Now that the semester is nearly over, it is letter writing season. Students regularly show up hoping that I will write them a letter of recommendation so they can either get a job or enter a graduate degree program. Now that the economy has turned sour, I am writing a lot more of the latter. The job market is cold, while the ivy halls of academia are heated at taxpayer expense.
For most of my students, such a letter is not a gift, but an earned right; if you work your ass off in my class, the least I owe you is a small letter of recommendation. For many others, it is a Christmas gift they are stealing from a parked car at the mall.
My biggest problem is that I simply don’t remember most of these students. “I took your class in Military History,” they say. Yeah, that narrowed it down to about a thousand people, most of them about your age… How do you write a great letter that says nothing?
I wish there were an accepted code used by academics that would seem to be positive, yet actually told the reader the student in question was the intellectual equivalent of a turnip. Men have such a code; all you have to do is say that the woman being discussed has “a wonderful personality” and every man present will know her appearance would stop an eight day clock. You can say this right in front of your wife, and not understanding the code, she will just smile and nod her head in agreement.
Since there isn’t such a code, I would like to start one. From now on, when you read a letter of recommendation that states the student “came to class regularly” it actually means the following:
Dear Sir or Madam:
The bearer of this letter was my student for one or more classes. I can’t remember exactly how many, since he sat in the back row, fell asleep, slumped in the seat, and was all but invisible. I can attest that the student was present at one or more final exams, since I distinctly remember introducing myself.
Unfortunately, this student has delusions of adequacy. To be perfectly blunt, I would not use this student for breeding stock. Actually, come to think of it, I believe he used to study animal husbandry, until they caught him at it.
This student evidently wishes to enter your program in search of a graduate degree. In all honesty, I believe the student has two motives: First, there are no math prerequisites for a masters degree in the Sociology of Range Science Education Literature. To be fair, this is the same reason he sought an undergraduate degree in History.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, this student wishes to postpone his inevitable entrance into the fast food industry as long as possible. Since it seems likely that his parents will prefer to write checks indefinitely as opposed to having their son live at home, your department can probably count on this student to remain enrolled through his post-doctoral years.
Our Athletic Director assures me that the student will have his ankle bracelet removed next week. And I am fairly sure he is no longer contagious.
I urge you to admit this student, as our entire department is looking forward to his future career. Somewhere else.