Three years ago, I wrote a post about my various not-so-good to horrible experiences in getting my then professors to write letters of recommendation for me for grad school, for fellowships and for the academic job market between ’90 and ’99. Over the course of the past three years, this post has been one of my ten most popular ones, garnering comments, emails and mostly positive feedback about what to do (and not) in seeking letters from the professoriate for graduate and professional education and for a real career.
In June, however, Reid Andrews, one of my former professors at the University of Pittsburgh, sent me a rather terse email about my recollections from the 1990-91 school year. He had served as one of my examples of what not to do in terms of seeking a letter of recommendation (like getting a look at the letter first, putting aside the false notion of academic objectivity in the process) as well as in terms of what may or may not have been in the letter itself. In the email, Andrews wrote that my blog “contains false and defamatory material about [him]” and demanded that I “remove [his] photo and all mention of [him] from [my] blog immediately.” Of course, I didn’t remove the blog, or Andrews from it, which earned me a reply in which he called me a “back-stabber,” referencing something I had said about my letter writers in general.
But I did get something in return. Andrews’ letter of recommendation, allegedly from December 1, ’90. Andrews was right. It was hardly a terrible letter, as he described me as “‘exceptionally talented,’ rank[ed] [me] ‘among the ten best undergraduates that [he] ha[d] taught in [his] ten years at Pitt’ and [gave me his 'strongest recommendation.'"
But I am actually more right. For there are any number of indications that Andrews' letter, while not nearly as loopy or as detrimental as some from my former dissertation committee members at Carnegie Mellon, doesn't in fact provide a strong recommendation at all. For starters, the letter is one long paragraph and a short one that actually takes away from the strength of Andrews' recommendation.
He also brought to the class an unusually strong command (for an undergraduate) of US and world history, which was helpful both for the purposes of comparison, and for setting the Latin American revolutions in broader context.
How strong was my command? Why was this unusual? Why throw in the "for an undergraduate" at all as a dampener? Did this mean that I wasn't ready for graduate school material? The long paragraph is about my performance in his Latin American Revolutions course, common for many a recommendation. The lack of specificity, though, would signal to any professor or administrator on any admissions committee that Andrews really knew very little of me as a student and a person. Despite the part about "the ten best undergraduates," the first paragraph would read like a form letter.
Then there’s Andrews’ shorter second paragraph, the one that made it sound like I was equally interested in going to law school as I was in going into a master’s program in history. I had all of one conversation with Andrews about my forks in the road after undergrad at Pitt. As I told anyone who knew me between May and October ’90, I was “sixty percent in favor of grad school, thirty in favor of law school, and ten in favor of working full-time.” Andrews, however, wrote of me
As of last year his plan was to proceed to law school. However, his talent for history [and]…his enthusiasm for it were so striking that I urged him to consider graduate school in this area, and he has decided to apply both to law schools and to several graduate schools.
I had, in fact, decided by October ’90 not to apply to law schools at all (while applying to six universities for grad school), and communicated that to all of my letter writers at the time. To an admissions committee, this paragraph would make me appear indecisive, and likely to not be as passionate about the prospect of the hard work of academic history as I would be about the law and making money.
In light of everything else I said in my original blog post about letters of recommendation, Andrews’ letter actually proves almost all of my points. That “it’s important to get to know a person, to gain some sense of trust from them, before asking for a letter or a reference.” That “the process of providing a letter of recommendation or a reference ought to be transparent, so that the student or employee can be confident that they’re not being back-stabbed by the same people in which they’re placing significant trust.” Writing a letter of recommendation should always be a serious undertaking, as I’ve learned over the years. Sometimes it’s best to say “No” than to do it in a Freudian-slip fashion.
On the “one A in one course does not make for a good recommendation” rule, this has turned out to be inadvertently true. Even if Andrews had intended to write me a glowing letter of recommendation, his feelings about me as a student — ones that he verbalized to me on several occasions between ’90 and ’95 — may well have influenced his rather bland and half-hearted effort at that “good “letter that he supposedly wrote for me in December ’90.
“It was never a question I dared asked — to see my letter of recommendation — before I’d reached the final stages of grad school,” I wrote three years ago. Now that I apparently have Andrews’ letter from twenty-three years ago, my sage advice from three years ago rings as true now as it did then. Maybe even more so.