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.

You probably mean "several standard deviations from the mean", not median.
Oops. My bad. The mean, yes.
We knew what you medianed.
I'm not really sure how to respond to this post. On the one hand, I think I agree in spirit, but on another, well, some things bugged me.

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.
Dr. Crazy -- my point was to avoid inadvertently sabotaging her application by setting off trip wires that I characterize as 'stupid.' Being aware of those rhetorical land mines, and avoiding them, doesn't necessarily mean endorsing them.

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.
I'd never have considered "ambitious" or "dedicated" as something negative. But then, I've never felt that the gender of someone makes a difference in the vocabulary.

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'?
You actually used whirlwind instead of driven or ambitious? I would be mortified to know that. Whirlwind has many negative connotations to me when used to describe anyone, nevermind a woman. Whereas I use driven, ambitious, and other similar words to describe both male and female students all the time. I think part of fighting the stereotype is using the language straightforwardly, and making sure the rest of the letter provides the context and basis for which you use those descriptions.
"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."

Yes. Yes yes yes. Mind if I use this line in my next meeting with my chair? ;)
"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."

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.
What's interesting about this is that in my discipline, there is no expectation that you will be "nice" if you are a woman. We are expected to be business like and cold. None of the men would ever admit to being castrated by anyone so that is protective in a way. This came home to me in grad school when I was working with a cross disciplinary group of TAs. The women from the sciences looked like the men from those disciplines - T-shirt and jeans. The women from social science and humanities departments dressed in blouses and skirts. At one point they asked us why we didn't dress up for class and we pointed out to them that a) when we teach we wear lab coats so our "outfit" doesn't matter so much and b) some of the sweaters they were wearing, while attractive, would go up like a q-tip in a candle flame if held anywhere near a bunsen burner. Nothing protects better from acid spills than denim - you just can't run away from a cloud of noxious vapor as fast if you're wearing heels - thus the sneakers etc. etc.

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.
Interesting post, as it suggests to me just how subjective the interpretation of letters of rec really is. I wouldn't take "driven" or "ambitious" as negative at all (and I'm in the humanities), but "whirlwind" would make me think unfocused and erratic--quite the opposite of how it was meant. And "one of the five best" would mean exactly that to me--this person was truly a standout. I had one student who was simply the best student I ever had, and I didn't hesitate to write that in a letter I wrote for her. But now I wonder if that was taken as the high compliment I intended, or was seen as hyperbole. Huh!
I think what DD meant by "false precision" is that if I heard a prof say "X was one of the five best students I've ever had," the first thing that would pop into my head is "Unless she can name the other four students right now without hesitation, I'm gonna write that off as hyperbole." It's the faux-precision of numbers that ring false, that make it sound like manufactured hype or ad copy rather than honest enthusiasm.

But that's just me.
"Unless she can name the other four students right now without hesitation, I'm gonna write that off as hyperbole."

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"...
My brother got my meaning exactly right on the 'false precision' point.

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.
what DD meant by "false precision" is that if I heard a prof say "X was one of the five best students I've ever had," the first thing that would pop into my head is "Unless she can name the other four students right now without hesitation, I'm gonna write that off as hyperbole."

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?
"one of the five best students":

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.
OK, I can see how "top 5" doesn't mean much if it's out of six. Although I'd quibble that being truthful about the standing isn't "false precision", as there's nothing false about it. False precision would be saying "top 5" when you'd say that about more than 5 kids...

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%"?
Robert -- that comes down to personal taste. I don't have a good answer for that, other than what I personally would find convincing (and apparently my taste isn't universally shared).

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.
This is just what we were taking about at school. Sometime it is not easy to putt it to paper. I think I will bring this up as well.
Alot of the time we can not putt our thoughts to paper as easy as we think. Good job.
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