Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Let 'em be, or shred 'em up?

I am on a committee that writes recommendation letters for students. The committee letter is so valuable to the system because it protects students from getting an single off-handed (but dooming) comment from a single prof. It also protects them from getting a letter from a prof that may be unfair or biased. It protects profs from writing a bad letter because of a insgle negative interaction with the student, and tempers the "favorite student" superlatives. Three profs writing a recc is a good number. It has all the advantages of having three reviewers on your paper but without the "third reviewer" veto power. We assign a primary writer then the secondary writers are to add their perspective and edit the work of the primary author. There are two ways to look at the editing role.

1. Make sure that doc is perfect in every way. This is in analogy to the way that co-authors of manuscripts will pick over comma and dash placement until everyone feels that the document is pristine. I call this the "shred 'em up" perspective. Advantages to this are that every letter that goes to a professional school is near perfect and that every document will reflect well on the institution. When you say she is an excellent student and we have a very rigorous program, then readers take you more seriously for the latter part of that statement. Big disadvantages are that this takes far more time than we really have to devote to it and it is politically fraught. I would love to shred some of my colleagues writing. They can make some pretty obtuse statements, among other things. I really don;t want to piss off my potential tenure committee and give the impression of being nit-picky. (BTW, the casual blog writing does not reflect my professional writing, just in case that thought passed into your head).

2. Trust your colleagues, and give them slack I call this the let 'em be philosophy. Quickest, kindest, least likely to piss of your tenure committee. I analogize this to how you may suggest revisions to your student's CV. You must not make it perfect for them, that's their job. You just may point out areas of unclarity. And if they send it out with mistakes, that's their problem.

Depending on how much time I have, I probably end up about half- way between these two philosophies. Today I just insisted that a colleague take out a sentence in which she said in effect, "this student is poor so she worked extra hard and took an accelerated schedule to save tuition." Huge GONG! from this corner. I tried to steer a colleague away from the "grind" language in which a work ethic is over emphasized to the point that it gives the impression that the student is not talented. But I also let go some adverbs that were repeated within two sentences of each other and some awkward phrasing.

Your thoughts?

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