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Hands holding a formal letter of recommendation with stylized blurred text.

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It’s 5:30 a.m. I am up before the day starts to write yet another recommendation letter. I have to get up earlier than usual to make sure that the letters due today or tomorrow do not get lost in the rush of the day. They are nonnegotiable; not for me, but for the people whom they assist in passing through portals—to jobs, to grad schools, to experiences—and if I blow my deadline, their portal closes.

I am in my 20th year as a faculty member. I devote more of these early mornings to writing about other people than I did earlier in my career, because the requests are exponential. And they can last from the time of a student’s first class or the declaration of a major all the way to their last career move or from a colleague’s earliest promotion through their retirement.

I have had the privilege of teaching more than 2,000 students, guiding about 300 advisees and mentoring almost 50 faculty members. That has meant lots of early mornings. It has also meant supporting many dreams and new beginnings.

Much as I would like to push snooze, I feel lucky that I have the occupational capital to help others get to places that they prepared for and dreamed about. The work accumulates as my career gets longer. The other reason the work has expanded is that as forms and admissions portals have gone online, many opportunities for students have become more selective. In addition, the job market for faculty members continues to tighten, so the “letter writing season,” which used to hit hard from November through February, is now a year-long event with a few weeks off in July. And then it begins again.

So, in 2024, when we write about other people, a nearly invisible form of labor that every faculty member performs, we are doing so under conditions of meaningful work that has expanded considerably. After 20 years of writing about other people, I’ve honed how to honor their significance without being engulfed by the increasing demands.

How to Write About Others

Templates are useful, and so is record keeping. When I have a new request, I require the candidate share their materials so I can bring my letter into alignment with their narrative and pull items from their resume or C.V. to highlight. Next, I go into my lifelong “recommendations” folder and pick a person who is similar in some way or seeking a similar opportunity. I choose that as my first draft and alter it to create the new recommendation. This inherent comparison—between what I needed to say about the previous person and now in response to this new request—helps make letter writing less routine and more creative and analytical, as if I’m setting up a conversation between the two trajectories.

It’s OK to be less careful. I used to couch a lot of my claims about a candidate in professional sounding, quantified ways, avoiding anecdotes. As I get further in my career, I have sequestered that caution. Now I think of each letter as an opportunity to write a great story from a vantage point that only I have on this person. The more recommendation letters I read and write (having chaired 10 faculty searches and participated in more than 30), the more I am aware that it is intimate handoff.

In my letters now, I do less comparisons to peer groups or the like, not sure of the value of such assessments. Instead, I use the letter to tell illustrative stories—such as what I remember from when I first saw the mentee break out of a routine, learn something new, take a chance or even become a leader. I talk about what the room felt like when they took that chance, what the person being discussed is known for on campus, their signature tendencies that the next community they enter can expect to benefit from.

Deep remembering, not only of who you’re writing about but about who you were when you knew them best, produces the best letters. When I decide on the vignettes that I think will best illuminate the particular capacities and tendencies of the person requesting the recommendation, the process feels like going over the fabric of my own life simultaneously.

Who was she when I met her? Who was I then, too? My former students and colleagues call me up in their later 20s, 30s, 40s when it is time to make a transition, time to dip into the support of a person who knows them well. I hear about who they are now and why this dream or change is arising, and it takes me back to their earlier selves and to my earlier self, too.

Sometimes the remembering takes some nudges. I look back at the roster of the course the student was in or our email correspondence, and the vision of them takes on more color, more specificity. Taking time to do this is overtime work on top of an already busy working life, but it is deeply satisfying. It pays homage not only to their journey but also to the most beautiful aspects of this career.

Sharing your letters with the candidate can have a powerful effect on whether or not they get the position they are applying for. Writing about others can remind us about the magic of change and growth, and the human capacity to develop in connection with others. When we write about other people and prop open portals, it illuminates all the wondrous capacities of humans to take in both what is intentionally conveyed—the well-crafted paper, for example—and the more ephemeral personhood qualities that are often the most crucial, like generosity, deep listening, a willingness to revise one’s beliefs. My amazing graduate adviser, Jennifer Pierce, shared the letters she wrote about us. Reading about myself was like a shot of adrenaline: it deepened my commitment to being the scholar, teacher and woman she saw in me. I try to do the same with my students, as well as my colleagues, to help them see what I see.

Letter writing is one way we build the future and contribute to a lineage. When we write about other people, we are practicing a kind of love in the academy that bell hooks called for and made evident throughout her long career, from Teaching to Transgress all the way to All about Love. It is a craft, a use of writing that is profound. When so much of how we do our work in higher education is under intense scrutiny, it seems to be a good time to honor the importance of the loving labor of helping people pass through portals as others have helped us to do. When you sit down to write your next letter, I hope you will take time to place yourself in that long lineage of intimate handoffs that put you in a position to help someone else follow their dreams.

Karla Erickson is chair and professor of sociology at Grinnell College.

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