Writing letters of recommendation is at the heart of being an educator

What strikes some as a tedious chore prone to bias can transform lives and evoke enduring gratitude. Academics should embrace the opportunity to knit the plot of a person, says Douglas Dowland

May 13, 2021
Illustration of man and woman on flying carpet symbolising the helping hand of letters of recommendation
Source: Getty Montage

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student. This month, he wrote to thank me.

The student – I’ll call him Jason – needed a reference to be admitted to the university honours programme. I agreed to his request, wrote the letter, and he was duly admitted. But how one success lays the foundation for another was invisible to me until he wrote to tell me. In the grand scheme of things, my letter was a part of a chain reaction: acceptance to the honours programme gave him extra opportunities that helped him gain admission into an esteemed graduate programme and ultimately allowed a small-town Iowa kid to join the science big league.

The young man who I had known was, even then, prone to deep thoughts. Now he had written to me to reminisce. On what he calls the “dark days”, when a new student makes a mistake in his lab or when a grant doesn’t come through, he thinks back to those who helped him. I am fortunate to be near the beginning of that chain.

I have written so many letters, taught so many students, that it took a while for me to remember Jason’s. He arrived late to the first day of class and sat in a front seat of a classroom on the second floor of the English-Philosophy Building, a dank building that the University of Iowa had deemed unworthy of handles to open the windows. The room had a “no smoking” sign glued lackadaisically next to the nicotine stains that had accumulated when the building was the domain of the Writers’ Workshop.

After going through the roll, I asked if I had called everyone, and Jason’s hand shot up. “I’m in the wrong classroom,” he said, “but I think I’ll stay in this one.” So he stayed.

Jason was then, like many of my students now, nervously occupying a caesura in their lives where one identity has come to an end and another is about to begin. This made him all the more vulnerable to those who could easily close a door to his future. One “no” could set his life on an entirely different path. I agreed to write his letter because of his incisive reading, his willingness to argue beyond the norms of American Midwestern passive-aggressiveness, the questions he raised and his reading across disciplines for answers. But I also agreed because I felt it was part of what it means to be an educator – not an obligation, but an opportunity – to help shepherd a student through this liminal stage of his life.

Letters of recommendation have become so interwoven into our enterprise, at least in the US, that we demand them everywhere in the world of higher education, from the endowed chair to the “part-time visiting assistant professor” position that may “possibly be renewable” (at which point one can assume a new batch of letters will be asked for).

Yet their requirement is also widely – and I think justly – criticised. It is a near-universal complaint among academics that they are a time-consuming, unrewarding burden. A similar complaint is that the language of such letters is phoney: either inflated through a Bourdieuian larder of euphemism or deflated to the bare minimum out of fear of legal consequences should the letter become public. And there is always the lingering concern that letters are written by elites for those who look and act very much like they do. Letters can indeed be used to deny opportunities to those who have earned them, to further favouritism or, even worse, to perpetuate prejudice.

I have personal experience of how easily the genre can be abused. I have been the subject of a classic too-short letter written by a famous scholar – so formulaic that no one took it seriously. I have also been the subject of an adequate but lifeless letter that inventoried but did not describe the significance of my accomplishments. And at a crucial moment in my career, I was told by a mentor that they would not write a letter of support since it was time for me to “fend for myself”.

Yet I am also well aware that few of us would be where we are now without a panoply of letters written for us by others. From high school graduation to gaining tenure as an associate professor, at least 20 letters have been written for me, not including those for grants, awards, institutes and the like. A small army of people have volunteered their time to help me.

I try to keep all this in mind when a student asks for a letter of recommendation. What they are really asking for is a particular type of help – an assessment of their skill, a forecast of their future. They are asking you to see them as they see themselves, a person full of potential.

And that is why, for the students who deserve it, I always try to write letters of recommendation not grudgingly but enthusiastically and wholeheartedly. Such letters can knit the plot of a person, a plot that makes their dreams possible for others to see. In our letters we say: yes, this plot is plausible, what this person wants can ultimately come true. Yes, we promise in our letters, this person will enrich your life, as they have mine. Performing the task in this way should surely be central to our values and identity as educators.

Montage of vintage movie poster for ‘The Best Bad Man’ of a drowning woman being rescued by a man with a pen
Getty montage

South West England: the mid-1960s. A young woman arrives to a doctor’s appointment. She is crying but not in physical pain: the doctor examines her. He discerns that her tears come from unhappiness, and she admits that she is unhappy in her work. The doctor listens. He further discerns that her tears are a liquid sign of her desire for a better life. He writes her a sick note for her current job and makes a phone call to a local employment office, recommending her for a position that matches her skills and gives her the opportunity to grow.

The scene is from John Berger and Jean Mohr’s 1967 book, A Fortunate Man, a remarkable portrait of the life of a country doctor in the UK. It is the way in which the doctor performs his recommendation that has led me to thinking lately about how the letter of recommendation and similar kinds of support we give our students are a form of medicine. For the country doctor, the phone call to the employment office turns a patient’s physical distress into an opportunity for a remedy. He knows her; he listens to her; he guides her through her obstructed ambition to where she unconsciously knows she wants to be. And then he makes the call – he orally writes the letter – that makes a different future possible.

Such remedies are curative not just for the patient. The country doctor looks out the window as the woman leaves his office. He watches her walk down the lane back to her home. “He continued to stare at the stone walls on either side of the lane,” Berger and Mohr note. “Once they were dry walls. Now their stones were cemented together.”

Supporting our students can have a similarly transformative impact. Letters of recommendation can sometimes help them escape food scarcity and abusive homes. They have provided mobility, both geographic and economic. They have allowed people to ponder the issues in their minds longer, perhaps for an entire career. They have brought access for the poor and fellowship for the excluded. Sometimes the good we are doing is immediate and sometimes it becomes apparent only much later or even never. But the effect is still real. Jason reminded me of that central truth.

I did not think I still had the letter I wrote for him: I’ve gone through six computers in the past 15 years. Much to my surprise, I found it, buried in a subfolder in an old back-up drive. The prose of my letter was a little more inflated than what I would write today, but not by much. I wrote of Jason’s papers and his class participation; I wrote of his visits to office hours and his request for supplemental reading. I wrote much more than that, of course, but the letter did its academic work – and, much to my surprise, continues to do emotional work today.

It is unusual for others to write about us in ways that recognise who we are and who we may become. Seldom are others generous enough to paint the broad horizon of our promising life. The letter of recommendation is a rare transferral of praise, a rare moment of support. That is why it should not feel like an obligation, nor should it be taken lightly or cynically. Instead, we should see it as an act of care, emblematic of what we should strive to offer our students and at the very heart of what higher education is for.

Douglas Dowland is associate professor of English at Ohio Northern University.


Print headline: Offering a helping hand

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Reader's comments (3)

Well put Douglas. Writing references is rewarding when the student lets you know about the outcome of the application. This Semester I have received several emails from students who have got that coveted place for their Post Graduate studies or a job offer after I wrote the reference. Our job as academics is to nurture our students and help them reach greater heights. We should be pleased when the 'chore' of writing references pays off. Even if it does not, I have had students tell me how much they learnt from the process of applying for placements, jobs or graduate students even though they did not get the place. The lessons learned from this process are beneficial to both student and tutor.
I do not agree. This article does not address the problems with letters of recommendation and current campaigns to modify the system. Students in the global south are placed at a disadvantage as they may not get the same letters that American university students get
It is clear that the US is very different from the UK, where one is discouraged from all but the most factual references for students. Also, it would be a breach of UK data protection laws to still have a copy of a reference letter from more than 5 years ago.