Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Ethics of Letters of Recommendation: Or Shitty Unethical Asshole of a Judas

I did something less-than-ethical this week. At least, that's what my chair tells me. My chair tells me I shouldn't have done what I did. But I like to think that I did a service to humanity and that what I did ended up--in the long run--being ethical. Let me explain:

The email comes in late at night. In typical-student style, it has no greeting, is simply one long message with no paragraph breaks, and makes me first cringe and then rage inside. Here it is, with minor changes (i.e. the program itself is changed).

"do you remember me?" it reads. "i was in your class five yrs ago and need a letter ot help me get intoa residency program for aspiring [bungee] poets. its a select residence program where you spend quality time one on one with other poets who [bungee jump]. although i wasnt the best writer in your class, i now i had potential and believe that [bungee jumping] with the professional poets will help motivate me ot become even better. ineed the letter to arrive by wednesday. i'm willing to pay for the cost of mailing since that only gives you a day to write the letter if i want it to arrive by wednesday via overnight mail. pls let me know your paypal email so i can send hte money. thanks so much. Promising Bungee Poet."

I was going to decline this request. I really was. I was all set to decline it on the grounds that the student:
  1. didn't give me much time to write the letter (i.e. one day);
  2. ignored all advice on how to request a letter of recommendations;
  3. showed no aptitude for poetry in this letter, let alone bungee jumping with poets;
  4. never took a poetry class from me (mostly because I don't teach poetry);
  5. was one whom I had no memory of ever having taught;
  6. didn't seem to care that since it's summer, I might have other things going on that didn't allow me to drop everything to write a glowing letter, then run over to the post office to mail it overnight;
At first, I declined, on the grounds that... well, all of the above. But Promising Bungee Poet sent a pleading second email, saying he knew all of the above, and he was desperate for a letter because his other professors were (1) traveling and unavailable; (2) smart enough to ignore his request and had not made eye contact with him; (3) on sabbatical; (4) too busy with summer classes. "'Your my last hope," he said. Clearly, I wasn't the student's first choice, but that's OK. I shouldn't have been the student's first or second choice...

And so I told him I would write a letter, but I would have to include all of the above information in the letter. "Thankyou very much," he gushed, perhaps unaware of what including all of the above meant for his 'recommendation.' I responded again that the letter would likely not help him get into the program. "Thats ok. they just wnat three letters. i got two from my mom and sister. at least ill have a chance," he responded.

And so I wrote it. It didn't take very long because it was a very short letter. I included the correspondence between the student and me in my letter of recommendation. I wrote that I had no memory of said student, given that he had never distinguished himself in any way in whichever class he took from me. I had no memory of which class he even took from me (In the five years since said student took whichever class he took from me, I have taught about 1,200 other students in GE courses). I mentioned that I was probably the least likely person to recommend his poetry skills because I have no training in poetry writing, nor do I teach a course in poetry writing, and, in fact, have never read any of Promising Bungee Poet's poetry. I also wrote that Promising Bungee Poet may or may not excel in the program, but that I was doubtful of his ability to plan in advance. And I closed the letter with a note saying that they were welcome to contact me but that having retained no memory of the student, I'm not sure I could contribute more to the recommendation.

I should have left it at that. I should not have told my chair about it. But I was feeling fairly smug about my actions and mentioned it, thinking to share a laugh and a well-that's-what-they-get-when-they-do-stupid-things comment. And that's when my chair said my behavior had been unethical. "If we can't write a good recommendation, we are supposed to decline, not sabotage any chance someone has of getting into a program." But I don't view it that way. If I were running a select poetry program, I would welcome an honest assessment of a student's ability, and I disclosed to the student that I would be unable to give a recommendation. My chair said that was beside the point: that the student had, in good faith (cough; more like last-ditch effort), contacted me, thinking I would take care of him, and I had, instead, betrayed his faith in me.

So rather than being the Contemplative Cynic, I am now a shitty unethical asshole of a Judas. Please address all future correspondence as such. Oh, and I might be contacting some of you for letters of recommendation if my job is affected because my chair thinks I'm a shitty unethical asshole of a Judas.


