Letters of recommendation: the need for humility

We are often in a position to tell our students’ stories.

Last year, I wrote a Vocation Matters reflection on telling our students’ stories in recommendation letters. I meditated on the fact that, in order to learn their stories, faculty and staff members have to be authentic cooperators and collaborators with their students. We cooperate with them in developing a narrative even as we faculty members craft a formal one, later, on behalf of our students. This requires one to balance the interests of formation and assessment, early, with promotion later. Our student subjects are dynamic and developing, so updates are needed on their states of mind and future plans. Finally we, as embedded institutional actors, need to understand our own subjectivities. All this comes together in what are very often long-term relationships. We become the keepers of their flames of desire.

Enter Agnes Callard’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Problem With Letters of Recommendation.” Callard’s concerns stem from her situational experiences, past and present. She approaches the subject of letters from the perspective of a tenured philosophy professor dealing with highly motivated, exceptional students. Callard is particularly concerned with mentors’ projections, psychologically speaking, onto their students, as well as with students’ psychological dependencies on faculty mentors.

The problems which preoccupy Callard arise from a mystical, mythologized, or enchanted view of those kinds of close relationships. Her goal is demystification. This is fine to a certain point, but relies on several assumptions, some of which are problematic. Issues of privilege also lurk in the background.

Beware of the heroic professor

Professors ought to avoid thinking of themselves as, or assuming they are, causal agents in relation to student desires. While an undergraduate education, considered on the whole, can be transformative—given a certain amount of student enthusiasm and buy-in—no one instructor or staff member normally serves as the transformation agent. Sure, there are a few lucky, heroic, and charismatic professors who singularly inspire students. Most of us are, however, by definition, just average. We are competent instructors who variably exhibit interest, care, and fairness. Within that broad cohort, some of us have the privilege, courtesy of circumstances we don’t control, of helping in transactional agreements involving letters of recommendation.

Two concerns, at least, are operative. The first is structural. Most academic, student-faculty relationships are transitory and transactional, given the 75/25, tenured/non-tenured faculty employment percentages (as of 2016, with more than 50 percent part-time). Contingent faculty cannot, by definition, afford to participate in overly enchanted student relationships. Because of limited time and scattered attention (due to multiple appointments in some cases), these faculty have to be more focused. They have to help efficiently.

Apart from questions of labor contingency, a campus’s size and geography can be detriments to mystification and enchantment. The structure of everyday life on small campuses works against holding a heroic view of one’s professors. While close mentoring relationships can develop at small residential colleges, the actors also cross paths in many settings—grocery stores, restaurants, and numerous campus events. These interactions work against mythologizing one’s professors. They become quite human—known quantities with quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. In larger university settings, student-instructor social interactions can be more or less frequent. This might allow for either some mystification or mere transactionality, respectively. Students and faculty can conduct parallel, somewhat anonymous lives at big universities.

Most of our higher ed structures, then, promote less enchanted or mystical relationships. There is little room for fetishizing or obsession, like one might find at a small or medium-sized Ivy League school or at a higher profile liberal arts college. The request for a recommendation letter, then, will likely be based on practicalities and short or medium-term relationships.

Second, there many kinds of recommendation letters, each having different ends. There are brief letters needed for particular employment situations. Some of these have word limits. Some, such as the kind one might write for a medical school applicant, are very focused on certain kinds of experiences. There is little room in them for the kinds of bias that come with highly personal observations. A recommendation letter for a grant or specialized project likely requires the writer to focus on technical abilities, prior publications, and specific academic strengths. Again, the objective needs of the recommendation help minimize subjective factors. The economic factors that underlie these endeavors help underscore the transactional nature of many recommendation letters. If the professor is truly interested in helping the student have a future in this economy, their motivations as assessors should be less about psychology and trivial relational factors. There is nothing “enchanted” about these kinds of stakes.

Priests of higher education?

The only kinds of letters that fit the tone and drift of Callard’s reflection are those that arise from institutions where professors and students see the faculty as part of an elite class of people—as priests of higher education, with the power to ordain a certain kind of destiny. Only that kind of situation would create the psychological stresses and fears that feed Callard’s narrative of enchantment, mystification, and psychological dependence.

Letter writers should, to me, aspire to a more humble place in the trajectory of their students’ lives. That is why I recommend humility in these endeavors. As faculty and staff, we should be focused on helping them achieve their dreams. We must use our powers of storytelling to create stories for our students’ ends.

For other posts by Tim Lacy, click here.

Tim Lacy is a student services professional and historian. He currently works for the University of Illinois as the Director of the Office of Medical Student Learning Environment, and teaches history courses at Loyola University Chicago. He has worked in student services for most of his career, assisting students with their academic, personal, and career aspirations, including when plans go awry. He is the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), as well as several contributions to edited collections and academic journals. 

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