovered from students who have made requests, is not all professors take the duty of providing letters of recommendation as an essential part of their professional duties. Therefore, the amount of effort that you need to take to ensure that you build connections that could support future career opportunities is ongoing and substantial. At the first moment that you discover an opportunity which demands a letter of support, you should have multiple possible sources for letters of reference. Humanities majors, like business majors, must accept the necessity of networking as well if they wish to pursue a career that engages their degree.

As I see this need seldom addressed systematically for undergraduates, I offer the following suggestions on making the best impression and securing the most helpful letter.

  • Before contacting me, please develop a brief statement to explain clearly to me what you are applying for and your interest in it. If I can communicate your interest and preparation for the scholarship or internship or award or position, the letter will be much more effective. I don’t necessarily expect your application essay three weeks in advance, but I do need some narrative about your past and future plans that make what you are applying for appropriate for your plans.
  • When you inquire about letter of support, do the following: 1) contact me early (preferably at least two weeks before due) but not too early lest I forget about deadline for something that is two months away; 2) if a semester or two since you took my class, remind me who you are by sharing copies of papers or projects; 3) after I make clear commitment to writing letter for you, remind me of due date and submission method of material three or so days before due. Print mail is seldom used anymore, so an email letter or link to web submissions can usually be completed a day or two before the deadline. Make sure you have a firm commitment from a reliable person. I have not ever missed a deadline for a student request. If you seek a recommendation from a professor who is unreliable about ordering books or returning assignments, be wary of using said person for a letter. Or if you do, make sure that you send reminders.
  • If the opportunity offers you a choice on whether to wave your right to view the letter, you should think carefully. The convention of a letter to which you have waved access is to ensure that the person can speak freely. However, there is a risk that you will place your trust in a writer who is incautious in their approach to criticism. During my career I have been twice warned discretely that a certain person whom I considered for writing a letter of recommendation was either prone to careless errors or given to including helpful doses of pointed criticism despite the conventions of the genre. I decided against asking those persons for letters. However, if you wish to retain your right to read a letter submitted on your behalf, you can expect the pablum of bland approval, which is unlikely to be believed by readers who know you have refused to wave access to the letter.
  • If you earned an “A” and wrote exceptional papers, a letter is easy to write. If your work improved over course of semester, another easy job. If you skipped two or three classes and an assignment, I can still do my best. It is difficult to write a glowing letter if you turned in multiple assignments late (or skipped them) and missed class regularly. In latter case, I recommend you find another professor who can speak more glowingly of your performance. Generally I base my evaluations mostly on your submitted assignments, comparative GPA in the course, and less so on your sparkly personality. Perhaps lacking the sparkly personality myself I underestimate its value. So in my particular case if your sparkly personality is a strength and you are applying to a sparkly personality position, make it clear that’s what you prefer to emphasize so that I can stress that in my letter (see first item in list).
  • If you want to simply list me as a reference or resume or vita, you are welcome to do so. Email as the contact method is strongly preferred. I almost never check my office phone, and messages left for me in office may be placed in my box so that I receive them 2 or 3 days later. But please send note explaining what you are applying for and notify me if you expect your references to be contacting me. It is simply bad for your opportunity if a person who calls me has to spend a minute or more explaining who you are because I’ve drawn a blank—since it’s been several months since we last spoke. So do not allow old references to age gracefully on your resume. Replace them with more recent references ever year or two—or at least warn old references who remain willing to provide support when you apply to some new position.

If you are at an institution in which relative anonymity of students is becoming the norm—especially if online-only and large seminars now dominate your undergraduate education—you need to make efforts to ensure that your professor knows you. And the professor must know you well enough to provide letters of support for your future career or academic opportunities, because your future opportunities could at least in part depend on it. It is in your best interest to resist the anonymity of MOOCs and auditorium seminars if you wish the professor leading them to also provide letters of reference.

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