  1. Hi Cynic,

    no, you did exactly right. I don't buy this "only write positive letters" stuff. They want an honest assessment. It is not the chances of the applicant that is to be looked at, but the program doing the selection. They need guidance in order to select from the masses of applicants.

    It's not that Mr. Misspelling missed a chance, but that someone more deserving was let in.

  2. It sounds as if (and I apologize if I am wrong) as if you were bragging. perhaps it would have gone over better in a tone of regret. "I hated to do it, but I really had no choice..."

    And remind your chair what would happen to your department (and school's) reputation if you'd written a dishonest glowing letter. The next qualified student might be rejected because your school had a reputation for turkey-farming.

  3. I probably would have simply written a four-sentence letter. Basically thus:

    Dear bungee-poet admissions people:
    I am writing this letter for you to add to Mr. Misspelling's application folder. Mr. Misspelling took a class from me in the fall semester of 2008. He earned a C+ in that class. I wish him well.
    Southern Bubba, Ph.D.

    1. I like this. I get asked to write letters for dull or otherwise not exemplary students all the time. Some of them are very persistent, and I am not all that good at just ignoring e-mails. I'll use this format in the future. Thanks!

  4. I don't know if I would call what you did "unethical," but you shouldn't have. It's not like this kid is going to get far with his mom and his sister as his other recommenders anyway.

    If someone asks for a "recommendation," you need to recommend them. It's right there in the word itself. If you can't, you refuse. You don't deliberately sabotage them.

    Being proud about it just adds insult to injury.

  5. I have do agree with Stella, but state the case more strongly. I don't think we are exactly like medical doctors, but we are 'experts' and acting, at times, in loco parentis. Even without that, as trusted 'elders', we should be better.

    For me, that possible part of the hippocratic oath is an important reminder, we should try to do good, but, at the least, to do no harm

    ὠφελέειν, ἢ μὴ βλάπτειν.

    You did harm. Simply put.

  6. Your chair is wrong when he/she says "if we can't write a good letter, we should decline to write one at all". That's a matter of personal policy, as long as you make clear to the applicant that you can't write a good letter.

    And you were completely above-board with the student, by telling him/her in no uncertain terms your letter would more likely hurt than help his/her application. So far, so good. Sometimes people just need to hit the required number of LORs for a long-shot application.

    But there are two things I would have done differently: (i) I think enclosing a copy of the email exchange with the student was a mistake. I take such exchanges to be "in confidence", unless there is a very good reason to forward them (which I don't think was the case here). I'd save these emails carefully for future reference. (ii) I wouldn't have mentioned the incident to my dept chair. No good can possibly come out of that.

    I wouldn't worry about the dept chair, I'd worry about the student trying to get some "legal mileage" out of the email forwarding business, when his application is rejected by the program.

  7. While you're theoretically okay doing what you did, it just struck me as being impossibly mean. You just shouldn't have written that letter. I don't think ethics enters into it. It does seem mean, though.

    I agree with nearly everything you say, but on this one I just can't abide.

  8. I've been giving this a lot of thought. For one thing, I'm tremendously sympathetic to the Cynic, because I've had students ask me to write letters that would result in their failure to get the position. I have always regarded it as ethically very bad (much worse than what you did) to lie in a LOR. The first time, I said "Yes," and then agonized over what to write; he fortunately got a different job and cancelled the request, which taught me a valuable lesson. The second time it happened, I said, "I couldn't write you a letter that would help you much." So, it's better to say "no" than "yes."

    You are under no ethical obligation to write a LOR. Yes, writing such letters is a part of our job, but one day's lead time is too short, and I have turned down even excellent students because they have not given me enough time.

    Now, there's the issue of what he asked for. He asked for a letter of recommendation, which is different from a letter of reference or a letter of introduction. In a letter of recommendation, you are expected to recommend. If a student uses that phrase, and you cannot honestly recommend the student, there is the expectation you will say no. You did, but the student insisted. You had a professional obligation there, I'd say, to stand your ground. If they asked for a letter of reference, that's a different matter.

