Letters of Reference Check List

So, one of the duties that feature heavily this time of year is “letters of reference”: for Ph.D programs, for scholarships, for employment. (The other duties you know also: students need help planning Winter or Spring courses; students struggling with current course work are looking for life lines; and grading for the current term, so well managed up to this point, has just now spun out of control.)

Sometimes it’s hard to write a good letter. Scratch that: it’s always hard to write a good letter, in the same way that it’s always hard to get to any of the housekeeping that fills itself in around course work, administration, office hours, and (hear my hollow laughter) scholarship. What tends to really make the difference is the student herself, by performing at a high level in the first place, by getting the request in to me nice and early, and by giving me lots of information instead of requiring me to make of the letter a whole new research project. It’s arithmetical: time not spent housekeeping a letter is time spent writing the letter.

Over time, I have developed a “check list” that I return to students who ask me for a letter of reference:

The Check List

  1. Whenever possible, please plan to have given me 30 days to write. If not, give me as much time as possible.
  2. If I have written a letter for you in the past, please remind me of this, telling me when that was and who it was for.
  3. Please include the full name and appropriate title for recipient of letter.
  4. Please include the full address for recipient.
  5. Please include any information materials about the program/scholarship/job/etc, unless that information available clearly on a web page (see next). This can be in electronic form or hard copy.
  6. If the scholarship provider, program, employer, etc. has a web presence, please include an URL for that web site.
  7. Please remind me what classes you’ve had with me, and what term(s) they took place. Or, remind me of our other ties. (Sorry, I really can remember, but if you save me these minutes, I’ll put them to better use for you working on the letter itself.)
  8. Please give me clear instructions for delivery: mail directly, return sealed to you, &c.
  9. Please include a portfolio of work you have done for me in the past. (This may not be necessary, I usually still have anything that we have exchanged in electronic format, but at least check with me about this). Material can be electronic or hard copy.
  10. Please offer me a few sentences on how I can really help you with this. What talking points would be helpful? What are the details of the impression you hope to convey? How does my letter contribute to your overall package?
  11. Always remember that a letter writer’s “stock in trade” is honesty. The very best way to secure good letters of reference is to distinguish yourself from your peers early and often in course work. Thanks.

The whole point is to be able to quickly organize the resources that will inform an interesting, positive, distinctive letter.

What do you think? If you teach, have you composed a similar check list? If you are a student, do you have any thoughts about these kinds of requirements?

[Letters of Reference Check List was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/11/17. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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Again with Commencement ’10: Red Shoes Edition

In what ways does your institution recognize the continuing indispensability of women’s scholarship? How does it “high five” women who join its ranks?

Careful observers at our annual commencement would have noticed some of the women faculty, admins, and graduates wearing red shoes. The run-up to Commencement ’10 was marked by higher-than-usual student interest in this Garrett tradition, and on the day itself, red shoes seemed to catch the light everywhere.

But why red shoes? Preacher Mom did some original research along that line. The short version is this:

We wear red shoes to remind us of our place as courageous, outrageous women, and to celebrate the rich tradition of female scholarship at GETS.

Read the whole post. You will learn something of Georgia Hearkness, Professor of Applied Theology at G-ETS from 1939–1950, and of her grandmother Abigail (AKA “the woman in the red coat”). You will also find that Rosemary Skinner Keller, first women to serve as Academic Dean at G-ETS, was the first to remember Hearkness’s story by wearing red shoes.

Speaking personally, I am happy to say that I was raised largely by women teachers and scholars. I remember my mom (a lifelong registered nurse) staying up late nights to earn her Masters degree in Gerontology so that she could reliably make the kind of money needed to deliver us from a certain hazard besetting the family in that time and place. My next-oldest sister (now long since a career teacher) played school with me, teaching me my letters and words faster and more engagingly than any of my elementary school teachers could. My oldest sister (who went on to CalTech to become a chemical engineer) stayed up late with me nights to talk speculatively about science, relativity, elementary particles and their habits, the colonization of space, the relation of mind to brain to senses, and how we know what we think we know. (She also opened her bookshelves to me, allowing me to read constantly over my head and regardless of subject matter or age-appropriateness. Rock on, Sis.) Women teachers and scholars had defined my life and its prospects before I mastered long division or graduated to chapter books. While the patriarchy was undoubtedly well at work on me during those years, it’s still the case that women scholars were normal to me before the patriarchy could get very far in abnormalizing them.

I hear stories from time to time, mostly from women academic bloggers, about how some faculty succeed informally but consistently in “high-fiving” their women graduates, not to the exclusion of their male peers but in an above-and-beyond sort of way. What is your experience? Are faculty “putting on the red shoes” in any noticeable way for women’s scholarship and women grads? How or how not? And what do you think of such an attempt?

[Again with Commencement ’10: Red Shoes Edition was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/05/18. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]