In seven years of teaching, the requests have come from students who barely passed my class. They have come a day after graduation and stated the obvious when they read “I’m not sure if you remember me, but…” They have come addressed to another professor, thanks to forgetting to change the salutation when they were copied-and-pasted into emails to anyone that may be able to put a face with an email address and write the coveted glowing reference.
The deeper I get into my teaching career, willing I have been to give into my guilt and write them. “Will you write me a reference letter?” is often code for “Will you follow the specific instructions to write individual letters for the 10 grad schools and 10 entry-level positions I have applied for?” I tried to limit my reference-letter writing to students who received an A or B in my class and, later, an A. Then I tried to limit it to students who have taken more than one class with me or have given me some other way to get to know them beyond the 37.5 hours of classroom time I have with them in a given semester (assuming they don’t miss any classes).
I have tried to gently point out that, as an adjunct professor, my reference will not have the weight and impact that a letter from a full-time faculty member will have, particularly if the student is applying for a graduate program. I also point out that they may get a better reference letter from a professor who taught a class in which they actually spoke or offered some other way of helping the professor remember who the fuck they were.
And still the requests came.
Policies did little to deter them. If anything, they resulted in an email back-and-forth in which more time was expended explaining and reiterating my policy on reference letters than it would have been to simply drag out the boiler plate and send the damn letter. Refusal was often — coincidentally, I’m sure — followed with a shitty, anonymous review on Rate My Professor days, or even hours, after I had politely explained why writing a reference was something I could not do.
The biggest reason for not wanting to honor every reference letter request is it cheapens the ones I write for the students I actually want to write reference letters for. Right now I’m finishing up a round of letters for a former student who I feel genuinely deserves my time and effort; it’s been more than five years since she was in my class, but I still remember specific interactions and her efforts to actually learn something. She was one of those rare, contemporary students who figuratively asked “What can I learn in this class?” instead of “What do I need to get an A in this class?” Too often students mistake my genuine like for them as people with a firm belief that they can “excel in a graduate program” or “be a fine addition to your corporate culture.”
I don’t know if hiring managers and admissions committees actually read the reference letters; there must be some gems from the students who truly over-estimated the professor’s views of their abilities, and perhaps those blunt missives about a candidate’s shortcomings are helpful to people deciding between applicantss who all look alike on paper. But if those people are actually reading them, they will be reading even fewer from me thanks to my latest policy to deal with the glut of requests I get.
I’m not going to write them anymore.
Like most rules I make, there are instances where I will want to (and instances where I will) break my own rule. But the general rule of thumb going forward is prove something to me. Take multiple classes with me and show an intellectual curiosity that goes beyond getting through my class as another checkmark on the list of things you have to do to get to graduation. Understand that, in a typical class, I have less interaction with you than I would if you worked for me as a full-time employee for a single week. If the request is going to come a year or more after you are in my class, keep in mind I will have as many as 100 new students since then; if you didn’t make an effort to get to know me by showing up to office hours or staying after class to talk about your career plans, I may need a refresher on who you are.
And most of all, when I say no, understand I am saying no to benefit you. I’m saving you from the half-hearted effort I would put into writing the letter and pushing you to find that one professor or boss you really connected with who can write the types of letters that make the reader take notice.