    Finally, there's the issue of the forwarding of the email. I think that was unethical, but only slightly. When someone sends you a letter, that letter becomes your property, to do with as you will. You have an ethical obligation to privacy only if they invoke it. However, in this case, the unethical part comes in in that the student probably *intended* to invoke privacy, and it's just good practice to assume that unless the letter contains something disturbing (more so than a few spelling errors. Okay, quite a few. Okay, mostly it is composed of spelling errors).

    So, to sum: For me, I would regard this action as slightly unethical, and it would fall short of the standards I set for myself. I can't hold you to those standards, and wouldn't if I could, because I have a hard enough time meeting them myself. But that's my reasoning.

    I hope it helps. I tried to find some appropriate Greek, but couldn't.

  9. If you didn't write it, which is fully justified, then he would not have gotten accepted. He won't get accepted with the letter you wrote anyway, so what you did made no difference. I think you should have not written the letter. In fact, don't even respond to the email until a few days later saying, "Oops, I guess I missed the deadline, sorry but I didn't check my email."

    Including the email exchange gives the program application evaluators a perfectly clear view of the student's qualifications. Although the student wouldn't appreciate what you did, the evaluators are probably grateful.

  10. CC, I don't think you're a shitty unethical asshole of a Judas. For starters, Judas knew his master well and loved him, at first. Judas also got paid 30 pieces of silver.

    I think your chair's calling you "unethical" is too much. Your chair should remember that, as academic professionals, our first allegiance is to the truth. I get shitheads like this asking me, in the same profoundly stupid way, to recommend them for medical or engineering school. I regard letting them have what they deserve to be a service on my part, in the name of public safety.

    1. I probably have better things to do, but I just ran your shithead's email message through a grammar checker, which includes a Flesch-Kincaid grade level computation. Your shithead's message is written at 7th-grade level. This doesn't surprise me, since that message clearly came from a mind at about that level.

    2. Wait, there's a Flesch-Kincaid grammar checker online? COOOOL! #academictoysmakemegiddy

    3. There may or may not be, but that's not how I did the check. I copied and pasted the text into Word, and used the one there.

    4. Hey, I didn't know these things existed! What fun! I found this online calculator:

      And then ran a few comments through it. My comment (above) was rated at the 8th. grade level. Oh no! Then Frod's comment got a 7th grade rating. Oh, so maybe it's biased for length. So I tested Prof. Chiltepin's comment (each of these takes three seconds): 7.3. The calculator says "anything getting above a 22 should be considered graduate-level work". Hmmm, I have to remember to experiment with a comment by Cassandra.

    5. This is excellent. I wonder if the use of three-syllable words increases one's chance of being ranked higher, too. :)

    6. Once again, I am reminded of my grandfather Viktor, with his monster at his throat. That was back when when family still spelled it "Frankenstein", of course.

      OK, I'll concede that a Flesch-Kincaid test is for readability. It may not be the best test of a piece of writing's intelligence. Hemingway famously wrote on 5th-grade level; the Gettysburg Address is on 11th-grade level.

      It's best to keep one's writing between these levels. It's not necessarily good whenever writing is at grade 26+, since unless they really want to, most people will be disinclined to read it.

      If complex thoughts make it necessary to write at a high level, then write at a high level. I know very well how mathematicians love precision, one reason being because it's necessary. But then, as Mencken observed, "Kant was probably the worst writer ever heard of on Earth before Karl Marx. Some of his ideas were really quite simple, but he always managed to make them seem unintelligible. I hope he is in Hell."

      On the other hand, Shithead Misspelling gives me the distinct impression of being unable to write anything better...

  11. Next time, just "happen to miss the deadline" because you were "out of town."

    I think the jerk got exactly what he deserved, though. Go you!

