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Author Topic: Ouch. Professor's handling of disability  (Read 91267 times)
unsuregrad
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« on: October 17, 2010, 11:34:37 PM »

I am a regular forumite but I would like to able to ask this openly without identification.  Please excuse for long post.

Currently I am applying for PhD programs in a humanities field.  I received my MA last spring.  I did apply last year and now aim to try again with very strong encouragement from my MA thesis adviser, as well as my BA, as I was waitlisted at a few of my top choice schools.  So everything's going swell with the application process in hopes of actually making it in somewhere for Fall 2011.

I have an issue with my third LOR writer, however (my advisers being first and second).  She has written for me for last cycle.  I had no choice as she and my MA thesis advisers were the only professors I've taken classes with PhDs in my intended field in my MA program (it's interdisciplinary).  There is one professor but he hasn't really seen my work as of late as this professor.  Every other professor is irrelevant and not exactly qualified.  So it was important for me to STFU with her just to get her letters.  Last year, she said she'd write a good one when I asked her, "Can you please write me a strong letter?"  Yet, she occasionally gave vibes that made me feel like I needed to keep proving to her that I was strong enough of a candidate throughout the application season.  Heck, she was *slightly* surprised that my MA adviser (her superior) was so encouraging.  Same situation this time but I figured now that since the DGS of my waitlisted schools said that there was no serious issues with my application, her letter must have been decent.  So, I am continuing to STFU and proving to her that I am serious qualified (She would have to be kidding me if she doesn't after getting waitlisted at these top 25 schools.).

What irks me, though, is her unprofessional behavior towards my disability. 

I am conscious of my particular weakness relating to my disability.  As a result, I always strive to improve myself and make this weakness go away.  95% of the time people don't even notice my disability even though it's apparent.  In the past, my professors have been tactful in addressing my weakness without ever alluding or directly pointing out my disability.  They just said, "You need to work on this and here's what  I think how you can improve."  I'm really proud of myself that my weakness is going away and people who have worked with me for a while know that.  My MA adviser didn't even consider it so she was very surprised when I asked her what she thought about my disability affecting my ability to succeed (as a result of my conversation with this professor down below).  Her response was "What are you talking about?  You're very, very good at what you do!  You just need to work a *little* bit on your weakness but other than that, you're excellent."  And this is coming from a superstar.

However, this professor stung me.  When she asked (both times- last spring and few weeks ago when I discussed PhD stuff with her) why I didn't get in anywhere for PhD, I gave her the usual answer (competitive year, budget cuts, maybe the writing sample wasn't shiny enough, etc).  Then she suggested that it might be because my "obstacles" were too difficult to overcome.  I asked her to elaborate.  She came right out that she thought my disability was preventing me from succeeding in academia and research.  I was mortified.  I told her that there ARE academics who have this disability and do very well.  She said, no doubt about it but she was just wondering... She asked about my teaching ability and other questions relating to my ability to teach and research.  I think I gave her more information about my past than any professor I've come to know in my MA program.  Finally, she relented and said that I deserve and should have another try.

She thinks she's trying to be helpful but I'm not convinced that she's going to handle this issue well in her LOR.  There are other qualities of mine that she admires but tying my disability to my perseverance, ambition, and drive just isn't going to fly well from the way she's asking me about my disability (talking about my marathon running will be better).  My MA adviser never really had a plan to include anything as she said "it's not professional to include anything of personal nature."  I completely trust my BA adviser as she has known me for 5 years now and seen first hand how my disability affects me and how I work tirelessly to overcome that. 

I think it's just stupid and rude that this professor would pointedly use my disability in this manner especially if she meant to be a tough/demanding professor intending to see how high I can raise her bar.  But like I said, I'm going to STFU and let this season pass.  But how do I handle faculty members like her?  Boy, if I had another professor from my MA program who could be qualified to write a letter, I'd use that person and have every nerve to report this to the disabilities services at my university.  Nobody in the department has a clue that she's like this and I don't have any written evidence.

Or am I being a grad-flake?
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voxprincipalis
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« Reply #1 on: October 17, 2010, 11:56:28 PM »

When she asked (both times- last spring and few weeks ago when I discussed PhD stuff with her) why I didn't get in anywhere for PhD, I gave her the usual answer (competitive year, budget cuts, maybe the writing sample wasn't shiny enough, etc).  Then she suggested that it might be because my "obstacles" were too difficult to overcome.  I asked her to elaborate.  She came right out that she thought my disability was preventing me from succeeding in academia and research.  I was mortified.  I told her that there ARE academics who have this disability and do very well.  She said, no doubt about it but she was just wondering... She asked about my teaching ability and other questions relating to my ability to teach and research.  I think I gave her more information about my past than any professor I've come to know in my MA program.  Finally, she relented and said that I deserve and should have another try.

