Monday, January 29, 2007
Mental Trip Wires, or, A Challenging Letter to Write
Over at Aspazia's place, there's a good discussion of some of the issues that younger female faculty often face in terms of classroom control, respect from students, and the like. It strikes me as taking a little too much for granted – as a young male professor, I was challenged all the time – but the basic gist of it seems right.
Gender sometimes becomes relevant in unexpected ways.
A colleague of mine – a smart, ambitious woman in her thirties – asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for a doctoral program. I was glad to do it; I'm sure she'll do well in the program, and it would fit her desired career path nicely. She's also one of my favorite people here, and it's nice to be able to help good people do constructive things.
Then I tried to write the letter.
Within the first paragraph, I could see that this would be harder than I anticipated. I started by describing her as 'driven,' then as 'dedicated,' then as 'ambitious,' and then realized that those words, applied to a woman you haven't met, are the usual code for 'castrating bitch.' She isn't a castrating bitch at all – if she were, I wouldn't have agreed to write the letter – but it's harder than I thought to find words to praise her strengths without setting off stupid gendered trip wires.
(Eventually, I settled on 'whirlwind' and 'rising star,' figuring that neither was especially gendered and the two in combination captured her fairly well.)
Letters of recommendation are pretty stylized to begin with. They're kind of creepy, in the sense that they're supposed to blend personal knowledge, professional judgment, and sales. Certain topics are off-limits, or extremely dangerous, and different readers read letters differently. (For example, I'm immediately turned off by quantitative statements, like “Beelzebub is among the five best graduate students I've seen in my twenty-two years.” It smacks of false precision, or what I like to call 'bullshit.') I've also noticed that the levels of puffery vary from culture to culture, so letters from overseas have to be read differently than letters from America (by Americans). I'm not a fan of the genre, as I've written before, but I'm not going to refuse to help a friend take a positive step just because of that.
Gender is one source of stupid trip wires; age is another.
Since I'm a couple of standard deviations younger than the median age of my faculty (literally – I did the math), I've endured my share of condescension from the more senior folk. Sometimes it's relatively harmless, as in passing mentions of deans from the 70's followed by “that was before your time.” Sometimes it's to my face. I've been told, to my face, that “you're too inexperienced for this job,” “you'll realize these things as you get older,” and “you remind my of my son.” (I get the last one a lot.) One of my chairs made a habit of calling me “kid” until I reminded her who appoints whom.
Sometimes, though, it goes way over the line. Every so often, somebody goes off her meds long enough to fire off a single-space five-page poison pen memo, cc'ing everybody from the President of the college on down, accusing me of everything short of the JFK assassination. (Every time this has happened, it came out of the blue – it has never followed a conversation or a discernible event.) In any rational organization, that kind of unhinged insubordination would result in summary termination. But since these folks have tenure, I have to let them vent and try to maintain order while swallowing more pride than is healthy.
Learning to swallow pride, to refrain from hitting back, is one of the hardest parts of this job. And that's where the sort of groupthink bias against difference catches you. You get provoked, and provoked, and provoked, but that's all invisible; react, and it's held against you. The extra burden on somebody who represents some sort of threatening difference is in not being threatening, even when anybody else in the same position would be more than forgiven for lashing out.
At least with age, I have the relative luxury of knowing that the threat of difference will fade over time – for example, I'm already ten years older than I was just ten years ago! With other categories, there's no guarantee that the double standard will fade. Aspazia does a nice job of outlining some of the defenses she uses against those standards. Most of them boil down to variations on 'taking the high road.' It's ethically admirable, it often works, and there's a great deal to be said for it. But sometimes taking the high road is exhausting. Real diversity, the kind that prevents groupthink from taking over, can save folks branded as 'different' a lot of emotional energy, and let them focus on work. I could have written the letter a lot faster if I didn't have to dance around gender stereotypes. And my colleague could probably get a lot more done if she didn't constantly have to reassure everyone around her that she didn't represent the Fall of Western Civilization. Biases like these are luxuries of an unhurried time. There's no time for that now. We have work to do.
1) Saying that you wouldn't write a letter for a "castrating bitch" - I know I wouldn't characterize a woman that way whatever her personality quirks (a) and I really don't think there's an equivalent to that sentiment if the roles are reversed (male recomendee, female recommender). As much as you were trying to be "careful" not to set off the trip wires, I think that there are some assumptions beneath the surface that are a bit problematic. Also, "driven, dedicated, and ambitious" are code for "castrating bitch"? Really?