  12. If truth matters, then be truthful with your students. No "I was out of town"; just "One day is insufficient notice" (and maybe also something about professionalism and courtesy). But also no hiding the ball. "Do you understand that when I say 'include all of the above,' I mean quoting in full your original request, which you didn't bother to run through spellcheck, and adding my assessment of your complete lack of aptitude? Do you understand that I will absolutely kill your slim chance of getting in?"

    The kid sounds utterly clueless but his request was not mean-spirited. Your solution was.

  13. This kid isn't actually trying to get into any poetry program. He thinks if he shows the universe how desperate he is and how hard he's "trying," it will take pity on him and cut him a break. It doesn't actually matter to him what kind of letter you wrote because he's convinced himself the letters don't matter anyway; they're just a formality like everything else he thinks he's required to do. If he really wanted or honestly expected to get into the program, he wouldn't have gotten a recommendation from his mom.

    That said, you should probably just ignore people like that from now on and let them hang themselves with some other rope.

  14. Your actions sound responsible and community-serving. If a student asks me for a letter, I send them bullet point questions to form the basis of my thoughts(ie, what class did you take with me, when did you take it, what do you remember from it). If they cannot do this simple task, then I omit such information and write something very short and very simple.

    It's the lack of details that ought to give the reader a negative impression, rather than the presentation of details.

    Nevertheless, you were being honest. I like that.

  15. I am surprised at all the folks taking you to task on this. I think you were quite right to notify this program of what they were getting and using the phrase "letter of recommendation" doesn't legally bind you to a positive assessment. Bragging to your Chair might have been ill advised but is understandable (next time, just brag here.)

    I do wonder, from your blinding of the student's email, if the program he's applying to is so boondoggle-y that even three highly negative letters are enough to let him pay lots of money for something that won't help him professionally much at all. I'm thinking the kind of "immersion trips" they have for high school students . . . But again, that's his problem.

    1. Thanks, Kate. I don't think this program is one that would help any poet, let alone this particular student. It is one where "writers" shell out money and are promised a "publication," in the same vein as the "Who's Who?" Books.

      As for being called mean or being taken to task/scolded and told I did harm, I'm not going to pretend that it doesn't sting from a community I thought would support me (hell, why would I post something on here expecting to be lambasted?), but sometimes the anonymity of an online community allows people to say things they wouldn't normally say to a colleague's face... And as one who appreciates honesty, I appreciate that people expressed their honest opinions. Could they have been nicer in how they expressed it, yes. Should I have ignored/deleted the email request from the student I do not remember, yes ('m not one to lie to students about not checking my email when just ignoring their email). But that is not what I did. And I still am not convinced that I harmed this person. Part of my problem in life has always been finding a balance between complaining about something and doing something to fix the problem because complaining gets old. I'm also the only one in my dept to call students on bad behavior, but that's another story. Sometimes I have to curb my desire to help them change their behavior through more gentle methods of correction.

      I am curious how many people do believe that a letter of recommendation is solely for the purpose of recommending, rather than offering an honest assessment of a student's work. Any time I have had reservations about recommending a student, I have let the student know of my reservations and have advised them to seek another recommender. In those cases, students usually tell me they'll find someone else...

    2. My particular policy is not to write a recommendation that I wouldn't show to the student themselves. I realize I am probably in a minority there.

      But again, it's called a "recommendation". A recommendation is "something that recommends or expresses commendation". You didn't do that. You said you would, and then you sabotaged the kid. A recommendation, at least in spirit, recommends. To do otherwise is to lie. This doesn't mean you cannot call attention to certain problems or weaknesses, just that on balance if you agree to recommend a person then you recommend them. You don't sabotage them. You used your position to punish a student and then were pleased about it. That's...not right.

      I mean, if someone you don't like asks, "Can I have a hug?, if you can't give them a hug, say "no". Or step away. You don't say "yes" and then knee them in the crotch and smile about it.

