Friday, January 18, 2019

An Unplanned Interlude on Reading (and Writing) Recommendation Letters


In the last two weeks, I spent many hours reading applications for graduate school. As is habitual, these applications were accompanied by recommendation letters. As I was reading those, a few questions came to mind.

In my over- 20- years’ teaching in American universities, I can only recall one negative recommendation letter, which I read some 15 or 16 years ago. Authored by an elderly professor, it suggested that the applicant might seem terrific but, in reality, was not. All other letters I have read before and since were either enthusiastic or very strong, even if and when they included important cautionary remarks. Of course, I form part of this crowd. If I feel I cannot write a strong letter, I urge those requesting the letter to go elsewhere. Nonetheless, I was shocked when, recently, a student asked me outright whether my letter would be strong because if it were not, they would request someone else to write it.

Because all letters are positive, we are often reduced to reading between lines. Is “recommending” different from “enthusiastically recommending,” and from “enthusiastically and emphatically recommending,” or does this word choice correspond to individual temperament and style?  Is a work classified as “excellent” stronger than another that a different letter writer identified as “brilliant,” or is it on the inverse? 

I was quite stunned to learn, as I read these letters, that many of my colleagues are now seriously concerned about the future of history. The affirmation (verbatim) that, given the state of the field (or jobs in the field), they rarely recommend pursuing a PhD in history repeated this year in most letters authored by North-American scholars. These scholars of course suggested that they diverted from this general rule in the case of that specific candidate whom they recommended because of their excellence, yet I remained worried. I wondered whether this concern is genuine, whether it is a cliché that my colleagues use, or whether it is a rhetorical tool meant to stress the exceptionality of the student (or some, or all of the above?).

Many letters contained a clause, which can be interpreted as self-congratulatory. It includes a detailed account of the nature of the program that the candidate has completed and to which the recommender belongs. This usually entails a description of courses and requirements, but also a statement about how rigorous, how difficult, the program is or how amazing are its students. On occasions, such as in letters written by foreign scholars, the reason to include such a clause may be the need to explain how a different system operates. Nonetheless, in both such letters and in others, it also serves to stress the enormous potential of the candidate, who had endured successfully and complied with these demanding conditions. Yet, while it celebrates the accomplishment of the candidate, it also elevates the letter writer and their program. In some odd way, it congratulates, perhaps even praises, both at the same time. Logically, the implication should be that most other programs are not vigorous, and/or their students are not amazing, or else, why would the vigor of these be exceptional? 

I would not pose these questions, had I not spent much of my time, now almost year-round, writing such letters for my students, my peers, and my former mentors. As a reader, I tend to dismiss most. As a writer, I wonder: is the effort we put into them worthwhile? Is there a way to write them differently?

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