Letters of Recommendation (or Wreck-o-mendation) Addendum

September 24, 2013

A car wreck on Jagtvej, a road in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 24, 2005. (Thue via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

A car wreck on Jagtvej, a road in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 24, 2005. (Thue via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

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.

Half True vs. half-hearted, September 24, 2013. (Politifact.com).

Half True vs. half-hearted, September 24, 2013. (http://Politifact.com).

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.

Freudian "Slip" (2012) by Nathan Davis, September 24, 2013. (http://redbubble.com). Qualifies as fair use - low resolution and subject matter related to post.

Freudian “Slip” (2012) by Nathan Davis, September 24, 2013. (http://redbubble.com). Qualifies as fair use – low resolution and subject matter related to post.

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.


Letter of Recommendation (or Wreck-o-mendation)

September 23, 2010

George Reid Andrews, University of Pittsburgh

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a string of not-so-wonderful professors I had at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon who were less than fine with me pursuing anything beyond a bachelor’s degrees, much less with me becoming Dr. Collins. I talked about how some of them went so far as to tell me that I wasn’t “graduate material,” as if I were made from parts found at a junk yard instead of in the shop of an Italian tailor.

I’m more than aware of the fact that I didn’t let those doubters stop me from becoming who I am today. Some were undoubtedly ones whose skepticism bordered on racist because of their assumptions about my intelligence and writing ability. Still, it should be noted that there are pitfalls to be avoided, if at all possible, when you’re applying for a job or applying to a college or graduate and professional school.

One, even if a professor or teacher has assigned an A for your performance in one of their courses, that doesn’t mean that think that you’re a great student. I learned that the hard way with George Reid Andrews, my professor for Latin American Revolutions my junior year at Pitt. Twenty years ago this week, I asked him for letters of recommendation for graduate school. Andrews agreed, but only to tell me seven months later what he really thought of my work. My research writing samples were “problematic,” my GRE scores were “barely adequate,” and I should’ve considered myself “lucky” just to get into the master’s program in the history department. That terse conversation told me that Andrews’ letter was lukewarm at best, or had found me seriously deficient at worst.

Two, and related to my interactions with Andrews, 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. It was never a question I dared asked — to see my letter of recommendation — before I’d reached the final stages of grad school.

It would’ve helped with Andrews, and it would’ve helped with two of my three dissertation committee members, Joe Trotter and Dan Resnick. I found out through my Spencer Fellowship that Trotter had written me a lukewarm letter, while Resnick had rambled on and on about my “close relationship” with my “mentor Sy Drescher,” who had played “an instrumental role” in making me a scholar. Drescher, while one of my best professors at Pitt, played much less of a role in me pursuing grad school than so many other professors and students, including his former student Paul Riggs. It was a Leslie Stahl, “let’s give the poor Black boy a hand” kind of letter.

Later, when I asked to see my letters of recommendation from Resnick before sending them out for jobs, he went on for ten minutes about the “sanctity” of the recommendation process, about how privacy and “anonymity” were critical to provide protection for all parties involved. Needless to say, if someone blusters about privacy when politely asked about a letter of recommendation they’re writing for you, do not use that letter!

Bruce Anthony Jones, University of South Florida

Three, 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. You don’t have to become friends with them or meet their family — although that does help. They just have to know that their recommendation or reference will be put to good use by you and that what they say about you matters to both of you, in the most positive light possible. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing a letter or spending fifteen minutes on the phone talking about your qualities as a student or worker, right? This can go a bit too far, of course, as I wrote one of my own recommendations for Bruce Anthony Jones, another dissertation committee member, for him to merely put his signature to. Once he changed jobs for the University of Missouri-Columbia, his, um, my letter became worthless, if it had been worth anything at all to begin with.

I’ve written about two dozen letters of recommendation for high school, college and graduate students, for jobs, school applications and fellowship programs. Not to mention about an equal number of recommendations and references for professional colleagues and friends in academia and the nonprofit world. I’ve always written my own letters, insisted on them being seen by the people I’ve recommended and required that they explain their own rationale for their acceptance in the process. Most importantly, I’ve made sure to say “No” if I didn’t feel I could recommend them well or provide a great reference.


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