making recommendations

We make recommendations all the time. Try these boots, they are so comfortable! Yes, Venice is totally worth it. If you have a chance, don’t miss the chocolate mint truffle rooibos tea! (yup, this is an actual tea that I tried yesterday at Chapterhouse – oh, wow, yum.)

Sometimes we recommend over the phone, other times in person, and very often in the form of a quick email forward, tweet or retweet. When we like something, we want to share it with the world! Or at least with our friends. (see also café recs in this vein).

So why is it that a Letter of Recommendation or Reference feels like a different animal altogether? I have been ruminating on this post for quite some time – especially as I have been deep in rec letter season, which doesn’t seem to have diminished despite the sabbatical away message – and have come to the conclusion that there are two distinct types of rec letters: the ones that are a joy to write and fall in the vein of recommending your new chocolate find or passing along a fantastic deal, and those that make you put a protocol in place. For me, this includes a time buffer (at least 3 weeks, please, especially if I’ve never written a letter for you before) and a request for a draft of what it is that the person thinks I should be saying. It isn’t quite like recommending a book you haven’t read, but more on the order of having to say something about a book that you recall being pleasant enough but you mostly got through it because of your commitment to finish books you start rather than a compulsion to read the words on the page.

Those in the former category are likely to have worked with me on a project, have written with me or been involved in some other collaboration, or with whom it is a pleasure to engage – not only intellectually, but personally and discursively. These letters flow easily, like my recent enthusiastic endorsement to my mother of participation in NaNoWriMo or the peels of delight that escaped my mouth when I first tried chocolate chip pumpkin bread over fifteen years ago.  In essence, my life has been enriched by these people, and I wish the same onto others who may encounter them as well.

When someone who falls in the latter category requests a letter – for admission to a doctoral program, an academic job, a non-academic job, an internship – my first response, which I keep to myself, is puzzlement. Am I really the best person to do this? Might there be someone else who can vouch for you, which is what you are essentially asking someone to do? And is a letter from a member of university faculty, however lukewarm and vague, necessarily better than one written by someone who can speak to your unique strengths and contributions? Even as I pose these questions, my own reading of doctoral applications and job applications comes into focus and the frustrating phrase “it depends” dances all over these memories. Perhaps we need to do a better job in graduate school of helping students to develop human relationships with one another and with their faculty; more often than not office hours can devolve into a series of questions about exactly how many words or what type formatting a paper needs to include in order to be given a passing grade. I suppose I could make a note that such a student is “conscientious with project details” … ?

There is a third category that is muddier and may actually be a few different categories: the request from a colleague to write about another colleague, like the recent tenure review letters I was asked to write. These are newer to me, and take additional time in part because of the added layer of performance attached to these letters – that is to say, an assessment of the letter writer’s performance. So far, these have been fun to compose, in part because the work has been a delight to read and in part because I’ve only just written two.

So the question remains: recommendation at what cost? Is a reference necessarily a recommendation? What if you recommend something or someone that another person not only doesn’t benefit from, but is actually worse off for having taking your recommendation? Oh sure, they’ll say you couldn’t have known, but then the phone calls start slowing down and suddenly you’re the last one to find out about the wine and cheese reception…

Ok, there’s a small chance I’m being a bit dramatic here. My NaNoWriMo energy is seeping into my quotidian musings! A nano-update coming later today…

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