Monday, December 01, 2008

"Hey-yay, Wait A Minute Mr. Postman:" When Recommendation Season Is Upon Us

So I’ve got a pain in my side that may indicate a cracked rib. I have a sore toe, a wrist that aches halfway up my forearm, a bump on my head, a throbbing neck, a sharp pain in my lower back and at least one elbow and two knees that are puffy and sore. You get one guess – what am I?

A football player?

Nope. Guess again. Can't?

Liberal arts college professor. And it’s recommendation season. Yep, recommendation season. And as it turns out, this year recommendations are a contact sport.

This is what happened. I was going off to a country house where there was no internet. I decided to push through all my letters of recommendation – eight students, several applying to as many as nine graduate schools -- in two days. Business school, law school, social work school, political science, history, American Studies – I wrote for all of them, sometimes more than one category for a single former student. And they are good kids, really good. How many different ways are there to say that? Well, you try to find as many different ways as there are students, not just because some are applying to the same schools, but because we all know a letter of recommendation is more effective when you can tell a story that captures something unique and special about the person. It is my view that you should be able to do that for each and every student, otherwise you should not agree to write a letter in the first place. That is part of what going to a liberal arts college like Zenith should mean: that a student is taught, known and well remembered as an individual.

But back to why letters of recommendation are a contact sport: first, they require stamina. It takes about an hour to write each one, and another hour, at least, to get all the letters packaged up in different ways for different schools. Now, granted, some deadlines are not until January 1. But some of them are December 1, so I thought, what the heck? Time spent now is time saved later. So I made the big push and got them all done. (Note: all except the request I received today.)

This is where things got rough. Yesterday morning, when my car and my dog were packed for the trip and I was headed out of town, I stopped at the mailbox to drop off the final letter. I left the car running, jumped out, put it in the post box and turned around to get back in my car. What happened then was this, as the Mayor of Munchkinland says in The Wizard of Oz.

Suddenly, huge pain bloomed in the toe of one of my shoes, and my foot stopped dead while my body catapulted forward. Because I had left the car door open (the engine was running, after all), what I saw, to my horror, was the navy blue running board of my car rising swiftly to meet my oncoming head. “Dear God,” I thought, as I flipped to the ground like a two by four in what seemed like slow motion but probably took about a second, “Not my nose again.” It’s been over thirty years since my nose was broken in a lacrosse game, but you never forget that kind of pain, right in the middle of your face. First my knees hit, then an elbow, and then – almost as an afterthought – my head bounced off the car. Somewhere in there I must have tried to catch myself with my other hand – a stupid reflex that seems to be hard-wired into the brain, and often results in broken wrists.

My dog sniffed thoughtfully at my head. I mused (as more pain began to blossom at the various locations described), "I have given all I have to give for my students. I am done. There is no more." I crawled hand over hand into the car and looked over my shoulder: there I saw an odd four inches of rebar, probably left by Stupid Overpriced Electric Company, inexplicably poking above the ground next to the mailbox. This is what had caused all this havoc – that and my bifocals. I can either see straight ahead or down, but not both at once. Had I been looking down I would have seen the rebar -- but then maybe I would have missed the car.

And you didn’t think writing recommendations was a dangerous activity, did you? Hah. OK, seriously, it is not my former students’ fault that I am a bruised and battered mess tonight. It’s some jackass of a telecom worker or sidewalk layer who didn’t finish the job right – hopefully the postal workers’ union will deal with this hazard eventually. But since I can do little else today but nurse my injuries, can the Radical take a moment and complain about what a messy, non-system is currently in place for graduate school recommendations?

I know that those of you who are recommending graduate students to me at the end of their training may feel you have a harder row to hoe. And you do. But let me tell you, this is what you could agitate for to make my life easier, and it might even make your life easier too in the end.

A common application. They do this for college and law school – why not Ph.D. programs too? What is so special about all you guys that you have to ask different, equally ridiculous, questions on each, separate, application? And that is between five and seven per student – it’s not like I am sending a single letter to Interfolio, like you do.

What’s with ranking students by percentages? And in multiple categories? What does that tell you? And how the heck should I know what percentage they belong in? If you are asking about the top 1% of students I have ever taught, I am placing one person in a category that contains approximately 120 other people. For one of my colleagues, with the same number of years of teaching but at about twenty students a semester, 1% makes that student one of a group of about 30 people. Now how does this make for a useful comparison? Furthermore, I am clearly supposed to recalculate where this student stands for every application, since for some of you it is 1-2% for my career; for others it is top 5% for a period of my own choosing. This is not information. This is a crap shoot, and I don’t believe you even take these numbers seriously yourselves.

Do you know how much time it takes me to fill in my name and address over, and over and over? Jesus. And why do you ask for my phone number? Not once in sixteen years has anyone called me about a graduate school recommendation I have written. Not once.

Could you all get on the same page about how you want to receive the application? Some of you do it electronically, although not all of you use the same company. Some have me send it directly to you. Others want it sent back to the student, signed over the flap, something I really hate, because then you have to worry about whether the student receives it in time, and because it is nearly impossible to produce a legible signature over an envelope flap. And how would you know it was me? Really? Do you have my signature on file? You do not. But this is only slightly more ridiculous than the electronic “signature” I am asked to produce over and over. Which is not a signature. It is just typing.

