Just Say No -- Maybe

Trysh Travis considers when it may not be in students' interests to write them letters of recommendation.

February 27, 2012

I’ll admit it: in the days before she abandoned herself totally to drug abuse and plastic surgery, I took Courtney Love seriously. I wouldn’t say she was ever a role model, but "Live Through This" (the title of her award-winning 1994 album) seemed a fitting sentiment for graduate school. So when, a couple of years into my first job as a real professor, I was asked, to give a talk to new faculty members on balancing teaching, research, service, and personal life, I took my title from a line that Love bellows in the song "Violet": "You should learn how to say 'NO!' " No to advising student clubs, to service that senior people can and should perform, to anthologies that are not likely to be printed before you come up for tenure, and to your family that doesn’t understand why you can’t take your Gramma to lunch every Wednesday since, for goodness’ sake, you only teach three classes a week!

Fast forward a decade and a half. Courtney Love is now unrecognizable, but I managed to get tenure, and now, as a low-level administrator, I get to say "no" to all kinds of things I’d never imagined back in my Riot Grrl days. No, I will not allow you into the major with a 1.5 G.P.A., I will not waive the senior seminar, I will not support your petition to take 21 credits. Most of these are no-brainers, but in the last couple years, I’ve encountered a new situation that has sorely tested my much Love-ed axiom. Can I ethically say, "No, I will not write you a letter of recommendation"?

I'm not talking about saying no to a student who comes in the day before a deadline and asks you for a letter, or the cases where the student is unable to get you a transcript, waiver form, and all that stuff by the deadline. Those are easy calls. Nor am I talking about the — fairly frequent — occasions when a student who did not do particularly well in a class asks for a recommendation. At a huge public university like mine, students will often seek a letter from any instructor who knows their name. Since I teach relatively small general education classes, that is often me. In such cases, it’s easy to tell a student, "I'm happy to write for you, but you have to know my letter will say you earned a B- and were absent six times; are you sure you want a letter like that?" Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but either way my conscience is clear.

No, what I'm talking about here is the ethically fraught situation where a student wants a letter for a program in which they are unlikely to succeed — and in which they may actually come to harm.  Since the economic downturn, I have found myself in this position a few times. One extreme example occurred last spring, when a student wanted a recommendation for an unpaid internship with an NGO in Africa. There was very little information about the organization on the website, and the student was not really sure what she would do as an intern there. She'd had an interview, but was reluctant to ask too many questions, she said, for fear she would seem "difficult" and not be offered the position. Despite knowing almost nothing about it, she'd decided the internship was necessary for her career goals. The issue of safety and of the cost of traveling and living near the placement, not to mention the substantive question of what kind of experience (if any) she’d gain from working in an organization that couldn’t even describe its expectations for employees — all this seemed, to her, irrelevant. Should I recommend a student into such a potentially useless, if not outright exploitative situation?

A less exotic version of this conundrum has come up several times in the last 18 months or so: the students who seek a recommendation for a graduate degree at a for-profit university, which they plan to finance through private loans or, worse, a credit card. The best undergraduates I teach get into top-flight graduate and professional schools and, even though law school placements of late have shaken my faith in the value of that degree, the insane costs of such programs make a kind of sense — at least for now. Less-stellar students face a tougher situation. Unable to find jobs in a tight labor market, and unlikely to get into a traditional graduate program because of low G.P.A.s and GREs, some of my students have begun to seek out vocational  programs, post-bacs, technical certificates, advanced degrees and even second B.A.s from institutions notorious for their low graduation rates, all in hopes of improving their job prospects down the line. A few have been bold enough to admit that they are going back to school so that they can continue to defer dealing with undergraduate loans they can’t pay because they can't find full-time jobs. The term "predatory lending" means little to them. Statistics on the dismal graduation rates at the types of programs they are applying to do not deter them; they will be the ones to beat the odds. What is particularly depressing is that they are, almost to a person, first-generation college students.  

I haven't quite learned how to say no to this one. Such a stark paternalism has its appeals: maybe I'll shock my students into realizing what a poor choice this is and they’ll thank me later. At the very least, I'll keep my hands clean. But at the same time, it’s so … paternalistic. These are adults, college graduates, free citizens. Don’t they have the human right to pursue whatever hare-brained plan strikes their fancy today? I've tried to get comfortable with that libertarian argument this year, but as a new crop of seniors starts dropping by to strategize their post-graduate plans, it’s made me increasingly queasy.  

And I’m not sure how to proceed. Fifteen years out of grad school, I can no longer claim the anthemic "Violet" as my theme song. As I steer my students through the Kafkaesque maze of the corporate university and try to prepare them for the increasingly vicious world beyond it, I'm saddened to find that a different Courtney Love gem — this one from "Miss World" — has come to characterize my approach: "I am the girl you know can’t look you in the eye."

Bottom line: I deplore what these students are doing, but I can't refuse to write the letter. Instead, I cravenly try to split the difference, muttering "I will write you a letter of recommendation, but my real recommendation is … don’t do this." What I don't tell them is that after they leave I sit in my office hoping they don’t get in.  


Trysh Travis is an associate professor in the University of Florida’s Center for Women and Gender Studies and the managing editor of Points: the Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.


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