2) I think it's interesting in the age example that you choose about the poison pen email you use a female pronoun for the person who "went off her meds." In other words, if somebody is angry about something that you did, she must be a crazy bitch who needs to be medicated. I'm not saying that those sorts of missives are appropriate, but reading your description of it, well, it left me bothered.
Are there people for whom the term 'castrating bitch' is accurate? Yup. Is that term often misapplied to women who are perfectly sane but happen to be ambitious? Yup. I'm trying to reserve the term for the folks for whom it's really appropriate, and to distinguish the professionally-competent from the simply nasty.
As to point two, I was thinking of actual cases. In those actual cases, the authors were female, and the letters, well, 'unhinged' doesn't quite begin to capture them. Not all criticism is nuts, obviously, but it would be silly to pretend that nobody ever takes a wrong turn into la-la land. My consistent frustration is that I have to indulge these folks and take the high road, when in any fair universe I could just cut these wingnuts off at the knees.
You're right, of course, that wingnuts come in both male and female varieties. The specific ones I was thinking of were female. I've written before about some of the male wingnuts -- the "Elephants" playlet, for example, was a nearby verbatim transcription of an actual exchange.
As to the 'false precision', well, that's an interesting view. When I say "one of the best five students" I mean "I've thought of the best five students I've had, and this girl is on that list". If she was, say, one of the best 50 then I'd have said "one of the best students" instead. When I'm writing recommendation letters for American universities and colleges, how should I distinguish between the 'very good' and the 'so incredible I'm lucky to have met them'?
Yes. Yes yes yes. Mind if I use this line in my next meeting with my chair? ;)
Something similar was enough to set off a (very informative) rant ^H^H^H^H exposition by one of my colleagues. We all get challenged. Students often assume us CC folks are not "real" profs. The difference is that men can adjust a student's perception more quickly, maybe only having to do it once, and do it rather easily without being considered a "castrating bitch".
The problem could also vary widely depending on the region (north or south, urban or rural) your students are coming from.
I think this "bitch" issue might be more of a problem in the humanities where the pressure to be a girlie girl is greater. The adjectives you used would be looked upon positively by any of the faculty I work with, regardless of an applicant's gender.
But that's just me.
I wonder if people would have similar reactions to "This student is one of the three best students I've ever had" or "six best" or another less round number than "five"...
j -- yes, but...if there's one thing I've learned from blogging, it's that what you write and what people read doesn't always match, and no amount of writerly craft will completely get around that. For example, I consider Dr. Crazy one of the smartest and most perceptive bloggers out there. If she managed to get from what I wrote that I believe that "if somebody is angry about something [I] did, she must be a crazy bitch who needs to be medicated," well, my faith in the transparency of language is compromised. To my mind, that's so clearly distant from anything I wrote or meant that I simply don't recognize it. And this from an intelligent, perceptive reader!
Love the point about denim.
I suspect that the point about region probably carries some weight, though I don't know how to measure that.
I stand by my point that letters of recommendation are deeply problematic, even absurd. They rely on a set of common assumptions that we simply can't assume anymore.
So I reiterate my question: how to I convey that this girl is, indeed, one of the top five? List the others?
I figure I've taught about 3000 students so far. Out of that vast number, I can still remember the truly exceptional ones. Sean, Danica, Jing, both Yangs, Suranen, Cynthia, Zhuying, Will, Sholom. If I'm writing a letter for one of them, how do I convey just how exceptional they are?
Maybe you've only been the PhD advisor for six students, so 5 out of 6 isn't quite as good as top 5 of 60, including all of the 10 with jobs. That is "false precision".
Percentages mean more, but even then you might be asked for the denominator on some reference forms. Letters should convey the same info.
One of my former students has an entire medical research building at Stanford under his control. That makes a useful reference point, when it is relevant.
Anyway, I teach high school now, so I can count on teaching nearly 200 kids a year. It adds up...
So Dean Dad, would "top 10 out of 3000" be an acceptable thing to say? Would you prefer that to "top 0.3%"?
The real issue is the institution of letters of recommendation in the first place. They're a survival from an earlier time. The conceit is that we dash off nuggets of personal wisdom between swigs of sherry. It's time to retire them.