Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Recommendation reflux

Suppose someone agrees to write a letter of recommendation for you but then begs off thus: "I'm too busy--you write whatever you want and I'll sign it." What do you do?

First of all, you can't really write whatever you want. Well, I suppose you could, but if you mention that your research makes the blind see, the lame walk, and the tone-deaf sing like Pavarotti, you'd better produce some evidence to back up those claims.

So you have to stick with the facts, but there are as many ways to color the facts as there are crayons in the box--and I'm talking about the big box, with enough shades of blue to tint every inch of the ocean and sufficient yellows to gild every lily. 

The opening sentence sets the tone: you have to decide first of all whether to write that you're pleased or delighted or thrilled to recommend Dr. Wonderful for the position or prize or promotion, and if you're writing the recommendation under duress, you start with the neutral "Dr. Wonderful has asked me to write a letter."  

But I can't write that about myself. For starters, I'm pretty sure my recommender is pleased with my work, but is he delighted or thrilled or simply willing to write a letter? And how much shall I gush about my wonderfulness? It's kind of painful. Every time I try to write down something I think my recommender would applaud, I hear the voice of my mother tsking over my self-celebration--and on the other shoulder stands my grad-school dissertation director scolding me: "You'll never get ahead in academe if you can't learn to toot your own horn." I ought to just get out of the way and let the two of them duke it out.

But that won't get this letter written. Here's my first stab at an opening line: "To whom it may concern: I have been asked to write a letter that I then asked the asker to write instead and I hope it says what I really think but if not, don't hold me responsible for the results."

No comments: