Tuesday, August 29
[I was almost done writing this post when my computer rebooted for no reason and so I lost it. This may make for a shorter post than the original, possibly missing some points.]

It's that time of year when students start requesting letters of recommendation. I have a few coming up for graduate students. Some are not a problem at all, but one has caused some concern for me lately.

I am on this student's committee, but other than his participation in one of my classes (which, to be fair, was very good), I have had little exposure to him. He hasn't responded to any of my comments about his dissertation. (Granted, his main advisor said that my requests weren't that important so the student has backing in not following my requests. We'll leave for another time this issue of committee members disagreeing.) The student had expressed interest in working with me (three times over the years), but never actually came through with any work when it came down to giving me something concrete.

So overall, I don't have a lot of great things to say. After all, I think the main project is definitely lacking and I haven't been super impressed by the student's motivations either.

So what to do? It's not really an option for me to say I won't write the letter. But then what do I say? Obviously I don't want to say anything bad, but how much good can you say given the above?


kodachrome said...

It took me nearly ten years to stop thinking that all students should have great rec letters even if they're not great students. Now, I just write them. They're all nice. Letters for great students whom I know well have lots of detail and evidence for my claims. Letters for slackers, just deliver whatever I can think of that might help the student suceed. My "just write it" philosophy saves me HOURS per (bad) letter because it doesn't take very long to write a nice letter for a weak or inattentive student, and it can take a very long time to negotiate with a student who shouldn't have asked for a letter in the first place. These folks are likely to make several visits to your office with bad news about the other people who won't write letters for them (too busy, cough!). Also, asking for supporting materials from a weak student is like shooting yourself in the foot--it generates three or four visits, you give them comments, get no results, or the product deteriorates, you remember why the student is weak, the letter gets harder to write. Yikes!

All I do is explain the difference between a strong letter and a weak letter to everyone who asks me for one. I do that in abstract terms, so it's less horrible for the student, and if they really need to look elsewhere, I spend some time helping them brainstorm about people who know them better.

fraud, in denim said...

I was going to steer clear of this post (I feel a little inexperienced in this realm), but I think that kodachrome brings up a good point. When my partner was on the search committee at our old school he introduced me to the concept that what the letter conveys is not so much the positive or negative tone (not that it's unimportant), but the length and detail, which say much more about the student.

I used to detail strengths and weaknesses when I wrote letters for students (usually undergrads looking for jobs, grad school, etc.). Now I let myself focus on their strengths without worrying so much about detailing their faults, knowing that my endorsement will come through in other subtle ways. Brainstorming better candidates is a good idea too.

But, like I said, I don't have much experience with this yet.

Navy Blue Blob said...

Thanks for the thoughts on this. Let me introduce one more factor in all this.

At some level, writing a letter of recommendation is also a statement about yourself, especially in cases where the people reading the letter at the other end know you. So you don't want to do a really obviously poor job, because you don't want the people at the other end to think that you're not taking things of this sort seriously.

Also, you would be doing future students a disservice by being too enthusiastic about students who don't deserve it. You don't want to dilute the weight of your recommendation.

All that said, you also don't want to be the single source of grief for a student.

But that statement is probably pretty dumb, after all, if this student had been more motivated and serious about his work and wouldn't have been the type to want to cut corners all the type then I don't think I'd be here writing about the case in the first place.

Halle Barrymoore said...

Kodachrome: I think your philosophy sounds great. I have also resolved no longer to spend a lot of time trying to pull better material out of a student that isn't really deserving of a great letter anyway.

Sienna said...

navy, your colleagues will understand that you can't write a negative letter. We all know the secret language of rec letters. The rule is, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. That's what a short letter means. One day you'll get to write a letter for a strong student and send it to the same place. Then all will be right with the universe. Until then, you have to write this letter in the secret language, unless you can find a way to slip in something like,

"I think his dissertation is vaguely about X, at least that's what the last draft seemed to say. This surprised me because the previous draft was about Y, but X is interesting, too. Well, good luck with your search."

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