A Letter of Reference
a metapoetical fantasia occasioned by a confluence of events on December 15th
16 December 2022
To Whom It May Concern:
Please accept this letter in support of the reference letter. The reference letter has been my constant companion since December 2011, when I first learned that approachable professors at small liberal arts colleges are often asked to write many such letters—although my familiarity with reference letters extends, in some forms, all the way back to my experiences as a high school student. The reference letter is, like many academic documents, composed out of a sense of responsibility and often under duress. It is a piece of writing resented by everyone involved—the referee, the referent, the reader—but I am pleased to recommend it to you for reasons I’ll outline in this letter.
The idea behind the reference letter is noble. It shows deference to the necessity of judgment, a rare bureaucratic capitulation to the human reality that we are more than numbers and scores. The reference letter is an opportunity for special pleading; in Aristotelian terms, it is equity’s correction to arithmetical justice, a bending of the universal to the particular. An academic reference letter is an attempt to represent a highly peculiar form of human interdependence; teacher to student, or colleague to colleague. What we call academia is a structure in which very peculiar forms of friendship flourish, and the reference letter attempts to crack a door into what is otherwise obscure. Only a teacher understands a student as a student, only a colleagues can evaluate you as a colleague. The reference letter is an attempt to drag these relationships into the light of day, and to usher young people onto adulthood through fellowships, summer programs, internships, or advanced study.
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I even have some good memories of writing reference letters. For instance, in my first academic position I taught in the college’s distinctive first-year seminar program. And, make no mistake, my students resented the fact that they were being forced to read Plato or Augustine or Nietzsche in a seminar room in the basement of a dormitory! However, being twenty-seven-years-old, I took this as a challenge to win these students over—and would you believe that I succeeded? One unforeseen effect of this success was that I became many students’ “special” professor, a role I inhabited with considerable relish. The problem was, after a couple of years, every single one of these students wanted to study abroad, which required two letters—an internal letter to the study abroad committee, and then an external letter to the host institution for successful candidates. I spent my thirtieth birthday polishing off an enormous batch of study abroad letters. What better way to usher in my thirties than printing and folding these letters, carefully printed on the department’s rich, creamy stationary? In the middle of my print job, one of my colleagues accidentally printed a 30-page APSR article onto the stationary—an amusing opportunity for bonding between researcher and referee! When I delivered my stack of 22 letters to the study abroad office, the administrator looked at the stack of envelopes and asked: “and which program are you applying for, dear?” And, just like that, what should have been a difficult birthday became an opportunity for satisfying my own vanity—what better gift could anyone ask for?
For a writer like me, the rhetorical situation of the reference letter is impossible enough to be nothing short of exhilarating. Every person who is the subject of a North American reference letter these days is obviously excellent, outstanding, terrific, remarkable, one-of-a-kind. But for a cunning referee, this is why the reference letter lives in the charming anecdote, in the particular textures of character, in outstanding lines saved from term papers, or memorable comments made in class. Writing a reference letter relies on the skill of reading a person, and in communicating it within the context of a form that still leaves room for creativity and surprise.
We tend to associate insight with criticism: the insightful person can find what’s wrong with something ostensibly good. As Machiavelli—whose Prince carries one of the all-time greatest examples of the genre of reference letter; a reference letter for himself and for his book, promising, improbably, that what had been learned with great trouble over a long period could somehow be grasped by a thorough-going mediocrity in a short amount of time—anyway, as Machiavelli notes: the many see with their eyes, but the few touch with their hands. We like to think this means that the truth is something nasty; but it’s much truer that goodness is something definite and limited, and thus hard to see for human beings who prefer to speak in vague generality. The abstractions that fill bad reference letters fail to persuade because they lack the sharpness and clarity of goodness in concretion. The reference letter forces the writer to meditate on the goodness of their students. It’s a chance to think about one’s work as a teacher—to consider the real learning that happens, even in the midst of endless administrative busywork, of crushing responsibilities, of too little sleep, and the painful awareness that everything one chooses to do means neglecting something else. I’ve never written a reference letter where I was not able to feel grateful for my students and for the unlikely series of events that have given me the privilege of getting to know them. Reflecting on what is good about someone is difficult, but I’ve heard that the beautiful things often are.
Here is the point in the reference letter where I offer gentle criticism of the subject of the letter. This shows my capacity for critical distance, my recognition that praise untarnished is unlikely to be received. The criticism paragraph is, you see, more about my credibility. So: there is no question that the burden of writing reference letters is unreasonable, especially for precariously employed academics, which is almost everyone in one way or the other. I would never blame someone who refused to write one. And yet, when I was precariously employed, I always agreed to write reference letters. Why? Because I realized that everyone I had ever asked for one had agreed to do it, and I accepted reference letters are part of the arcane, broken economy of academic work. A purely contractual approach to academic “labour” will always be dissatisfying because working strictly to rule will cause our institutions to founder, which we do not want. And, anyway, even even the worst parts of academic life are somewhat pleasant. I always reflect on how much less I would prefer to pull lobster traps in the North Atlantic at 4am, or risk being sprayed by chlorine during a 12-hour-night shift in a pulp mill, to pick just two examples at random.
In closing, I would like to note that an archaic sense of the word “refer” is the act of tracing phenomena to their cause or source, famously it was used to “refer” one’s virtues to the glory of God. The reference letter is therefore an opportunity to wonder about those things we consider excellent or good, an opening to questioning or even interrogating their source. So in closing my letter, I hope I have opened further questions for you to consider. At any rate, in this letter I have made the case for the reference letter. If you would like to consider it in greater detail, its peculiar summative role in contemporary academic life, may I recommend Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, one of three books I read in the last year that made me both laugh and cry?
I hope you will receive this letter favourably, and should you have any additional comments or questions, I can be reached in the comment box below. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Matt Dinan, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Director
Great Books Program
St. Thomas University
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Counterpoint: Most requests for letters are for application processes that don't need or can't even use letters to effectively select candidates. For example, applications internal to a university, like study abroad programs or selective majors, where those selecting candidates already have access to extensive institutional information about applicants and can just call their colleagues and ask directly if it's really necessary. Or, applications to internships, where classroom performance is not a great indicator of work performance in a different field. Or, applications to grants and fellowships where a track record of good work as well as the current state of the work can be sufficiently ascertained without a third-party confirmation. (Or, at least, they could just ask the recommender to confirm that the applicant actually has done the work they claim instead of dwelling on their numerous personal virtues for two pages.) The salutary uses of letters that you describe would be strengthened if letters were required *less often* and for *fewer things.* I cannot tell you how annoying it is to have to write 10 or 20 letters a year for students applying to a selective major in my own department, to study with my own colleagues, who could just walk 4 ft over from their office to mine and ask, "What do you think of Student X?"
Your thoughtful piece reminds of the worst letter of reference ever submitted on my behalf. It was for an education aboard opportunity, but a very special one: the Rhodes Scholarship.
My referee told me - after the fatal letter had already been sent on its way - that he had said that "Oxford would be good for me, and I would be good for Oxford." We were leaving a two-student special studies seminar as he offered this remark. I knew instantly that the people doing the filtering for the Rhodes would not look kindly on that second half of that sentence, and indeed I didn't get one. There was no point in noting to him the harm he had unwittingly committed; the deed was done.
The moral - if one is needed, which it probably isn't - is that it is just as important for the referent to know his referee very, very well as for the referee to know the student well.