While you are mulling over all these suggestions, feel free to send me boxes of anti-inflammatories. You have my address -- it's right there, on the letter.


Robert Self said...

First, big sorries for your mishap, C-Pot. As they say, getting old ain't no fun. Second, re: uniform, centralized grad school apps, as Cpt. Picard would say, "let it be done."

midmodern scholar said...

Dear Tenured Radical,

I totally understand all of your complaints about recommendation season-- and I share them (except for the near death experience at the mailbox, being an historian, and having a blue car. Otherwise we're like twins). But I've learned a few trade secrets as DGS that you might be interested in for your next round of recs.

1. Lots of people refuse to rank their students by percentage, and we don't care. Some people use that rating punitively, or to correct for recommendation rhetoric inflation, but it's so hard to know anyone's motives that we don't pay too much, if any, attention to it.

2. Lots of people don't include their contact info on the rec form, and we don't care. We trust that you didn't steal your letterhead. And we've figured out how to read the letterhead anyway. And we'll never call you, unless you specifically request it. Probably not even then.

3. Lots of people don't bother to write careful, thoughtful detailed narratives about their students as individuals and as emerging scholars, and we really care about that.

For us, just like for you (and for me when I write these), it's what's in the letter that matters. So you're golden even if you don't rank your students, or give us your rank, address, phone number, and department on the cover sheet.

Take care.

Virginia S. Wood, PsyD said...

I'm awfully sorry you fell. That sucks. But the rest of your post--letters as contact sport--cracked me up. As lowly adjunct, I am about to write my FIRST letter!

Now I feel ready, and I'll be sure to watch my step at the post office.

Get well soon.

Zach said...

Yikes! Next time you'll be telling us that you came to blows with someone while proctoring an exam! um, I hope that doesn't actually happen.
Those of us for whom you have written many recommendations are very appreciative.
Some of us may even sue the utility companies to reduce hazardous installations (etc) someday!

squadratomagico said...

What midmodern said: I never look at the percentage chart thingies when assessing incoming grad. students. It's the letter that counts.

But at least you have something to write about for most of your students! I often have the opposite problem: students who have taken several classes with me and who tell me, in what appears to be complete sincerity, that I'm their favorite professor and that they did some of their best work for me... and for my part, I feel like I barely know them. That's what happens when the pedagogical model is lecture classes of 70-100 students. On the one hand, I feel an obligation to write for these students: the culture of my institution is such that no one else is likely to know them any better than I do. On the other hand, I always wish they had made more effort to get to know me, and more importantly, to make sure I knew them.

I used to have a colleague who wrote on her syllabi, "If you are considering asking me for a recommendation in the future, please make an effort to come to office hours and to get to know me." I probably should do this, too.

Of course, some students do work with me more closely, and in these cases I usually am delighted to be able to write a more individualized rec. But I've certainly sent out my share of general ones.

Susan said...

Oh, the evil rebar! So sorry for the damage done to you. It's not right. Harumph.

But I do like the way you talk about your recs, which, even without percentages, would be effective. When I see those I think: why would I be writing for someone in the bottom 50%?

And Squadrato's suggested language is really good.

Debrah said...

Oh my.

It seems that the nutty professor "reharmonizer" has brought the TR back into the mix here.

For some reason he remains totally obsessed with KC!

Will the saga never end?

Bardiac said...

I'm guessing the big classes in some schools counts very negatively for students trying to get into grad/professional programs from those schools, so that only the ones who really stand out get good letters, while less stand-out students from Zenith like schools know profs well enough to get good letters. (And by "less stand-out," I don't mean unqualified, just not as highly qualified.)

One of my profs who taught 100+ student lectures used to ask us all at the beginning of the term, and again at the end, to talk to him personally if we thought we might want to go to grad/professional school. From what he said, I gather that he started a file of some sort on each student, so that he could write decent letters. And in the days before computers, that took some dedication, eh?

Nik said...

Ouch. I'm writing the recs and am in some kind of sympathy pain--my hip! I hope your body heals and your winter break is recommendation-writing free.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! Wishing you a speedy recovery, Claire! -- Tamara V-S

Anonymous said...

I just mail (or upload) the letter to each place and ignore the ridiculous questions about whether my student is in the top 5% or merely the top 15% of maturity among all the many hundreds of past students I have had.

Sisyphus said...

Dear TR:

First, get well soon! Be careful of those dangerous sidewalks!

Second, do you ever feel like you shouldn't be sending students on to grad school and contributing to the whole PhD ponzi scheme? Esp. when there are all these dire predictions about even undergrad degrees becoming priced out of affordability for the middle class? I'm trying to get an academic job right now and bad as this year is compared to other years, people keep telling me it will just get worse here on out.

Jeremy Young said...

Thanks very much for the suggestion about a common app. The thing that's silliest to me is that nearly all the schools use one of the same two software providers to process their applications -- it would be the easiest thing in the world to get those applications to talk to one another across software provided by the same company. Even just the ability to share information across schools using the same software platform would have cut down my thirteen applications to five, and the same for my poor overworked recommenders.

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