Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Letters of Recommendation

Reading Raul’s post made me think about something that has been bothering me all weekend and it’s related to something I almost posted about a few weeks ago.

On Thursday or Friday of last week I received an email from a former student requesting a letter of recommendation for something or another. I honestly have no idea what it’s for because Verne neglected to put that in his email. The email right above his was an email from the organization with a link to follow. Of course, this organization expects the letter writers to have some idea who they are so they don’t tell you what it’s all about. I could pull out my mean research skills and Google it but I haven’t yet so maybe I won’t. I just don’t know.

The deadline to write this thing is tomorrow. So I have time to procrastinate. But I’m really having trouble getting into a positive frame of mind about this student. I’ll lift it up to God after lunch but for now I’ll tell y’all my miseries. We’ll start with the moderately annoying and go from there.

If you haven’t figured it out yet I’m a chick who teaches in a math intensive field which makes me feel like a mathematician sometimes. Perhaps it’s because I publish in as many of their journals as my own. As you might have guessed my real name isn’t actually Crazy Math Professor. CMP is my alter ego. CMP is a ballsier version of me. CMP wouldn’t have the problem I’m about to tell y’all about.

Many of my students don’t address me properly. I prefer Dr. CMP but Prof. CMP would work as well. When I put my info on my syllabus I write Dr. Crazy M. Professor. When I sign my emails I write Dr. Professor. The signature on my email is Dr. Crazy M. Professor. When I talk about myself in class (that sounds worse than it really is) I call myself Dr. Professor. But I still have students who address me as Mrs. Professor. That’s not ever technically correct. Mrs. Professor is my mother. I am Mrs. Crazy Math Spouse but not Mrs. Crazy Math Professor. You see I accomplished a bit before I got my MRS. I earned three degrees, published papers, and got a tenure-track job. Crazy Math Spouse and I got married after all of this. So I didn’t like the idea of losing my last name and thus eight years of academic history. Sometimes I regret this since my kids’ friends may one day think I’m Crazy Math Stepmom. Oh, well….

Now back to Verne. Verne’s email started off with addressing me as Dr. CMP. That’s cool. I’m glad he’s learned since we last had class together. But then at the end he writes “thanks, Mrs. Professor” (what’s my mom got to do with this!). Ugh. Well, I’m an adult. I can get over it. That’s what being a grown-up is about.

Next I read the email from organization. Of course, it was addressed incorrectly as well. But it’s not what you think. You see the name Crazy was one of the most popular girl’s names in the two decades around my birth. There were no fewer than 5 Crazys (or would it be Crazies?) in the Fourth Grade at my school. The email was addressed to Sane Math Professor. Now Sane is not a name that has been popular since 1938. Over my entire life, I’ve known two Sanes. Both of these women are now in their sixties. So it seems that although Verne knows my email username (cprofessor) he hasn’t a clue that the “c” indicates my name would start with a “c” as opposed to an “s”. And if he wrote the email followed by my “name” it didn’t occur to him that something was weird and he should double check the department website, course schedule, an old syllabus, the college catalog, or any of the other myriad of university resources with my name on it. No. He’s applying near the deadline. Details are unimportant.

Before last week the last time I heard from Verne was just after I submitted the grades for the most recent class in which he was enrolled. You see Verne had earned a 91.something% in the course. He’d missed an A by a few tenths of a percent. When a student is in that position I look at their final exam score and office hours attendance to see if there is any reason to bump the grade. This is the only kind of curve I ever do. Verne had come to office hours once or twice and had a decent final exam score so after a lot of thought I decided to bump him up. Then he sends a snotty email (to Mrs. Professor) about how he’s an A student and I should bump him. I was pissed! I thought long and hard about what to do. I really wanted to change his grade to a B since snotty students deserve no breaks from me. After a few days of ruminating I decided that by changing the grade to a B I would be basing his grade off of my feelings for him rather than his performance in the class. I knew this was wrong so I didn’t do it. (But CMP would have so I felt some vindication). Once grades were posted Verne didn’t even bother to drop a thank you email.

So this is going to be a hard letter of recommendation to write. I should have immediately responded to the email with a stern “This is too short of notice and I don’t have time to do it.” That, of course, would have been a half lie since I have plenty of time to write this post. Unlike CMP, I’d rather procrastinate and be pissed then actually have the courage to write an email stating how I really feel. So I’ll let CMP do it for me on CM.

