I have a confession: I sort of enjoy writing recommendation letters.
Part of this is probably because I’m not tremendously overburdened by them. I get maybe 7-10 requests per semester, totals well below what I hear reported by others. A career off the tenure track likely suppresses the number of requests since students going on for graduate study are usually savvy enough to know that rank likely carries some weight.
But I do my share, recommendations for transfer or scholarships or graduate school or jobs. I don’t write one for every last student who asks. I try to make a practice of honesty in my recommendations, so for the borderline cases I preview what I have to say about their class performance and ask them if they still want me to say it. Usually their answer is no.
I didn’t always enjoy them. I don’t know anyone who takes pleasure in producing boilerplate. So, five or six years ago, as I let four or five requests stack up to the last minute, out of desperation to get myself going, I decided that in addition to the pro forma introduction and conclusion offering my endorsement, I would tell a story about each student.
This forced me into my personal wayback machine as I’d try to conjure some meaningful moment that represented what I wanted to express about that person. Usually it’s not too tough, since the experience is not much removed from the writing. Other times, though, I have to dig through my digital archives of comments and assignments to bring the student back into focus. I don’t have much of a memory for names, but I can recall specifics from research papers or short stories I read more than 10 years ago, and once I remember the writing, I remember the person.
And a story soon follows, and in the recommendation I will write, “I remember a time I class…” or, even “Let me tell you a story about…” The stories are often about their work, a breakthrough moment in the growth of a piece of writing. Other stories may be about a moment in class where something they said or did managed to lodge in my brain. It’s amazing how much stuff is rattling around inside there once I made the effort at accessing it.
But the student isn’t the only person I’m remembering, because as part of this process I also am forced to recall the teacher I was for this student. Those memories aren’t always pleasant. I have yet to experience a course where I didn’t wish I’d done something differently.
The memories are always instructive, however. As I recall what I used to do versus what I do presently, I’m forced to examine my own pedagogy, my own choices and approaches. More than once I’ve reminded myself of something I used to do, but got lost along the way and I’m able to reincorporate it into the instruction.
Mostly, the memories remind me of the source of my pleasure in teaching college, the chance to impact student lives, and if I’m at my best, maybe even inspire them. It’s a far more pleasant place to be than thinking about the less pleasant, nagging parts of the profession like writing recommendation letters.
I recently learned that by accident, I managed to back into a process that Linda K. Shadiow recommends in her recently released book, What Our Stories Teach Us: a Guide to Critical Reflection for College Faculty. Professor Shadiow argues that a deeper understanding of our pedagogy is rooted in the narratives of the classroom, and it’s through understanding and reflecting upon those narratives that we not only improve as teachers, but increase our own pleasure in the work by practicing a kind of purposefulness in the practice. Reading the book was like having someone read my mind.
Another byproduct is that I think I end up writing better recommendation letters, or at the very least, more interesting ones. Because the actual response to one’s recommendation letters is a bit of a black box I can’t know this for sure, so I suppose it’s also possible that I’m ruining my former students’ chances of acceptance/admission/employment with my deviation from orthodoxy, but two or three times I’ve had students report back that admission committees have remarked positively on their letters.
Something I know for sure is that by privileging narrative, I’m orienting my own work to my existing values, which makes it feel a lot less like work.
Rec letters would be easier if they had to be 140 characters or less.