Thursday, June 28, 2012

Recomendation reflux redux

Over the past two days I've received a variety of responses to the "You write the letter and I'll sign it" scenario described here, but they all fall into three general categories:

What a wretch!
Colleagues here and elsewhere are appalled that anyone would agree to write a letter of recommendation but then back out at the last minute. Yes, people whose recommendations are likely to be influential are also in great demand--but someone too busy to write a letter shouldn't have agreed to write the letter in the first place. (In my recommender's defense, let me point out that his situation has changed drastically in the months between his agreeing to write the letter and the due date, so I'm willing to cut him some slack.)

What's the big deal?
People do this all the time! I recall a time or two in grad school when my professors offered to write letters for me but asked me to submit a draft, which didn't seem odd at the time. These days when I'm asked to write a letter recommending someone for something, I generally ask to see a vita (if the asker is a colleague) or a list of classes (if it's a student) or even a list of points the letter ought to cover, but I've never asked anyone to draft the letter for me. Still, this appears to be a common enough practice in some corners of academe, so who am I to complain?

What a gift! 
Some see this as an opportunity to write the perfect letter, the letter that will exalt my accomplishments to the skies and say everything I've always wanted someone to say about my wonderfulness. "Go for it," they tell me. 

So I'm going for it. I drafted a letter. It's a good letter, but it makes me nervous. Surely the committee will recognize my writing style and be suspicious of such a glowing recommendation! Worse, I feel like a fraud, passing off my self-serving evaluation as the studied comments of an expert. 

I keep reminding myself that the committee isn't interested in how I feel--they're interested in what I've done and why it matters. I hope the letter I've drafted will help make the case, but if not, this has been a pretty interesting exercise in creative writing.

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