Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lying and Letters of Recommendation

Each fall I write a lot of letters of recommendation for my students.  This fall is no exception.  In fact, I'm writing more this fall than ever before, and I'm happy to report that I think all the students I'm writing for are in fact worthy of strong recommendations.

I'm also reading Sissela Bok's book Lying, in which she has a sub-chapter on letters of recommendation.  She makes the very sensible point that inflated letters of recommendation do some harm to everyone involved, and urges us to consider being far more honest than we tend to be in such letters.  The problem is that as this kind of letter has become mandatory, there has been something like "grade-inflation" across the board with these letters.  Arguably, no one expects letters to do much more than give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.  But the form of the letter implies that the recommendation is not a binary decision but a nuanced exposition of the character of the recommendee.

Now, my principle has been to avoid saying behind someone's back what I would not say to their face.  But maybe I have the wrong orientation; maybe I should be more concerned about the person to whom the letter is addressed than the one about whom it is written.

I take my role as an advocate for my students seriously, and I attempt to do so with integrity.  I will not lie about my students, or so I tell myself.  But if I fail to point out small character flaws, does that count as a lie?  Am I obligated to make letters of recommendation into tell-all sessions?  What obligation do I have to scrutinize my students' weaknesses for future employers and for graduate schools?  What do you think?


  1. I have a number of concerns about the recommendation process myself, though they are mostly sympathetic concerns. While it is certainly true that none of my professors have seen my best and most enthusiastic work, I think they have seen good work from me, which for all practical purposes should be good enough. I feel, though, for students at large institutions with little or no opportunity to differentiate themselves from their peers to their professors, except through formal scholarship.

    Even more so, though, I imagine the letter-writing process professors are placed in to be awkward, to the extent that imagining that task inspires in me more anxiety than does imagining a dissertation defense. While there may be no better, consistent source for acceptance committees to rely upon for determining students' abilities and character, I have seen many students seemingly gain the approval of professors simply by giving them what they want, rather than through hard work or through seriously engaging the material and goals of the course. I am apprehensive about both hypothetically being played by these students but also by simply failing to realize the sincere effort and potential of quieter students. I think there is an intense level of intimacy and time commitment required to really effectively guide exceptional students (and perhaps an even higher level of investment required to gain the genuine interest, effort, and appreciation of those students who are not exceptional or interested). If this type of commitment which all instructors showed all students, letters of recommendation would be ideal, but this level of commitment is made impossible student:teacher ratios and the other time commitments and focuses mandated by the job.

    On a virtually unrelated note, ETS has recently been rolling out what I feel is a sort of standardized alternative to the recommendation letter, the Personal Potential Index (PPI). I wonder if you think something like this might help or hurt the recommendation process, by standardizing the scoring and discussion about qualities traditionally extolled in these letters.

  2. Jxn, that news about the ETS is interesting, though I'm not sanguine about how much good it'll do. ETS is not, in my opinion, doing much good for anyone except themselves.

    I don't mind writing letters, since I see it as an opportunity to help good students advance their careers. It's not a particularly difficult task, and when you've come to like and admire certain students, it's a joy to be a part of their moving on to bigger and better things.

    The only time it's onerous is when a student who is a poor performer asks for a letter. The simplest thing to do there (and also one of the hardest, sometimes) is to tell the student that you can't write a good letter for them. Better to tell the truth then than to give the student false hope while sending off a damning letter.