I mentioned awhile ago that a couple of students e-mailed me to ask about letters and failed to respond to my questions about their intentions. Well, one got a promotion at work (congratulations!) and was very busy for awhile, but finally did give me a lot of useful information . . . which led to another round of questions from me. In some ways, it would be easier to have these conversations in my office, in real time, but the former student is working some distance away, it’s summer now, and last spring I was on leave, so e-mail keeps us both from having to make a long trek to campus. But it certainly leads to delays in gathering the information I’ll need to write the eventual letter.

Still, this ex-student (well, not ex, just pining for the fiords) at least started the process well in advance, so everything should work out fine.

Then there’s the e-mail I got from our graduate school yesterday, saying that Ashley Brooke Carruthers has put my name down as a recommender for ABC on an application for graduate school, and would I upload or mail my letter.

Mmm, no. The name Ashley Brooke Carruthers rings no bells at all, under any permutation or likely nickname. Perhaps the e-mail was sent in error. The graduate school meant to write to Eliazar Hill, not Eleanor Hull; or ABC chose me from a pull-down menu and made the same mistake.

Perhaps I have forgotten teaching this student: at ~125 students per year, in the past five years (seems unlikely someone from further back would be asking for a letter) I’ve taught 625 people, give or take a few. I expect there are people who are good at names and faces who can remember every individual out of 600, but I’m not one of them.

I’m sure this online submission business makes things easier for many people. Paperless office and all that. And if a professor has agreed to write a letter and delays doing so, it’s easier for the grad school to automate e-mail requests that the prof get on the stick than for the poor neglected student to have to keep checking with the grad school and then contacting the professor, worrying all the while that this will irritate the prof and the letter will reflect this. (NB: I’m pretty prompt about letters, partly because I often get asked at the last minute; and if the professor really has stalled then you are within your rights to ask that the letter get done so your application will be in on time; and if the professor thinks well enough of you to agree to write the letter, not only will the letter not reflect irritation, guilt may make it even more positive.)

But since I’ve heard from colleagues about similar e-mails from the grad school regarding students they do remember–but who have not talked to them about plans for graduate school–I’m wondering if these online submissions send the wrong message to students. Do they suggest that you can avoid the anxiety-ridden visit to a professor by simply appointing someone to write letters for you?

A letter of recommendation doesn’t just report on your grades, which of course I can find if I know what course you took with me, in what semester of what year. The forms also ask for my assessment of such characteristics as “intellectual maturity,” “emotional maturity,” “facility with oral expression,” “potential as a teacher,” and other elements that are difficult to gauge from written work. See, if you’re going to graduate school in English, you’re very likely to be planning on teaching; this means dealing with other people, not just with books and papers. And I sympathize with shy people who love books and papers, I really do. But graduate admissions committees want to know if you are able to speak up and address a group of people; they want to know if you can play well with others; also they’re interested in how motivated you are, whether you do all the recommended reading as well as the assigned reading. Can you handle the grad school work load?

So it helps if you come and talk to me . . . preferably while you’re still in my class. It gives me a better sense of who you are. If it’s too late for that, come talk to me now. Remind me of who you were when you took the class, tell me if there were circumstances that kept you from doing your best or participating fully, demonstrate that you are mature, curious, and motivated. The group work you hated? Maybe now you realize that it taught you about getting things done with a group of people only some of whom were fully on board with a project. The oral reports you feared? Yes, well, if you’re teaching you’ll have to do one every day (unless you assign group work, or show a movie). What has made it possible for you to talk to a group of people, now?

When I write a letter of recommendation, I’m not just recommending a transcript or giving details of what you learned in my class. I’m recommending a person. People change a lot during and immediately after their undergraduate years. If you weren’t the best student, if you had some sort of problem that kept you from doing your best work, if you’ve only recently figured out what you really want to do, that doesn’t mean I won’t write you a letter. Sometimes the problems and the process of self-discovery make people better candidates.

So I need to know who you are.

3 thoughts on “More fun with recommendation letters

  1. I agree that there's certainly a problem when online forms seem to bypass the whole "make sure the person you're asking for a recommendation will be able to recommend you" step. We encourage prospective students to come by and visit the grad coordinator and talk about the application process. If they're long distance, I email them as soon as I get wind they're starting an application to make sure they know all that's involved.My worry is that a student who won't be bothered to actually secure a recommendation for himself or herself (or is too shy to manage that) is probably not the person who's going to do well in grad school.

  2. Janice: exactly. I do think that a student who can't talk to a prof about needing a letter is not a good candidate. It even makes me wonder if some of these online applications are purely frivolous. At the same time, I'm trying to tell students it's not so bad to talk to me (or my colleagues); even if you (the student) feel like a screw-up, there may be ways we (the faculty) can spin the situation IF we've had a chance to get to know you.

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