What do you do when a student asks you for a letter of recommendation, and so help you, you can't think of ANYTHING helpful to say? I tell the student, "I'm sorry, but I can't write a letter of recommendation that can help you." If they want to know why, I tell them. An example of this would be: "Because you were the only person who's ever taken my astrophysics class who couldn't understand apparent magnitudes, and because of it, I had to spend so much time explaining it to you that the entire class you were in got behind schedule."If the student is stupid enough still to want a letter of recommendation from you, I write a bad one. With the way people can be so litigious these days, it would be a good idea to stick to the facts in these cases: but then, they're often quite sufficient for damnation.
This is excellent advice, and would save many well-intentioned faculty hours and hours of time over the years.
Well thanks, RGM! But then, stapling the student's dick to the floor isn't always advisable, believe it or not.
One of my former students, who was in the middle of my distribution, asked me for a recommendation to Harvard Law School. I told her I didn't want to do that because if I wrote the letter, she probably wouldn't get in (I doubt she'd have gotten in anyway). I told her that once I noted she was an average student in my class, it would really hurt her since Harvard doesn't look for average students. She asked me to write it anyway since I was the only professor that actually knew her name. As you note, Frod, I stuck to the facts. We cringe a lot in this profession, don't we?
I try to employ as much consistency and objectivity as I can. If they approach me, I write the letter, often that day because I know these things can be time sensitive and it's not like it takes me ages.I always include:1: Who I am, a very very brief summary of my credentials and the course in question.2: Their grade in my class as well as any metrics on participation and attendance.3: The average grade of the class.4: Personal comment.I then READ the letter to the student in person (no exceptions) and give them final right of refusal: They either take a copy of the letter which I have sealed in an envelope with my signature over the folds or they say "No thanks." and I trash it.This is my process.I have been asked to write a total of four recommendations in my career. They were all excellent students, all of whom were very pleased with what I wrote. I think the reputation that I developed helped to deter poor and average students from asking. The process of "First I read it to you" was also not advertised.I know why some academics disapprove. "But the people receiving the letter won't be getting the objective truth if everyone did that." "You should at least inform them that the student had final right of refusal." "Do you want your students to know what you think?"I am very candid. I do not put anything in a letter, in an email, in a gradebook that I would not be comfortable with that student knowing or, in many cases, that that student does not ALREADY know.
I'm exactly the same way. I warn the student, as gently as I can, that I cannot write a good letter of recommendation and try to urge him or her to seek one from another professor. I have become very good at refusing students, but if they insist -- and if they do, there are threats to go to my chair -- I tell them that they have a choice: either a very truthful and probably not helpful letter of recommendation, or a sit-down with my chair, who will tell them that I am not obligated to write them one.
I am exhausted. This semester has done me in and I cannot wait until it's over. I usually do not like to rush time, but I'm all about fast-forwarding to the third week in December. The teaching has been mostly good (for a change), but the sheer number of students I've had at LD3C whose schedules have constantly changed have made it difficult to keep on top of everything. (For those of you who don't teach at a CC, you may have absolutely NO idea how challenging it is to work with an ever-changing classroom.) Of course, I do have one class full of people I'd care never to see again, the stereotypical snowflakes, grade grubbers, and slackers. There are a few students in that class that make it almost bearable.The politics are off the hook this semester and getting worse, with a specific, powerful administrator bent on making life miserable for many people. Several colleagues are out for various reasons and I am worried about them. My administrative duties increased because of those absences, and while I don't mind picking up slack, I'm really, really tired. Yesterday's 12-hour day took a bit of recovery. Tomorrow's 14-hour day is going to outright suck. See why I vent in verse form? It's a better read, for sure.
I also always let the student read the letter, even if ultimately it has to be in a sealed envelope. I just feel better about it.
I only get these requests from graduate students looking for jobs, which I find weird as I don't recall ever needing a letter of recommendation to send to a potential employer. I have some boilerplate that I re-use as needed, but if I feel the student was simply too terrible to inflict on even the worst employer, I just say that I'm too busy to do it now but could write them one in about two months when my schedule frees up. They usually agree to ask someone else. Really, asking me is a bit of a desperate move, as I only have the one graduate assistant and I always agree to write them a letter if needed, because most of my grad assistants have been decent and even the one who was not decent, wasn't quite bad enough to wish her to be unemployable. My one ill-fated semester teaching, one freshman asked me for a letter of reference to be admitted to the Honors Program, which I thought was weird because I taught a 1-credit required pass/fail course, so it's not like any student had an opportunity to really shine in such a BS course. But the student was a good writer, so I did so willingly. End result: no thank-you e-mail, but he never even bothered to let me know if he was admitted to the Honors Program. No good deed, etc.
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