Let's think pragmatically for a minute. Issues of what you think she should or should not have done aside, is there any merit at all to the idea that whatever your disability is, it might be significant enough to prevent you doing stellar work in your field of choice?

(I am not saying she was right for saying so, merely asking for clarification on the underlying problem.)

VP
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hegemony
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« Reply #2 on: October 18, 2010, 10:27:39 AM »

I'm guessing that your disability is some kind of learning-disability thing, not, for instance, deafness or something like that?  Assuming it's some kind of learning-disability thing, that would mean, I'm guessing, that it could be confused with lack of dedication; for instance, if you have severe dyslexia and despite all your efforts a few misspellings creep in to a paper, this could look like mere carelessness to someone who doesn't know the back story.  I make this distinction because I gather that it's the quality of the finished product that is the focus here, not your ability to do something like teach, which might be more her focus with a disability like deafness.  [Also, I know there is great controversy about the word "disability" and whether deafness should be considered an instance, etc. etc. -- but I'm keeping my eye on the main topic here.]

In the long run, the measure of your success will be the quality of your finished work, and it will usually be judged by people who have never met you personally and know nothing of your personal situation.  So if your finished work measures up to a good level, she should STFU and let you get on with it.  The same is true of other things that might impact your work, e.g. bi-polar, depression (I am trying to imagine things that might affect motivation, which seems to be a concern of hers).  This is a field where it doesn't matter how you get to the finish line: if you produce a solid piece of publishable work, no one asks how steadily you wrote or whether you were taking medication while you did it.  It sounds as if she's concerned with how you'll manage in grad school, but you seem to have done well so far, and past experience is indicative of future results.

So as far as I can tell, your problem is that a hesitant professor is in charge of a letter of recommendation.  But you've already sent out your applications, right?  So that's water under the bridge.  If you were doing it now, I'd tell you just to skip over her.  I'd advise you to ask for a letter from someone else, however tangential, in preference to someone who's biased against you.  Vague and lukewarm is better than detailed and critical.  And in the future, there will be many people with their own eccentricities and biases who make take against you because of your disability, or maybe because you wear the wrong color socks or you remind them of their ex.  Use constructive criticism to improve your work, don't take personal criticism personally, do your best professional work and avoid asking for letters of recommendation from people who express doubt.
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unsuregrad
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« Reply #3 on: October 18, 2010, 2:06:29 PM »

Let's think pragmatically for a minute. Issues of what you think she should or should not have done aside, is there any merit at all to the idea that whatever your disability is, it might be significant enough to prevent you doing stellar work in your field of choice?

(I am not saying she was right for saying so, merely asking for clarification on the underlying problem.)

VP

VP, I don't believe that my disability is a huge barrier in my ability to teach or present.  As I've  told her, there are successful (and tenured) academics who have such disability.

I make this distinction because I gather that it's the quality of the finished product that is the focus here, not your ability to do something like teach, which might be more her focus with a disability like deafness.  [Also, I know there is great controversy about the word "disability" and whether deafness should be considered an instance, etc. etc. -- but I'm keeping my eye on the main topic here.]

In the long run, the measure of your success will be the quality of your finished work, and it will usually be judged by people who have never met you personally and know nothing of your personal situation.  So if your finished work measures up to a good level, she should STFU and let you get on with it.  The same is true of other things that might impact your work, e.g. bi-polar, depression (I am trying to imagine things that might affect motivation, which seems to be a concern of hers).  This is a field where it doesn't matter how you get to the finish line: if you produce a solid piece of publishable work, no one asks how steadily you wrote or whether you were taking medication while you did it.  It sounds as if she's concerned with how you'll manage in grad school, but you seem to have done well so far, and past experience is indicative of future results.

So as far as I can tell, your problem is that a hesitant professor is in charge of a letter of recommendation.  But you've already sent out your applications, right?  So that's water under the bridge.  If you were doing it now, I'd tell you just to skip over her.  I'd advise you to ask for a letter from someone else, however tangential, in preference to someone who's biased against you.  Vague and lukewarm is better than detailed and critical.  And in the future, there will be many people with their own eccentricities and biases who make take against you because of your disability, or maybe because you wear the wrong color socks or you remind them of their ex.  Use constructive criticism to improve your work, don't take personal criticism personally, do your best professional work and avoid asking for letters of recommendation from people who express doubt.

