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:
- didn't give me much time to write the letter (i.e. one day);
- ignored all advice on how to request a letter of recommendations;
- showed no aptitude for poetry in this letter, let alone bungee jumping with poets;
- never took a poetry class from me (mostly because I don't teach poetry);
- was one whom I had no memory of ever having taught;
- 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;
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.