Dear Verne,

I am very busy woman and I don’t have the time this week or next to write a letter for you. Recommendation requests should be sent several weeks in advance so that your letter writers can gather their thoughts about you and clear more than 10 minutes in their schedule to write a well written letter for you. Further, I’d rather not recommend you for anything since I think you are a snot. I felt angry and offended when you insisted I give you an A when you had earned a B. You also don’t give a sh!t about others. You see I’m not “Mrs. Professor.” I’m “Dr. Professor.” It was on your syllabus, every email I ever sent to the class, and was mentioned in class pretty much weekly. If you gave a sh!t about other people you’d have taken to addressing me as Dr. CMP in the first few weeks of our first course together. I can’t imagine that any organization would be interested being associated with an ungrateful, snotty, self-centered person such as you. I’m very sorry I will be unable to accommodate your last minute request.

Most Sincerely,



  1. If you are in a math-intensive field, I found your concern about titles to be slightly strange. For in the science areas, the use of Dr typically is reserved for those in the medical profession. Colleagues who insist on using their titles, quite frankly, appear insecure. I do not mean this as an insult, this type of usage is common in Europe for example, but not common in the US.

    I expect students to use Prof. in emails, but if they use my first name I am not insulted or disturbed. As long as they know who is the boss.

  2. I prefer Dr. CMP but Prof. CMP would work as well.

    That's not unreasonable. I can understand the annoyance - he couldn't even get her first name right, and that's easy enough to find on the department's Web site. And being called "Mrs." over and over again, that'd get on my nerves, too. She is not Mrs. Crazy Math Professor as it's her maiden name, also it's courteous to refer to women as "Ms." and not "Mrs." and finally, being called "Mrs. CMP" over and over might give one the feeling of being addressed by a bunch of third-graders. So I agree, let's drop "Mrs." as an acceptable form of address for college professors.

    As far as the recommendation, decide whether you want to do it or not. He's a good student, at least, and might do okay in grad school. But he also sounds like a prat. So, if you can't write a sincere recommendation, don't bother. Just tell him you don't have time. Don't trouble yourself about telling a little lie. Think of it as an alternative to telling a bigger lie in your letter of recommendation - that you think this student is great, when really you don't like him. Or else, if you feel some obligation to write the letter for whatever reason, just do it as minimally as possible, focus on his work, which sounds okay from your description, and not his personality, which sounds pretty grating.

    Good luck!

  3. I feel your pain; our department flatly refuses to complete letters of rec with less than 1 week notice (less than 2 is pushing it, really). If that student doesn't even have evidence of knowing your name, why should you be expected to know his, let alone have all of his wonderful accomplishments at your fingertips? I'd tell him that he has a Hobson's choice: a half-assed letter dashed off in ten minutes (in which you may or may not get his name, grades, or abilities right) or no letter at all.

    And it annoys me when I get "Mrs. J," too. For the record, students called me that even when I wasn't a Mrs., so just what were they assuming? Is Prof. so hard?

  4. Don't write it. You can tell him that you won't, or not. Who cares? It sounds like you've spent too much time considering his plight already. Just don't do it.

    I've found "Dr." titles pretty common for any PhD scientist, though professors get more use out of it since there are always a bunch of students who want to address them. It's different when dealing with the general public, I don't know of any PhD who insists that people use or even know about the degree. YMMV.

  5. In the outside world, I don't WANT people to address me a "Dr." as it creates confusion. I've found that it's common for profs in the sciences to be addressed as "Dr." Several of the places where I interned as a college student made use of the title "Dr." Of course, those places were all research facilities with university affliations.

    Both my father and husband, who are in industry, both are addressed as "Dr" at times and not by choice.

    In the outside world there are multiple uses of the title "Dr." Dentists, orthodontists, optometrists, vets, and psychologists are addressed as "Dr." even though they aren't MDs. You'll often find that pastors with D.Div.s are addressed as "Dr." as well.

    Plus the term "doctor" is derived from the latin word "doctor, doctoris" which means teacher. It's a fairly recent (on the scale of human history) thing that MDs are associated with the title "Dr." I guess that Latin minor finally paid off.