You make an excellent point about types of letters.  I thought it'd be better to have someone who knew me personally and longer who could be more detailed but I didn't think about that it would be better to have a more vague letter than a detailed and critical one as you suggested.

I haven't sent out e-mail requests for the LOR writers because of this issue.  I don't want to send out anything to her unless I'm 100% sure that I want this professor to do it.  You've given me the confidence to go ahead and send an e-mail to my MA adviser to ask for a conversation about this professor.  While I knew that this professor was expressing some doubts, I had my trust in her that she would do good, especially that she was working with colleagues in her home department who have experience working with outside community.  I mean, if a professor couldn't write a positive letter, then why waste time doing it?  But my doubts weren't confirmed until last March and I was wrong in my judgment of this professor. 

I do generally keep my conversations confidential with my professors, which is why I've kept this to myself for so long, but she's crossed the line twice.  And my future is at stake even though we cannot ultimately know exactly what went wrong with my application- adcoms could take her letter seriously, or they could just dismiss it as just one professor's opinion of three.  Thanks for a good push, hegemony.  (And yes, I know not to take personal criticism personally, which is why I let it slide the first time but now letters need to be written again...)
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #4 on: October 18, 2010, 3:00:00 PM »

How dare she have an opinion of your work!  And if she says anything even slightly negative about your grad studies potential, it must be because she is disparaging your disability! 

After all, people have been praising your ability for years!  Of course, most of those people are not really in a position to judge your suitability for PhD-level work in your area, or else you'd be soliciting letters from them instead of this person.  Perhaps there are other professors who maybe are not so positive, but they too must be prejudiced against people in your situation, and not using uncolored professional judgment.  - DvF
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hegemony
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« Reply #5 on: October 18, 2010, 7:28:30 PM »

Well, whatever the reason that she may have for expressing reservations about the OP's work, nobody goes to someone who's critical of their work to get a letter of recommendation.  If the OP's work is substandard, that should show up in the writing sample, and no laudatory letters of recommendation can undo a poor writing sample.  But an excellent application can be torpedoed by one cranky recommender, and why should the applicant feel obliged to stick with a cranky recommender when no other applicant will?
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msparticularity
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« Reply #6 on: October 19, 2010, 12:51:40 AM »

DvF, I don't think we know enough to even guess whether the issue for this prof is with the work itself or with her discomfort with the OP's personal situation. Also, the fact that the MA advisor is solidly behind the OP and has explicitly disclaimed any concern about this disability and professed belief in the OP's ability to do the work does carry some weight with me. I think the OP is correct to rely upon this assessment, rather than that of another (more junior and apparently less distinguished) faculty member.

We do know enough, though, to say firmly that this is NOT an appropriate referee. Anyone who can only frame a reference for you in terms of how well you have done, considering your numerous problems, is not someone you want on your side!
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #7 on: October 19, 2010, 1:19:25 AM »

It is up to the OP whom to pay attention to.  I was reacting a little bit to the OP's willingness to secretly badmouth someone who is doing her a favor.  As for whom to believe, I think it is quite a lot easier to tell a student in this situation that the future is rosy than it is to raise concerns.  The "unprofessional" professor is more likely to be basing her advice on detached thought about and concern for the student's future than the MA advisor.

I am also concerned that OP was only waitlisted at these schools.   Being waitlisted at a top 5 school is one thing, but not being able to get cleanly into a top-25 department suggests that there is some deficiency either in the student's record, in the quality of the MA work, or in the quality of the MA advisor.  This is not a serious concern unless the student is planning to pay her own way through a humanities program with aspirations for a faculty job afterwards. - DvF
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msparticularity
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« Reply #8 on: October 19, 2010, 1:26:37 AM »

It is up to the OP whom to pay attention to.  I was reacting a little bit to the OP's willingness to secretly badmouth someone who is doing her a favor.  As for whom to believe, I think it is quite a lot easier to tell a student in this situation that the future is rosy than it is to raise concerns.  The "unprofessional" professor is more likely to be basing her advice on detached thought about and concern for the student's future than the MA advisor.

