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!
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.