The cash for references debate

January 30, 1998

Valentine Cunningham is so overwhelmed by the number of references he has to write he is considering charging for them. How valuable are they? he asks. After all, he never gets any feedback.

THERE IS an academic joke about the lecturer short of publications who thinks of putting out his collected examination questions since they take up so much of the time he might otherwise spend on real writing. In gloomier moments I think I should do that with the great heaps of references I have written over the years.

There have probably been thousands of them. Copies moulder away vastly in the drawer. Nowadays the disks accumulate. They are a Babel-tower monument to the serious distractions of academic life. When I add the references I read to the ones I write the noughts go off the screen.

In a bad week I compose and sign six, eight, ten, new ones. The computer helps, of course. At the mere press of a few keys you can have Ms Ex at one moment "making a wonderful addition to someone's sales team" and at the next "proving a considerable asset to somebody else's staff room". But still the heart sinks at the vistas of text implicit in that inevitable shy moment after the tutorial, "I've applied for a few jobs and I wondered whetherI" You cannot refuse. You are stuck in the chain of obligation that your own referees were and are in. It is the price you pay for your pedagogic job - the penalty they kept dark when you got appointed. And it is hard not to feel it is a steep price when the requests pile in, especially, as they can do, in multiples. "Please note the due date and the request that you make six copies of the reference letterI Would you also direct a seventh copy to the Mellon Foundation and an eighth 'to whom it may concern'? I hope this letter finds you well and that I am not causing you too much trouble." Like most of my quotations, that is a real one, and, yes, she was causing trouble, and not the least troublingly in that her request was not at all unusual.

But at least I could remember who she was. It is even more horrible to have to scratch around in the archives for some reminder - any reminder - of someone you last saw 15 years ago. "I think I still recall her sunny presence in my seminar, though it has been a while now since I saw her." It will cut, you feel, little ice.

What seems to be required, though, even in the event of old acquaintance almost quite forgot, is the display of a confidence that comes from knowing what matters about candidates and their desired destinations. The request letters imply so: "I would be grateful if you could give me a really candid opinion of her character and abilities and say if you think she would suit. This work doesn't suit everybody." That from the office of the Parliamentary Counsel. I still have little idea of what a Parliamentary Counsel is. Nor do I know, really, what it takes to be an effective solicitor, playground attendant, and the endless other occupations I am asked to judge people for. I am on safer ground when it comes to professors of literature and such, but it clearly would not do, the reference game suggests, to let my ignorance show. So I roundly aver my confidence that "she is well cut out for a career in the law", or whatever. Employers' faith in me is rather touching. As is the belief which underpins the whole reference enterprise, the faith in the power of extrapolation from student merits to workplace ones. He wrote his essays on time and ran the condom machine with efficiency so can be taken as a safe bet for a career in spying or stockbroking. I do wonder.

But it is a rhetorical game we are in. And there is no room for doubt about the rules of play. So all the principled hesitations about the impossibility of telling stories about character - the bread and butter of the literary seminar - fly straight out of the window when it comes to writing references. "The story won't tellI not in any literal, vulgar way" (The Turn of the Screw). "Character drawingI a frivolous fireside artI exquisite outlines enclosing vacancy" (Jacob's Room). All that is forgotten. These short stories I tell will tell, and will be taken as telling. This reference will claim to reveal the character of the individual as surely as any 19th-century fiction. "She was rather quietly attentive than clamorously contributory, but when she read her papers to the group it was clear that she was intelligent, thoughtful, diligent and not uningenious as a critic." "You may find him rather dour at first, but longer acquaintance will prove him not too presbyterian." The character sketch is alive and well here.

Some employers do, obviously, have doubts about this story-telling and prefer the kind of mechanical assurance the tickable box of pseudo-statistics professes to provide. "Is he punctual 5, 50, 100 per cent of the time? Is she in the top 4 per cent of her year, the middle 20 per cent of first classes, the lower half of her generation?" And I find it hard to cope with the fake mathematical purity of all that and find myself ticking several boxes at once. Who, after all, is confident about whether someone is in the top 5 per cent of the year rather than slipping into, say, the merely top 6 per cent? A page of boxes leaves no scope for the nuances the old-fashioned character sketch is built for - especially in the spaces between its lines. I want to be candid about people. But I also want never to do people down with a heavy hand. So I hope prospective employers can read between the lines and weigh all the buts, which I try carefully to work in. "One of her tutors said that she didn't so much mind the odd late essay, but that it was the mobile phone going off in tutorials she didn't really care for." "But he soon shed - at least somewhat - his initially arrogant, get-by-on-natural-talent-alone attitude which clearly got him through his schooldays." What I am actually saying is: Watch Out For This One.

But then I do occasionally wonder whether it is worth bothering to take these verbal troubles. Many of my students seem to get jobs without the need to acquire references. And so many employers make up their minds without your help and only want you to write simply confirming the worth of someone they have decided to employ anyway. Many clearly put little trust in the written word and seek truths by telephone. And, of course, there's always the large bucolic fellow in the belted raincoat who comes round checking up on the would-be spies. And then there is also that really hateful paragraph which is advance ingratitude posing scruffily as gratefulness. "You will understand that we shall not be able to acknowledge receipt individually and so ask you to accept our thanks in advance." What, I ask, about my time that they are encroaching on? Perhaps charging a fee for my opinion would make such mean requesters more conscious of the effort they are requiring me to put in.

Charging one's old pupils for every reference (or just for the stamps) would also, perhaps, make them show a bit more gratitude. Scarcely anyone writes to tell me they actually got the post they asked the reference for. And this is, in fact, part of the main trouble with this branch of writing. It has almost no feedback. Just as there are no guides to doing it, no courses in reference writing, so also you never get told by anybody that the words you have used have either helped or hindered a candidate's chances. Yeats wondered whether some words of his had sent out certain men the English shot. I am left wondering something like that about many of my references. Was it worthwhile sending them off? And all of them?

At the bottom of a tobacco box Carlyle gave him as a present, Tennyson found an old reference. "Mrs Oliphant, whom this note accompanies, is an old and esteemed friend in this house; distinguished in literatureI and a highly amiable, rational and worthy lady." Was it the draft of something never sent? Who was it to? For what? Was it effective? Who knows? And was it - salutarily - chucked away in a spurt of the vexation over yet more expending of spirit in a waste of shame that reference writing seems often to provoke in me?

Valentine Cunningham is a professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and fellow of Corpus Christi College.

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