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Halfway there (#1175)

Topics/tags: Language, academia, postscripted

It’s the time of year that I’m submitting recommendations for students to go to graduate school. As I think I’ve noted before, graduate recommendations take time. I find it hard to write a good recommendation letter in under an hour, and I’m usually a fairly quick writer. And the letter has to be customized for each institution if only to change the institution name.

In some cases, I add additional notes, such as comparisons to other students who’ve attended the institution, or clarification of some of my ratings. For example, I find it hard to rank most CS majors in the top 20% of Grinnellians I’ve taught, since I teach a lot of non-CS majors, and those folks in, say, English, can be amazing writers. But my experience is that most Grinnellians end up in the top 20% or higher of graduate students in CS in terms of writing ability. So that needs explanation.

As that prior paragraph suggests, I generally need to fill out a form for each institution. Most ask for an overall rating. Most ask for how long I’ve known the student and in what capacity. Many ask for comparative ratings. Some ask very specific questions and insist we address them in the letter [1]. That’s something else to add.

We are also often asked to fill out information about ourselves. Address, title, etc.

That brings me to the point of this musing [3]. I was recently filling out a recommendation for a student who is applying to the University of Chicago, my alma mater [4]. I generally try to switch the prefix from Dr. to Prof.. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that option. However, I was pleased to see that the UofC does permit Mx.. I’m glad to see my alma mater embrace gender inclusion.

Unfortunately, we do a bit less well later in the form. There’s a bit that says something like we want to know if you are an alumnus/alumna. I realize that those are Latin terms and therefore gendered. However, I believe custom suggests that we can include a gender-neutral alternative. Would it hurt to add alum or something similar?

At least there’s some forward progress.

Postscript: Although the particulars vary, I usually spend between five and fifteen minutes per institution. For applicants who apply to dozen or so institutions (not atypical), a recommendation ends up taking a bit more than three hours of my life.

It’s worth it to support our students, but this is a hard part of the semester to give up that time.

Postscript: In making comparisons for UofC, I was tempted to write something like [The student] is certainly more driven and more responsible than I was at their age, and I think I’ve done the program proud. But that seems excessive.

Postscript: I don’t care that it seems like most of this musing is about graduate recommendation letters. The point is that schools are making some progress on gender-inclusive language.

Postscript: I recently attempted to write a recommendation letter without using any pronouns. It feels very unnatural to skip pronouns. River’s experiences and skills will permit River to support others in the program. I recommend River highly.
I want to write will permit him or will permit her or will permit them. But I’m not sure what pronouns River [6] uses, and I don’t think people should be forced to choose pronouns.

Postscript: Here’s my favorite rating scale so far.

5. Outstanding

4. Excellent

3. Good

2. Average

1. Below Average

Isn’t it nice to know that the average student is less than good? We’re definitely not in Minnesota.

[1] E.g., In your letter, please provide evidence for your ranking of the student’s resilience. [2]

[2] I just realized that the request for details on resilience is why mom included a similar question on her form for students. I wish I had remembered that before I wrote the most recent recommendation letters.

[3] Four paragraphs or so in, and I’m just getting to the point? Yeah, that seems to be my normal style.

[4] At least I consider it my alma mater. Since I’ve attended, it’s doubled its undergraduate enrollment, moved books to a robotic underground library, changed its founding date (from 1892 to 1890) and its abbreviation (from UofC to UChicago), and more. Plus, CS has moved from the mercury-filled confines of Ryerson to what I think of Crerar Library.

[5] It is Chicago; it might lead to nasty letters from some alums who embrace the Latinate more than inclusion.

[6] In case you couldn’t tell, River is a pseudonym.

Version 1.0 of 2021-12-09.