    3. Stella: I actually DID tell him that I was going to include ALL of that info in the letter. At no point did I indicate that I would write a positive recommendation that would help his case. As I wrote in my original entry above, I even advised him twice to pick someone else BECAUSE I would have to include not only the fact that I didn't recall who he was and that his request had shown a complete lack of understanding of the conventions of the English language, but that my recommendation wouldn't be positive so he should pick someone else. I went point by point through the points I raised above and told him exactly what the letter would entail. He insisted I continue with the process after having read my email saying: "Here is what I would write about you in this letter, and none of it is positive so please pick someone else." I'm not trying to day that I felt pushed to do it, but I also did not mislead him in what the letter would entail.

      I've always viewed letters of recommendation as honest appraisals of students' abilities, which is why they're so agonizing to write. If they were simply gushing praise, they'd be simple to compose and send off.

    4. Honestly, he had no clue how that would affect his application. Unless he was just applying to apply. It's obvious he thought it was a ticky-box he had to check. He wasn't aware of how recommendations work. You were. They're enormously important.

      What you needed to say was that any letter you wrote for him would hurt him, and that having his mother and sister recommend him was hurting him as well. You needed to tell him what you thought about the Bungee poetry program. What you needed to offer that kid was wisdom. As in: "If you or your family are taking out loans and spending money to go to a poetry program that will let you in on the basis of recommendations from your mother, sister, and a professor for whom you performed poorly, you are making a poor life choice that I cannot in all good conscience support."

      Sending the correspondence between you and the student was also a dick move.

      Letters of recommendations are of course honest appraisals of students' abilities. But you shouldn't write one unless you can do that and report positively. You don't write a "recommendation" unless you can "recommend."

      I was actually in a similar situation as you were, except I had a better student. She took one class from me and received an A. I don't remember her, but I verified the A. She wanted a recommendation for a writing program as well. We went back and forth about it and I said she needed to find recommenders that could support her as a creative writer. She said she couldn't. I told her that was a bad sign, and that it would be difficult for her to get into a decent writing program without getting recs from someone who'd read her writing. Also how impossible it was to find jobs, the basic stuff about not taking out loans for grad school because the loans don't go away, and the jobs aren't there, etc. etc. etc.

      She insisted. So, finally, I wrote a recommendation. Said she'd been an A student in my class. Talked about the class and how difficult it was, and that many students flunk out. That she was a stellar student in that class and very students achieve an A, etc. I wrote what I could write that would help her, after giving her the benefit of my opinions on her application.

      We're hard on our students here--and we vent about them--but deliberately setting out to damage a student's chances of getting into a grad school (submitting the correspondence shows that) and then taking pleasure in it...

      This letter wasn't "agonizing" to write. You were pissed off. The kid was clueless, and annoying you. You liked writing the letter, and felt smug about it.

      Look, I'm being hard on you, but that's just the way I feel. Your chair was right. If you think you were right...well I think that what you did was mean, and you and I are just going to have to totally disagree.

    5. I think your situation with a student who earned an A, and my situation, are not really comparable. This wasn't grad school, and if it were, he wouldn't have stood a chance regardless of my contribution. Had this student earned an A in my class, I would have likely remembered him, and would have also been able to recommend him because an A would signify that he had really earned the right to be recommended and I would have had more to say about him than that I didn't remember him. This was not that situation.

      Your continued implication that I did not tell him that my recommendation would hurt him is really what I take issue with, not what my additional responsibilities to him should be several years after he graduated. I did tell him that my letter would hurt him. Repeatedly. I repeated it several times to him (just as I have repeated it to you), and at NO time did I promise that a recommendation from me would help him. I fully disclosed to him the consequences and advised him otherwise several times. I went point by point and said, "Here is what I have to write about you and it's not pretty." He said that was OK and he still wanted the letter. Were this a student in my department or program, I would have known who he was and would have had a relationship with him. As it stands, I'm still not even sure he ever took a course from me as I have no way of looking that up.

    6. It's not that I think you didn't tell him. It's that he wasn't listening and you knew he wasn't listening, and that he wasn't aware of the full implications of the situation.

