the academic reference

I’ve recently read Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. The book is constructed as a series of letters, many of them academic references, written by one Jason T. Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing and English, Department of English, Payne University. The hapless Fitger, a novelist who hasn’t published for a very long time, spends his days and nights writing caustic memos to his superiors about the plight of the English Department, wheedling letters to his colleagues in other Departments and of course, letters of recommendation (LoRs) for his students. I reproduce one letter here to give you the sense of the Bad Academic Reference a la Fitger.

This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junior/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who stumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster – a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves – is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. Though chaotic and improbable even within the fantasy/horror genre, the story was solidly constructed; dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming; the chronology was relentlessly clear.

Mr. Leszczynski attended class faithfully, arriving on time, and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone messages or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class. Whether punctuality and enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr. Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits and reasonably bright.

You might start him off in produce rather than seafood or meats.

I’m sure you begin to get the picture, from this one letter, of how Dear Committee Members goes. I read sections of it out loud to amuse my friends on our recent week in the mandatory summer holiday cottage. It’s that kind of read – and it is one of those more-than-a-grain-of truth comic novels that you give to your academic mates for Christmas. It’s had mixed reviews, but I reckon it’s absolutely worth having one in your peer group to pass around for a lighthearted read-aloud.

But there is also something to be gleaned from the book about academic references. Fitger doesn’t know much about most of his students and he can only say a pathetically small amount about them. And what he says would mostly be better unsaid. Your average non-academic employer doesn’t want to know about academic work, they just want to know if the applicant will be a good employee. Fitger has precious little to say on that subject and manages to make even punctuality sound like an underachievement.

Throughout the book, Schumacher shows a set of cringe-worthy Fitgerisms – the academic references not to write. They’d make a pretty good beginning to a professional conversation about academic reference writing – when we get around to having them! And why don’t we talk about academic references more?

Almost from the moment you start work in a university you’re asked to write references. Students want references so they can get a part-time job doing temporary clerical work while they study, and when they apply for a real job after graduating. Doctoral researchers need references so they can pick up a bit of teaching or temporary clerical work while they study, or when they apply for a real job after graduation. Academic colleagues need references too – when they are going for promotion, when they put a bid in, and when they are going for another job somewhere else. And that list doesn’t even start to cover the reasons and times that you will be asked to write an academic reference.

It’s a wonder that we don’t talk more about this form of academic writing since it’s so common. Academic references are high stakes texts. They do important work. What a referee says can make a really big difference to decisions made by people the referee never actually sees and may not even know. A relatively small number of words are important in competitions for scarce commodities – paid temporary work a job, reputation, research funds. What you/I write can make a very significant difference to a person’s present and future.

Of course, when we write references we are also putting our own reputations on the line. Reference readers can make a judgment about how much to accept and trust what we say on pretty flimsy grounds. They may have seen us at a conference where we were having a bad day, they may know our work, or some of it, and disagree with it violently, they may have read something we wrote and think we are the smartest person out there. And let’s be honest, they may also have heard gossip about us. This all influences how that crucial reference is actually read. But while you can’t control what other people think and do, you can control what you write.

So, what makes for a good reference? What do people read into a reference, what are they looking for? How do you learn the academic craft of saying- and not saying – what you mean?

What do you have to say on the academic reference? Want to write a guest post? Make a comment? Please join in. The academic reference is a piece of secret academic business that needs outing.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to the academic reference

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    I don’t get asked for these very often – normally people ring for a reference. When I am asked, I always put it back to the applicant to draft their own reference. People are generally self-deprecating, so the draft generally needs to be bolstered a bit. But it does speed up the process, and the applicant is best placed to understand their abilities and the requirements of the employer.

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  2. I was told that, in writing a reference, you say everything positive that you can. This has the advantage if the subject sees the reference they will not see anything written about them that is not complimentary. It carries negative information by the fact that it fails to mention areas which are relevant to the job as in the case, probably apocryphal, where the reference was “I believe he has a perfectly charming wife”. I am currently considering whether I can write a fuller account of the usefulness of this approach as a bloq post.

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