Query: Refuse to write a letter?

A reader writes with the following query for advice:

Say there was a very sexist philosophy department who hired a complete jerk of a professor. Let’s call him Professor X. Professor X used to tell many of his students that I (female philosopher) did not do “real” philosophy. Female philosopher simply kept her head down and did her work so that she would attain tenure (which she has.) And Professor X has left for greener pastures (presumably where more people do “real philosophy.”) There was a student who was much enthralled with Professor X, and took to mimicking him excessively (even to the point of including many of the buzz phrases on female philosopher’s course evaluations). Now, said student wants letter of recommendation from female philosopher because Professor X refuses to write letters for students at his previous institution. Female professor feels quite certain that this student would become one of those asshole philosophers that populate the field. However, if she refuses to write the letter, then she will be marked “does not play well with others” on her merit evaluation (which the chair often bases on student comments on evaluations). What is female philosopher to do?

17 thoughts on “Query: Refuse to write a letter?

  1. Philosophy needs less assholes.

    “Does not play well with others” for females is often code for ‘has integrity and doesn’t bow to patriarchal societal programming’.

    Be prepared to talk to chair about said student ass-clam, but realize that, most likely, a man in the same position would not be questioned at all.

  2. Suggest to student that others (those who do “real” philosophy) might be better suited to write him a letter. If student insists, agree to write the letter and make it *fully* truthful.

  3. Does this Female Philosopher have any allies in the department or peers at other institutions? They may be a good strategic sounding board. Also is there any physical documentation of this student’s negative comments on the evals? It seems this student needs to understand that negative behavior does not entitle one to glowing recommendation, as well as finding ways for the Female Philosopher to advocate for herself. Is being saddled with “Not playing with others” a perception or actual fact (it’s happen to others at the same institution)? What I’m really asking is what is the culture of inclusion in your department? Is the fear of being thrown under the bus actual or perceived? (Because that may help to unfreeze the Feminist Philosopher to take action if they know someone will have their back). Thought these might be some helpful questions to process a plan.

  4. For me, the student’s evaluations of the Female Philosopher matter. If the student’s mimicking comments of the Female Philosopher including suggesting that the Female Philosopher did not do “‘real’ philosophy,” I would think that would provide more than adequate grounds for a serious conversation with the student.

  5. The query does not make clear how much work the student has done with the female philosopher. Faculty are not obligated to write letters for students, nor are we obliged to write strong letters. If one doesn’t want to write a letter for a student, it is advised to give the student notice. For instance, one can say “I’m not sure I’m the best person to write in support of your application” or “who (else) have you taken classes/done work with?” or “I can write a letter but I need to let you know it will be mixed.” The student can then make an informed decision about his letter writers. (In this case, I strongly suspect that the philosopher who has left the department actually simply doesn’t want to write a letter for THIS student, and if there were stronger students to write in support of, he would.)

    It might be that the female philosopher is one of the best people to speak to the student’s work. It is an easy enough matter to divide the letter into two parts: about the work, and about the way in which the student interacts with others. Most letters have a brief discussion of the latter. Not really that hard a problem.

  6. It seems to me that there are lots of permissible options here. One perfectly permissible option among many, IMO, would be to agree to write the letter and to write an honest letter. In it, one might note that the student has certain strengths (penmanship? Gettier case construction) and certain weaknesses (poor citizen, mimics others in ways that show emotional immaturity). If the buzz phrases the student used were phrases that showed contempt for other members of the department, that’s probably worth noting, too.

    I’m not saying that this should be done out of malice. And it might be admirable to tell the student that the letter you wrote wouldn’t be wholly flattering. But I see nothing wrong with writing a letter for someone that presents honestly the candidate’s weaknesses and it seems to me that if someone is emotionally immature (or worse) and their presence is corrosive to the good of the department, this is just the sort of thing that people should know about.

  7. I’m with Clayton. Perhaps the letter could mention that the student would benefit from attending a seminar on sexism/implicit bias/or something or of the sort.

  8. If your going to write a letter that pretty much guarantees that the candidate will not get any job for which they apply (say, by suggesting they would benefit from a seminar on sexism, etc.), you’re pretty much obligated to indicate that to the candidate.

  9. I think this is another instance of male student “entitlement.” Why are you left with the choice of either writing a student a letter of recommendation or facing departmental strife? You are essentially endorsing the student. If you are not comfortable writing a letter for that person (for whatever reasons), then you shouldn’t have to write it because they don’t merit your endorsement. In fact, having a student like that connected to you could harm your reputation. In addition, we are LOSING diversity in philosophy– he could contribute to the continuing this trend. This is a real issue that needs to be taken into account when forming the future makeup of the larger philosophical body.

    Letters are not something students are entitled to. They are earned. I would either say no or let the student know that the letter will include a list of his “weaknesses.” If your department doesn’t like it, then translate your reasoning into a logical “proof” so they can better understand it… jackasses.