  6. Also, h_p, gender makes a difference. Female faculty need to make stronger efforts to define and maintain boundaries, because of the widespread culturally-embedded sexism that makes women seem inherently less worthy of respect.

    CMP - I swear I thought you were male, incidentally - if you think you can write him a decent reference without misrepresenting him, then do. If you don't, then email him back and tell him you're afraid you can't write the reference on such short notice.

    But don't bend over backwards to be nice about him just because you feel guilty about not liking him. He has not treated you respectfully; of course you don't like him. I don't mean the confusion over 'Mrs" and your first name - I get a lot of "Mrs" and I always correct it, but I think they think of it as an honorific, from high school - I mean the nasty note demanding that you change his grade to an A "because he's an A student", and the lack of a follow-up thank you note. Twerp.

  7. I've found it to be pretty standard for all professors with a doctorate to be addressed as "Dr." on campus and by students, but not off campus in other settings.

    I think what irks me is a discrepancy between male and female usage of "Dr." and "Prof." I've noticed that males seem to be addressed as "Dr." or "Prof." and females are "Mrs," even when the male in question has no doctoral degree or the female in question no spouse.

    As far as the letter of rec. goes, I'd just ignore the request. A letter of rec. should be something YOU do as a courtesy for a student, not a requirement. His not even taking the time to get YOUR name correct indicates he's not careful enough to be recommended (that would be my attitude). I wouldn't even respond to him. I'd just let the deadline pass.

  8. Please don't write that rec. It just gums things up for the next prof when it gets around that faculty can be asked at the very last minute for such things, and the next prof comes off looking like a meanie when she says "no".

    I don't care who it is. I wouldn't write a rec for someone at the last minute like that. I wouldn't send a mean letter back either, though. I'd just send a brief email stating "I'm sorry, I need a two week lead time for recommendations, and you need to send me a copy of your application letter and your resume before I can complete it."

    If you feel truly pissy you can just ignore the email and the rec, until the student starts sending follow-up emails. Then you can say "What rec? Oh, I don't remember that...but I need a two-week lead time...(etc.).

    If you are pissy beyond the shadow of a doubt, you can simply write, "Dear Student X, I appreciate your desire for a recommendation from me, but unfortunately I am not the best person to attest to your strengths."

  9. Write the recommendation. It goes like this:

    "Twerpy Snotface is a competent student whose is very confident in his abilities."

  10. Merely and Ack hit the nail on the head when it comes to gender and academic titles. I grew up with a father who holds a Ph.D., and who, following the gentlemanly tradition of his extremely gentlemanly and extremely traditional undergraduate institution, never used the title, socially or professionally (he worked outside academe). I sort of suspected I would use "Dr." professionally (and as an alternative to offer those who object to "Ms."), but never expected to feel strongly about it. But I can't get students to use "Ms." (which I use socially, and expect to continue using socially even if I should marry at some point), and my job is more marginal than I'd like it to be, and, though the balance is shifting somewhat, the marginal category of job I occupy is still held by far more women than men (while the TT faculty in my department are split pretty much 50/50 M/F). So my students get to pick between "Dr.," "Prof.," or my first name, all equally fine with me. I don't really correct or complain about "Mrs.," but I don't like it. And I do find myself more attached to both "Prof." and "Dr." than I ever expected to be. If the fact that I'm a highly skilled and experienced professional were being recognized in other ways (e.g. salary), I'd probably be less attached.

    I very much like WhatLadder's phrasing for the letter, but suspect that what Stella suggests at the end of her post might be more ethical.

  11. As someone who is currently buried under a veritable avalanche of PhD applications, I implore you, *please* do not write that letter. If Twerpy Snotface doesn't get the letter, he can't apply. If he can't apply, I don't have to take the time to read and formally rank a file (statement, writing sample, transcripts, and multiple letters) that is filled with (admittedly amusing) letters that are coded to tell me just how touching Twerpy's confidence in his own
    abilities really is.

    (And thank you to the above posters who have pointed out the gendered dimensions of the title question. It matters.)

  12. Dear committee members:
    I'm sorry I don't have time to write the letter I'd like to write, but I had only three business days to do it. Verne is an "A" student, but he procrastinates when it comes to asking for letters of recommendation.
    Crazy Math Professor, Ph.D.

  13. LOL--Dr. Bubba! Will you write ME a letter of recommendation?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.