The Season of Letters: Communicating with Referees

Around the time stores trot out their Thanksgiving decorations, academics enter Letter of Rec season. In a staggering display of irony, both the academic job market and doctoral programs bear early winter deadlines. Dossiers for both positions share letters of recommendation, a point which speaks to academia’s value in word-of-mouth vetting. Typically, these letters triangulate with the other dossier elements to give committees (hiring or admission) a richer snapshot of someone’s potential.

Letters of Rec are tricky, because they assume a relationship of trust and knowledge between referees and candidates; that is, they rely on human connection and verifiable (in detail!) elements of a candidate’s promise. “Damned with faint praise” becomes a bulwark against writing letters that lack appropriate detail or enthusiasm. Many referees will refuse to write this kind of letter, trading the student’s disappointment for the unsavory task of writing a lukewarm (or negative) recommendation.

While many of the other job and doctoral dossier elements are textual artifacts within a student’s control, letters of recommendation gesture toward the human relationships we cultivate in academia. Personal Statements and writing samples can be revised ad infinitum and may improve with help from peers and advisors. Tests can be studied for. CVs can develop with elements like participation in professional development, publications, and conference presentations (though candidates should be aware of the “fourth-quarter” push problem where all of the activity happens in the same two months).

Letters of Recommendation, however, are different in two ways: First, these important relationships often develop early in a student’s graduate career. For MA and MFA students on a two-year plan, that means that these connections likely happen in students’ first semester in the program, since they’ll be asking for letters in their third semester. Second, the content of these letters exists beyond the candidate’s control. While it’s possible to revise a damaged relationship—depending on the damage—most of these programs are too aggressively paced to leave room for major flubs. To recap: Students asking for letters must have the forethought to develop meaningful relationships with faculty members so that, when the time comes, those faculty members can speak in detail to the student’s capabilities (as a scholar or a teacher or a teacher-scholar).

The whys and whats of recommendations are less murky than the hows. MA and MFA candidates may feel defined by their primarily evaluative relationships with professors and program administrators, the faculty who will write their letters. Requesting a letter can feel strange or presumptuous. It might cue uncomfortable conversations about FUTURE PLANS. Worse, some students misread the situation and ask for letters in ways that may negatively affect their relationship with their referee. Students should keep these points in mind as they approach faculty for letters:

1.      Have a two-minute narrative ready when you make your requests. Briefly describe your intentions (“I am looking at doctoral programs in rhetoric and composition, specifically these six schools….”) and why you are approaching this particular faculty member for a letter. Pro-tip: “Because you seemed friendly to me” is not a good enough justification for asking someone for a letter. When you choose referees for doctoral applications, think about asking those people who know something about your scholarly curiosity and potential as a researcher. It is also the case that many doctoral programs expect candidates to teach in their first year, so it’s not unwise to ask for one of your letters to address, at least in part, your potential in the classroom. For teaching job letters, it’s wise to get a letter from the program’s director or your teaching supervisor and letters from people who have directly observed your teaching.These observations should not be peer-observations, but observations by experienced faculty in the program.
2.      Asking a referee to be a referee can happen in person or by email. If you decide to ask someone in person, make sure to set up an appointment and give some context for the meeting (“I’m applying to graduate schools, and I would like to ask you to write a letter…” or “After I finish my degree, I hope to get a job teaching at the community college, and I’d like to ask you about writing a recommendation…”).
3.      This goes without saying, but still: Ask far far in advance. Most referees need at least a month to write a clear, detailed letter that will serve you well. I expect my students to contact me at least eight weeks in advance, since the fall semester is usually very busy.
4.      When asking someone to serve as a referee, consider qualifying the request to say, “Would you feel comfortable writing me a positive letter of recommendation?” Candidates have been burned by not-so-positive recommendations. (I don’t wish to set up a paradigm where paranoia is default, but it’s helpful for referees to see that you’re thinking into the impact of their letter of your dossier.)
5.      If someone agrees to write for you, provide that person with all the necessary materials to speak to your capabilities in detail: an updated CV, drafts of your personal statement, writing samples, and other artifacts help ground a referee’s personal experience in your larger scholarly context.
6.      Be aware that even if you apply to multiple schools or multiple jobs, your referee will likely write one letter to serve for all applications. Don’t expect customized letters. I’ve certainly written these types of recommendations, but only in novel situations. It is not common practice for a referee to produce multiple versions of a letter for a student. (With great customization comes multiple chances for error.) That said, make sure you give your referee enough context about why you’re applying for these jobs (“I want to take what I’ve learned about multimodal writing and teach in two-year colleges…”) or these programs (“My goal is to research second-language writing and digital spaces…”) so that your referee can write one detailed, effective letter.
7.      Courtesy: Follow up with your referee if and when your opportunities come to pass. It’s always disappointing, as a referee, to spend hours and hours writing a good letter for a candidate to hear nothing in response, good or bad. If someone agrees to write for you, that person is invested in your success. Let them know the results of their efforts, even if those results aren’t the desired ones. And it’s old fashioned, but a thank you note goes a very long way to showing your referees that you understand the time and energy it takes to write a good letter for you as you progress through your career.
8.      What if someone declines your request for a letter of recommendation? In the past, I have declined to write for students for a number of reasons: a too-soon deadline, that student’s history in my classes or as an advisee, or because I knew little of that student, beyond a face and name. Understand that a referee who declines your request is doing so because the alternative would be to write a not-so-helpful letter. Be gracious and learn from the refusal, even if the only lesson is that not every faculty member you work with will be available as a referee.
9.      Most applications—job and doctoral—request three letters of recommendation. Sometimes, this number is bound by the method of application, meaning you can submit only three. Consider asking one additional faculty member than you need, since it’s the case that a referee could forget or have to withdraw his/her letter because of other commitments. Incomplete applications may be thrown out, so having a backup plan is wise.

Asking for letters is certainly more complex and contextually influenced than this list suggests. Often, students have to make decisions between asking two faculty members for letters, as they balance familiarity with prestige or personality. Or they have to navigate the strange land of requesting teaching job letters from mentors, who may see these students as students and not colleagues (a shift which could influence the tone of the letter). But it is the case that during the Season of Letters, faculty members spend hours during the busiest weeks in the semester because we like to see our students do well. These nine points may preserve that relationship.