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August 9, 2005

The Culture of Secrecy

Awhile back, SITBB wrote about the academic culture of secrecy (reference Leonard Cassuto's article in the Chronicle). In Cassuto's article, he asserts that academe is by far too secretive, one measure of which is that students generally aren't allowed to see their letters of recommendation. Cassuto asserts (as emphasized by SITBB):

...We all have to look more closely at the workings of our secret society. We need to do so for the sake not just of those at the bottom of that society, but for all of us who depend on the integrity of the system. As institutions that serve the public, colleges need transparency. The university works at its most basic level by propagating and exchanging information -- in public. Its internal workings should be no different. The truth will sometimes sting,but it cools down in the open air...

In response to Cassuto, SITBB asks, "Do you agree with his assessments about the positive outcomes that would follow from academics' "living in the sunshine"? Have you ever declined to sign the waiver to gain access to your letters of recomendations?"

In response to the first question, I'm honestly not sure. I think too many academics (faculty and students alike) have very fragile egos--I think it's too easy for many of us to be hurt by the one not so seemingly positive comment made about us, and somehow miss all of the other glowing things included in the exact same letter.

On the other hand, as someone who recently became a doctoral candidate (in case I needed to remind you), I think there's a whole lot of what goes on in academe that is secret (or at least tacit, to put it nicely) and designed more for the purposes of initiation than anything else. I don't think much of the process of grad school is transparent, in spite of graduate coordinators and doctoral seminar instructors' attempts otherwise. I'm not sure how anyone could have fully prepared me to feel so grilled when I was sitting alone in the room with my committee members, fielding yet another question about my stakeholders and trying desperately to turn all of my own tacit understanding of my topic into explicit, well-communicated phrases. I'd like to believe that when I'm sitting on the other side of the table, I'll be a little gentler in my question asking. But, I can't help but wonder if dissertations are like childbirth and soon the pain will be long since forgotten. I, too, may strike fear in the hearts of a few doctoral students in my day. But, I do hope that if that's the case, I will have done everything I could to remember what it was like to be in that nervous space in the first place. I hope I'll do what I can to demystify the process, rather than keeping in it the shroud of mystery it currently seems to be in.

In response to SITBB's second question about not signing the waiver on letters of recommendation, here's what I posted to her blog:

As a nave undergrad, I once asked a prof of a class I had recently taken but not felt passionately about to write a letter for me, and he said, "Sure, I'll write a letter for you. Let me see, I'm happy to say that your work was definitely above average, although not at the top of the class, and that while you missed class 2-3 times this semester, you were always paying attention when you were there." Obviously I learned a lot from that experience because I sure didn't get into grad school because of him!

Since that time, I have briefly considered what would happen if I, just once, didn't sign the waiver, but have also never not signed. For me, the consequence of not signing seems to unknown, and in most cases, the stakes seemed too great.

In my teaching now, I often get students asking me for letters, especially because there are scholarships for students in our program. I usually tell students directly if I know I'm not going to write at least an above average letter. When I give them copies, it's always after they've submitted their applications, although maybe now I'll question that.

Since I posted my response, I have been thinking about letters of recommendation and the purposes they serve. I think I tend to be something of an idealist because for the most part, I think that as an instructor, I am shouldn't be functioning as a gatekeeper for my students. When I have multiple students ask for scholarship letters (and there is, of course, a limit to the number of scholarships available), I try to write about the strengths of each student individually and let the scholarship committee decide. (Note: in the last round of scholarship applications, all of the students I wrote letters for won scholarships.) On the other hand, though, I know that some people who write letters do think that the letters should serve as a gatekeeping function, and they write their letters with that purpose in mind. Ideally, everyone would get a stellar letter from their recommenders, but we all know that this isn't always the case. Perhaps Cassuto is right--if letters were not so secretive, maybe the process would be different.

Interestingly, though, one of my biggest accomplishments as a writer of recommendations has been to write in support of a student applying to a prestigious fellowship program. She was successful in winning the fellowship. However, I'm not sure she would want to see her letter because in it, I talked about her growth over two semesters in class with me. In fact, I say that she wasn't a very good student when she first came to the U, but over time, became one of the best, and one worthy of a fellowship, no doubt.(Of course, it was the potential for growth this discrepancy illustrated that made the letter so successful.) This goes back to my point about fragile egos--that student may not be able to read the good stuff amidst the initial areas of weakness I write about. Of course, it's possible that this student doesn't have a fragile ego and would appreciate my letter for its nuance. Then again, she's never asked to see the letter, either.

Posted by chri1010 at August 9, 2005 10:35 AM


Dear Laurene

This topic made me realize that
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Pointing out the gaps between their and
my perspcetives and explaining the reasons were
tough work as a resercher.

Soon, I will be evaluated as a newcomer
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I feel a little scarey, though.

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