Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Paying It Back, or Paying it Forward?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Paying It Back, or Paying it Forward?

Hello Fordham Graduate World and beyond!
       Yesterday, I had a small break from my dissertation writing to meet with a former student of mine who requested a recommendation from me. This is my third rec request in the last few weeks – with grad school programs, summer internship, and scholarship applications due in January, Feb and March, I’m calling this RECOMMENDATION LETTER season!
       I really don’t mind taking the time out of my allotted dissertation time to fit in these meetings and letter writings for students. It’s actually interesting how much I don’t mind it. I get annoyed at floods on the FDR as I sit in traffic because it takes time away from me finishing my diss. I get annoyed when my dad tells a long story and it takes time away from finishing my diss. I get annoyed at my washing my hair because it takes time away from finishing my diss. But when I get a letter to write a recommendation, there is no sigh of annoyance as I re-arrange, and subtract hours from, my weekly writing schedule. Why??
       Having been a teaching associate for a few years now, I’ve had dozens of students now – maybe close to a couple hundred? (Let’s see… 7 or 8 semesters, one or occasionally two classes per semester, 16 -20 students per class…. I’m no math major, but I know that is getting close to about 200!) I wanted to blog about this subject of writing recs for students because I’ve always felt some kind of obligatory generosity in doing the deed, and I wanted to come to terms with that oxymoronic feeling I always get.
       For starters, I never feel that I am being kind when I agree to write a former student a letter. Though not written in any contract or job description, it’s nonetheless an obligation, a duty. But the feeling I get when I am asked to do it is a strange mix of resigned obligation and parental generosity, as if I am a mother finding a way to work an extra job at night to send her child to college.
       It’s part of the job, I tell myself. But there are plenty of things that are part of the job that I have a much harder time motivating myself to do. Grading student papers, for example, is most certainly a most obvious and required part of the job, yet it is somehow much harder to motivate myself to do that than it is to write a rec.
       Obligatory generosity –that’s not the best description of the emotion either. Duty, yes, but it makes it sound so formal and noble. It’s not noble because it’s not an altruistic feeling that I get – it’s a feeling of responsibility. Responsibility might be a good word here, actually. It’s a feeling, mostly, of knowing that no matter what, I owe the universe these letters, because someone else did it for me, who owed it back to the universe because someone did it for them. It’s like being a part of some cosmic network of students that reaches back infinitely into generations past.
       Paula Findlen, a professor of history at Stanford University, says that writing a recommendation letter for one of our students is “one of the most important acts of mentorship that we offer younger scholars.” Findlen also describes it as a “mutual project between the recommender and applicant,” and I agree to some extent. Findlen reasons, “We cannot do a good job without good material to write from, and the time in which to do it.” (Click here for Findlen’s article.) But in another way, it’s reciprocal in a larger sense – I’ve requested many letters from professors I’ve had, and they’ve needed letters from their professors, etc, etc. It’s like a big tree, or ripples in a pond, or a chain, or pyramid, etc, etc, insert inaccurate and clichéd metaphor here.
       Writing letters always makes me think not only of the relationship between me and my students, but also the one between my professors and me. I know that when I go on the job market, the letters will be an important piece of my package. So it just feels wrong, or impossible really, to refuse, to be stingy, and to resent writing a letter for a student. A graduate student is in the unique position of being an instructor in the classroom and a student at the same time. This liminal feeling is often confusing. For me, personally, writing a student a letter is one of the only acts that puts the whole scope of the academic ladder in perspective. I’d love to hear how other grad students feel about this! Send me a comment and let me know! 

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