References: what are they good for?

(The title makes me think of that episode of Seinfeld, the one where Elaine truly believes that the original title of War and Peace was War: what is it good for? But I digress.)

I’ve only just discovered the wonder of A Don’s Life, and via the book rather than the blog, so it was a delight to see this post about the writing of references, just as I have been seeking out such things…

For starters, I am exactly the sort of person who feels horrendously guilty about asking for references. Yes, yes, part of someone’s job, but honestly, I feel guilty about that too. Why should it have to be? (Or at least, why should it necessary for anyone applying for taught postgraduate courses?) I sort of thought the whole point of exams, essays, dissertations, and other forms of assessment were to, you know, assess someone’s academic ability. So that’s done and dusted – I’m not sure why it’s necessary to ask for a re-assessment, or an assessment in a different format, from people whose job (I thought, at least) in relation to undergraduates was to teach them well?

Next up is that I’ve written references myself (for both teenage and adult students, sometimes in the capacity of ‘practicing writer’ and sometimes as ‘former teacher’), and while I don’t utterly loathe them, they are time-consuming and occasionally frustrating – what precise words to use to convey why you’re recommending someone, and how to make that fit whatever guidelines have been given, when really that you recommend them already should say most of that. (I am a firm believer in the idea that a half-hearted reference, or faintly damning one, is pointless and/or damaging – just turn down the request, for god’s sake. I’ve certainly had the occasional student I wouldn’t refer to anywhere except perhaps behaviour modification classes.) And it’s not necessarily a perfect fit – you’re commenting on some aspects of a candidate’s behaviour, but not necessarily what a potential employer or institution wants to know, or everything they’ve asked.

Then there is the generic reference letter. The teenage students I deal with over the summer often use their course evaluations for this purpose, and I have to say I approve. Basically, it’s one page: one page which covers the context in which I know the student (not only that I’ve taught them on a summer programme, but a brief description of what actually happens in the course and what the objectives of it were, and what was achieved during it) as well as pretty much everything positive or constructive I have to say about them. Every July I write up about twenty of these, in the last two or three days of the course, when everything is super-fresh in my mind. I mention what in particular impressed me about the students. I don’t comment on things like punctuality, which is a moot point anyway (is it really punctuality if your RA comes around to make sure you’re up in the morning, or shoos you back to class after lunch?), or extra-curricular activities, but the evaluation covers everything I’m qualified to comment on – how students behaved in class, how they contributed, what kind of work they wrote, the strengths of their writing, the things they accomplished while in the course. If there’s anything else a future employer or institution would need to know, I’d only be guessing.

Reference forms, of the variety where you tick boxes (Galway, I know, have a ‘mark from 1 to 5’ scale for a number of attributes they consider important), seem to miss the point. Academic ability has been assessed. Diligence should be evident – and if it hasn’t, if it hasn’t led to concrete results, then what does that mean, exactly? Does ‘tried really hard’ mean anything? And if references are qualitative rather than quantitative ways of assessing students, why this number nonsense? Not to mention the madness of asking a referee to read a variety of different instructions for each form – this one you need to tick a lot of boxes and then provide a short paragraph, this one you can attach a separate letter but just sign here here and here first – when whatever they have to say about you should in theory be the same for each, and whatever strengths of yours they are aware of should be mentioned regardless, and whatever they don’t feel qualified to comment on (or don’t want to comment on, for whatever reason – maybe someone is a brilliant student but a dreadful human being) shouldn’t be included (and omissions are of course telling). Standard letters of reference – just evaluate a student as soon as you’re finished teaching them, and hand it over or keep it on file. It’s logical, it’s beautiful, it’s a wonderful vision.

But the other thing about the student evaluation forms that I provide is that they’re all I provide. Students don’t get a number, they don’t get a grade. They get qualitatively assessed and that’s that. If a student has struggled with something and they overcome it, or if they push themselves beyond their comfort zone, that’s reflected in their evaluation. And that is the sort of thing that quantitative ways of assessing students can miss out on. It is also the sort of thing that sometimes just doesn’t matter – for example, for getting into an undergraduate course where the entry requirement is 500 points. The person who gets 500 points effortlessly and is underachieving gets in, the person who gets 490 after working super-hard doesn’t. So I do wonder if for postgraduate education, a similar system applies – is a good reference enough to balance out a mediocre degree? If you’ve got a third class honors degree and the course asks that you have a 2:1, why should an academic reference (as opposed to a professional one) make any difference? Either it’s that you’ve done well in one particular area of a course but not in others (in which case that should be reflected either on a transcript or on a CV) or…. or…. well, honestly, I’m stumped. I would not, for example, expect an academic reference to include details of extra-curricular activities or other college activities (unless maybe something like being class rep, if one had been? But even then the people qualified to comment on that are fellow students, not lecturers). I would not expect them to comment on fashion sense or a sparkling sense of humour (or lack thereof), or how well you got on socially at college (look, if your lecturer knows how much time you’re spending in the pub, you both have a problem). Just your academic abilities, assessed as best they know how – and shouldn’t that be reflected in someone’s results? And if not, hasn’t something gone very wrong there?

About clairehennessy

Writer (mostly YA fiction), creative writing teacher, tea drinker, book junkie. View all posts by clairehennessy

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