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The recommendation whisperer

It's fall again. I can tell, even though I'm not in Princeton to see the leaves change color, but on leave in an undisclosed location 50 miles away. In a professor's life, fall is not the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It's the season of transcripts to scan and personal statements to edit, the search for the telling anecdote and the scramble for the unhackneyed adjective — not to mention the realization that you can't describe each of three students as the best one you've worked with in your career.

Fifteen years ago, I spent the fall semester — high period for recommendations — as a visiting professor at a German institute, which kindly stamped and sent out my official letters. Much of a professor's business, by then, was already carried out electronically, but recommendations usually had to be printed, signed and mailed by a particular date. So almost all the letters I actually sent were recommendations. At the end of my stay, the institute's business office informed me that I had produced 180 of them. Not 180 separate letters for 180 individuals, of course — but 180 letters nonetheless.

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These days, I have no idea how many letters I write in a given fall. In most cases, I turn my texts into pdfs and upload them — often at sites that require you to remember and enter one of your 10,000 passwords and then stand on one foot and recite “Carmelita, Marmelita” while you submit the letter, to prove that you're not a spambot. Letters for law school and medical school, honorific fellowships and for graduate admissions, letters for postdoctoral fellowships and jobs, letters for research fellowships and visiting positions — all of them go out, in shoals, from September through December.

It's a challenge. First of all, if you're as disorganized as I am, there's the difficulty of remembering to write and send them all at the proper time; I do a spreadsheet, but then have to remember to consult it regularly, and sometimes I miss and need to be reminded. But the real problem is how to make each recommendation do its job. You do your best, each time, to give a sense of the person in question: You look for the facts that tell a distinctive story and suggest the outlines of a living character, and you do your best to describe in living detail distinctive performances in class and on paper and in other contexts. You also try not to recycle too many generic phrases (especially those ambiguous classics, “Good wasn't the word for his work,”“You'll be lucky if you can get him to work for you,” and “I cried”).

Lazy and selfish creatures that we are, we professors mostly mention letters of recommendation in order to complain about these letters. We grumble about the time they cost — in my case, whole days of letter-writing, that start before dawn and end long after dark. And we congratulate friends outside the academy, who can spend their fall weekends leaf-watching rather than word-processing.

But in a curious way, we know that this is also one of the rewards of our peculiar calling. Writing these letters, you think over the teaching you did last year and reconnect with people you taught 10 and 20 and 30 years ago. You feel proud that people still rely on you, as in some cases they have for decades, to provide accurate, cogent and eloquent accounts of their merits to their colleagues, their present or potential employers and the patrons who might sponsor their research. You enjoy seeing and saying how much your one-time students have accomplished in what seems the very short time since they first came to see you about writing a JP or appeared in one of your courses. And you realize that your friends, the people you met in the archive or the library when you were all young, have become scarily distinguished. Writing letters is part of our routine — but it also lifts you out of routine by bringing long-forgotten moments of laughter and revelation in classrooms, office hours and libraries back to mind.

So much for the bright side. But there's also a dark one. What were once plentiful opportunities for graduate study and for research have become rare. Despite all the rants about the folly of going to law school or to graduate school in the humanities, it's become harder than ever to gain entrance to top programs. Support for scholarship in the fields I work in is dwarfed by the demand from highly talented people. The global climate keeps growing warmer, but the academic one becomes colder every fall, and the ever greater intensity of the demand for letters is a yearly reminder of these hard facts. Writing all these letters really matters, in the end, because it's the only way we have, and a frail one, to help people who matter to us.

Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at grafton@princeton.edu.

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