I am also concerned that OP was only waitlisted at these schools.   Being waitlisted at a top 5 school is one thing, but not being able to get cleanly into a top-25 department suggests that there is some deficiency either in the student's record, in the quality of the MA work, or in the quality of the MA advisor.  This is not a serious concern unless the student is planning to pay her own way through a humanities program with aspirations for a faculty job afterwards. - DvF

Well, it might also suggest that a single faculty member who clearly knew the student well and was in a position to judge his/her work wrote a very guarded letter of recommendation, littered with references to a disability that the applicant was "working hard to overcome" or some such.
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #9 on: October 19, 2010, 2:29:01 AM »

Fair enough.  In my field it is hard to imagine all but the very top graduate admissions committees basing a negative decision on one letter if the other two are positive and the rest of the credentials line up.  However, I have little experience with humanities admissions policies.

I don't get the readiness to believe that this faculty member somehow has it in for the student.  Why would she?  I'm almost too cynical to live, but still tend to assume that faculty are professional and well-meaning unless there is concrete reason to believe otherwise. - DvF
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hegemony
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« Reply #10 on: October 19, 2010, 5:06:04 AM »

Still, everyone should maximize their chances of doing well, and if that means not asking a cranky recommender to write, that certainly seems like a legitimate, not to mention advisable, course of action. 
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« Reply #11 on: October 19, 2010, 6:21:39 AM »

While I don't see any evidence that the OP has done anything inappropriate, I think OP should find another letter writer. If one has any qualms about a referee, one should use someone else.
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #12 on: October 19, 2010, 6:42:53 AM »

Still, everyone should maximize their chances of doing well, and if that means not asking a cranky recommender to write, that certainly seems like a legitimate, not to mention advisable, course of action. 

Sure, but OP is not choosing to avoid the perceived crank.  Instead, she's getting another letter from her, meanwhile badmouthing her here behind her back, even suggesting she should be reported to her University's authorities.

I write a lot of letters for students, making sure to the best of my ability that they are fair and accurate; this requires a reasonable amount of work on my part.  I'm always upfront with the students as to what kind of letter I plan to write. I would be quite unhappy to discover that the students for whom I was doing this work were rewarding it by secretly spreading nasty stories about me. - DvF
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msparticularity
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« Reply #13 on: October 19, 2010, 1:09:43 PM »


I don't get the readiness to believe that this faculty member somehow has it in for the student.  Why would she?  I'm almost too cynical to live, but still tend to assume that faculty are professional and well-meaning unless there is concrete reason to believe otherwise. - DvF

I don't think we have to believe this faculty member has it in for the student to believe she might be behaving inappropriately. Adapting Zharkov a bit to this situation, ignorance and confusion can explain a lot.

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« Reply #14 on: October 19, 2010, 1:25:52 PM »


My MA adviser never really had a plan to include anything as she said "it's not professional to include anything of personal nature."  I completely trust my BA adviser as she has known me for 5 years now and seen first hand how my disability affects me and how I work tirelessly to overcome that. 

I think it's just stupid and rude that this professor would pointedly use my disability in this manner especially if she meant to be a tough/demanding professor intending to see how high I can raise her bar.  But like I said, I'm going to STFU and let this season pass.  But how do I handle faculty members like her?  Boy, if I had another professor from my MA program who could be qualified to write a letter, I'd use that person and have every nerve to report this to the disabilities services at my university.  Nobody in the department has a clue that she's like this and I don't have any written evidence.

Or am I being a grad-flake?

Grad-Flake.  You admit over and over that your disability affects you and how hard you work to try to overcome it.  You never explain to us what it is but you claim it is both readily apparent and almost unnoticeable. You are upset that this professor would dare mention it in a letter because your thesis advisor feels that recommendation letters should have nothing personal in it.  

I hate to tell you this, but my recommendation letters are 90% of a personal nature.  The school has your transcript and your test scores.  What they don't have is a sense of who you are.  That is why they have letters.  Is this person a grade-obsessed genius who works themselves to the bone but lacks personal skills?  Are they a mediocre student on tests, but intuitive and gifted in the lab?  Are they less than stellar in memorization-based classes, but are a good organizers of time, data, and people?  Obviously, these descriptions get finessed, but a good letter tells a story about the person.  Your disability and your struggles with it seem to be a central part of your person.  It is part of your story.  I'm not sure why you are so upset over it.  If an honest description of your struggles in graduate school would definitely sink your chances of getting into a Ph.D. program, then maybe you shouldn't be applying.  If they are admirable struggles, it may increase your chances.  Explaining your weaknesses as well as your strengths can make you a better candidate if your weaknesses impact your grades and test scores.
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