      You said he "gushed" his thanks to you for doing this for him. Obviously, obviously he thought you were doing him a favor. You weren't, and the fact that you told him this doesn't exonerate you. Because you knew he thought it was a favor, and you knew it wasn't. And by proceeding with that knowledge you did exactly what your chair accused you of.

      Your chair said the the student had contacted you in good faith, thinking that you would help him. That's exactly what he did.

      Your chair also said that you instead, betrayed his faith. That's exactly what you did. And why would you write anything about a student you don't remember at all and you also have no way of looking up anyway?

      Then, instead of feeling guilty about it, you were so proud of yourself that you bragged about it. And then came here hoping that everyone would verify that you were indeed ethical after all.

      Some of us are going to think it's fine. Some of us are going to think poorly of your actions.

      Just the way it goes, I guess.

    7. You're right. He did initially gush his thanks. And because of that, I again told him what it would mean... and again, reiterated that it wouldn't help him. And he then said he understood that I couldn't say nice things about him but he still wanted the letter. So...

      Oh, forget about it... This isn't worth the effort to defend myself when we clearly have opposing views and will likely not agree on it. It's like one of those essays where people are trying to argue that homosexuality is a sin and one person doesn't believe it is and the other does and their competing ideologies and lack of common ground make it an impossible debate and then people get all het up and it goes nowhere except to drive people further apart ... or about abortion, or about stem cell research, or about students who believe they are always in the right and professors who feel similarly... or anything else incompatible.

      Some people think I was right and others don't. End of story.

    8. For what it's worth, I didn't ONLY write this for affirmation. I also did want to know what others might think. Just because I didn't like what others think doesn't mean I only want people to agree with me all the time. I didn't expect people to call me mean and harmful, but that's what people think... Overall, I think it's a worthwhile endeavor to think about what letters of recommendation mean to us and whether we trust them anymore and can use them as a measure of a students' likelihood to succeed.

    9. For the record, I don't think of you as mean and harmful. That's not the vibe I've ever gotten from you. I think what you did was mean and harmful. And also understandable, because sometimes we just. can't. take. it. anymore.

      It's not like no one on this board has ever done anything mean and harmful to students or colleagues or anyone else, including myself.

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  17. Hi Cynic! I am late to this party.

    My thought is, I like the student to know what I am going to say, especially if it is not going to be wonderful. So, in the past I have, when pressed, written something less than wonderful and given it to the student asking if they think this would help them. Or, as a mentor once advised, I say, well, I'll have to write this "....." and this "....." And it seems like you did in fact do that in this case. I just doubt the student realized how bad it was going to be. I don't think I'd write such a negative letter, in all honesty.

    I don't think you are a Judas or unethical, because you clearly let the student know you what you were going to write. (Maybe the copying of the e-mail exchanges does not fit with that, but the rest does.)

    If I look at myself very honestly, I cannot say for sure if I would have held back because of ethics or kindness, or simply out of fear of being sued.

    I sympathize with the feelings you felt that led you to do this, though. You already know that! And I feel the chair should have given you more of a compliment sandwich. She needs to practice what she preaches, especially with faculty!

    1. Thanks, Bella. I don't have a problem admitting my shortcomings, but I feel like those who claim I was dishonest with the student are mistaken in their assessment of the situation. I have always provided copies of my letters to students I recommend (usually printing out several copies for them and leaving them on letterhead so students can include those letters in other applications). I didn't hide from this student what would go into the letter and feel that if he's insistent enough to continue to insist that I write one, then perhaps any program he applies to needs to know that.

    2. I admire your chutzpa for following through with what you told him you were going to do. He probably did not believe you'd actually do it. I think modern young people have a lot of trouble believing anyone could really, seriously write negative things about them!

    3. NO, I'm pretty sure he believed me. His email indicates that he did not care and that he simply wanted to make his file complete. I wonder if someone told him that no one looks at the letters and simply checks to see if letters have come in for him. I don't know. But I don't see it as a disservice to dissuade someone from making a poor decision.

      Anyway, I guess people have differing opinions, and UNLIKE letters of recommendation, they don't only say nice things on this blog if they feel differently. :)