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

December 1, 2008, 7:41 pm

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 m
ulling over all these suggestions, feel free to send me boxes of anti-inflammatories. You have my address — it’s right there, on the letter.

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