I don't have much time for posting today, as I swamped with journals to grade and letters of recommendation to write. It is that time of year again -- transfer applications are coming due.
I write perhaps thirty to fifty letters of recommendation a year. I get more requests than that, mind you. About a third of the folks I get requests from are students who have earned Bs or Cs in my classes, who have never come to see me in office hours, and about whom I know absolutely nothing other than that their work is competent. I always tell these students -- gently -- that I don't inflate their capabilities for the purpose of a letter, and thus will only be able to state some basic facts. Indeed, I've been forced to write the following:
Mary McGillicuddy took my History X class in the fall of 2002. She received a grade of C on her midterm, her term paper, and her final. My records indicate that her attendance was regular. If you have any questions in regards to Ms. McGillicuddy, please do not hesitate to contact me.
I honestly am left without anything else to say! I teach seven classes a semester (not counting intersessions); I have over 750 students a year. Of those, only a small number will make the effort to have contact with me. Relatively few will come in and talk about their ambitions, their goals, their ideas, their doubts, and so forth.
It's immensely tempting to "inflate" letters of rec, just as it is tempting to "inflate" grades. I have a colleague who has a template for letters of rec saved on his computer; he simply punches in the name of whichever student requests a letter, and a near-identical form is spit out. (He has one for his "A" students; one for his "B" students -- and he won't write them for students who get grades below that.) I've seen his "A" letter. His template announces that every student is "unique", "remarkable", and (I love this), "well-positioned to become an exceptional scholar at X college." I haven't stooped that low yet, but with the demand being what it is, it sure is tempting.
I've heard this tendency to inflate called the "Lake Wobegon" effect, after Garrison Keillor's famous fictional Wisconsin town where "all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average."
For my "A" students, I try and craft the letters in such a way so that the reader will see clearly that I am NOT using a template. I also know that if I consistently inflate my comments (by making every student "outstanding", "remarkable", and "unusually promising"), the value of my recommendations will decline considerably. For example, as much as it hurts my heart to do so, I write 10-15 letters to USC alone every year. Over the course of my career, if I continually over-estimate my students' abilities, the folks at 'SC aren't going to give me much credence when I do write about a genuinely terrific candidate for admission.
For that reason, I always try and rank my students in my letters. On those rare occasions when I am able to say that "Joanie Jetson ranked among the best students in the class", I've said something that I think is more meaningful. To be "excellent" and "outstanding" means, of course, to "excell" compared to others and to "stand out" from one's competition. Thus I always think it helpful to make at least some remark as to where my student ranks. If a C student still wants a letter from me, I comply with something along the following lines:
Ms. Jetson showed no less ability than the majority of her classmates.
Yup, I actually said exactly that recently.
To my current and former students who read this blog, take comfort in the fact that my praise is genuine.
Back to the letters.