  10. Why not discuss with the student your concern that he’s actively seeking an endorsement letter from someone who “doesn’t practice real philosophy.”

    I’d pay big bucks to see the look on his face.

  11. May I ask: Did these mimicking comments include claims to the effect that you don’t do “real philosophy”? If not, were they disparaging in some other way? Or were they more run-of-the-mill acolytism?

    Obviously, you know more of the details when we all do, but I find cases like this difficult. For one thing, the student, I’m assuming, thought these course evaluations would be anonymous. Maybe he didn’t even know that professors would see them. For another, I think it’s a very tricky matter when making a disparaging comment about a professor counts against the maker’s intellectual or moral character. I’d like to think I’m a halfway decent philosopher and a fairly well-prepared teacher, and that the stuff I teach and write about is interesting and worthwhile. But a student who thinks the opposite is not *thereby* an asshole or a bad philosopher, or what-have-you. Of course, he could think so for bad reasons. Then again, he could think I’m great for bad reasons. A student’s evaluation of me as a teacher or philosopher should not, all by itself, influence my evaluation (or my willingness to offer an evaluation) of her or him.

    Just generally, I have mixed feelings about assessments of students’ personalities in recommendation letters. I’d be surprised if these sorts of assessments were not influenced even more than assessments of philosophical promise are by social class, gender, racial, and other biases.

  12. I think it all depends on how much work the student has done with you *and* that the more you can separate out his academic work from his distasteful personality, the better. If you haven’t had enough academic experience with him for you to write a letter under other circumstances (as in, if he wasn’t a total jerk, would you be able to write it?), then politely reply that you just don’t have enough information to write an effective letter.
    If you have had enough academic experience with him to write a letter, and if it’s worth it to avoid possible negative ramifications for yourself in the department, then go ahead and write it. In any case, though, I don’t think that it will ever reflect well on you to say negative things about his personality.
    Bottom line: If he’s on track to become a sexist asshole philosopher, he’s going to do that whether or not you write him a letter of recommendation (ugh), so you can decide based on the ramifications to your career.
    Good luck!!!

  13. Ask the student if he grasps the second formulation of the categorical imperative, and understands the concept of desert. I don’t care about how one might come to reliably know that he has dissed you and then comes to you for a rec, because if that is indeed the case, then that is all that matters. Either tell him he’s an asshole or put some retributive hurt on him. As long as you’re sure of the background, he gets what he deserves.

  14. I would ask the student why he has come to you for a rec – not in an accusatory way, but simply because it seems you are not an obvious pick for him.

    As others have pointed out, we have very little information on this case. However, I would echo those who say that no one is entitled to a recommendation from ever professor s/he asks for one.

    If you chair really will think this is a problem, then you need to (a) have a response to the chair that is professional and (b) have a letter ready for your Dena/Provost/whomever.

  15. ‘…if she refuses to write the letter, then she will be marked “does not play well with others” on her merit evaluation (which the chair often bases on student comments on evaluations)’

    Does the student not write negative comments on the evaluations anyway?
    There are also more students than just him.

    Don’t write the letter. Tell the student that he should look for a letter elsewhere because you would have a hard time being positive given the negative comments he made about you/your classes. You turning him down is the fair option and in his best interest.

  16. Clearly no obligation to write the letter, but it’s a bit hard to parse exactly what is going on in the case. If the most offensive stuff was in the course evaluation, one might worry that course evaluations are generally meant to be anonymous. If the rest of the student’s behaviour amounts to general obnoxiousness/emulation of an obnoxious professor, but he hasn’t directly done something to the professor he’s asked for the letter from, then it might come as a giant surprise to him that she doesn’t want to write the letter. I think this is a very tricky situation. I’m not denying the guy is probably a total dick and that you are under NO obligation to write him a letter. But, as a grad student, I’ve seen lots of grad students get away with being generally obnoxious but not directly insulting faculty, and faculty never once calling them out on it. Grad students are insecure and stressed out and don’t know how to act and are often surrounded by a bunch of men acting like jerks and think that the way to move forward is by imitating those men. (NOT EXCUSING, just observing. I hate this with a passion.) And that often DOES help them move forward. So there’s a sense in which, even though on the one hand it’s (morally) inexcusable, it makes sense that this student might think nothing of asking the professor for a recommendation. Of course, I don’t know the details of the case, so maybe this isn’t right at all–maybe he’s been openly hostile. Anyway, sorry for the stressful situation! Sounds icky. Just want to note that I think a big thing that senior faculty can do to help with this kind of situation, and with climate issues in their departments, is really trying to not tolerate this sort of behaviour from graduate students (and hopefully from their colleagues as well, but they are more likely to be lost causes). Grad students are often just so caught up in things that they have no idea that they are even behaving badly (I used to not be able to believe this, but I’ve gotten more and more evidence for it).

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