I am certain some of us have found ourselves in this dilemma, especially if we have served in some administrative capacity. Someone “higher up” or “very high up,” for those of us who have worked in a culture that fosters hierarchical behavior, asks us to write a letter of recommendation on his or her behalf to recommend another person. What do you do? Answer “Yessiree” or “Up yours,” or is there a point along the spectrum that makes it acceptable to write on behalf of someone else?
I have to confess that I have written a letter of recommendation or two on behalf of a former employer who wanted to recommend another employee for an award. I found it to be a strange act, since writing for me is highly personal, especially a letter of recommendation.
Letters of recommendation are to be documents of a person’s abilities, past accomplishments, future potential, and character. While they contain facts that no one has a copyright on (or does a person?), an emotional timbre needs to ring throughout what I consider a conversation with a future employer or perhaps someone who is about to bestow an award upon the recommended. And that conversation, so it is presumed, is between the person who signs the letter of recommendation and the party to whom the recommendation is addressed.
The challenge, if you accept the assignment as a ghost writer of letters of recommendation, is how to genuinely capture the emotions of the person who signs the letter of recommendation. In my own experience, it really is impossible to do so, unless the person for whom you are writing has no emotions or a very limited range. In that case, you are the ventriloquist, and the dummy on whose behalf you are “speaking” is, well, in my opinion someone you would not want to ask to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf.
While it is true that too many letters of recommendation read like grocery lists with items of character, hard work, team player, excellent, the top 1-3%, such letters are hardly effective and would hardly be the kind that someone “higher up” would ask to have ghosted. Nor would they be letters a candidate for a job, promotion, or award would be well-served by.
The issue of integrity is at stake in this entire endeavor of letter of recommendation writing, and furthermore, as the ghost writer of the letter of recommendation, is it acceptable for you to make your dummy speak even better than he would on the page if he sat down and composed words? Does the violation of integrity not also extend to the party that is being recommended, often the unknowing “writing prompt”?
Another issue of integrity unfortunately enters the domain of recommendation letter writing. Have any of you ever asked for a letter of recommendation and been told, “Just write it and I’ll sign it”? I have been witness to such offers of letters of recommendation and I must say that kind of gesturing makes me sick to my stomach. In one case I had to comfort the person who felt degraded having been made such an offer he or she could not refuse.
I realize that the staff for many politicians write letters on behalf of the person holding office–not something of which I approve whole-heartedly–but in academe to assign someone else to write a letter of recommendation and simply sign it? Perhaps my being an English professor and taking plagiarism so seriously has made me overly-sensitive to integrity when it involves the written word.
I am reminded of the fascinating undertaking by Jorge Luis Borges and the fictional author of Pierre Menard to create from scratch word for word Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a revelation that absolutely captivated me when I was an undergraduate taking a class in postmodern fiction. While chaos was the order in that universe as I learned, this time the order of business is not filled with invention and the possibilities of literature and youth, but the narrowing crevice appears in which all too many of us find ourselves, if not as active partners, then as witnesses: Yet another step toward the commoditization of writing that important letter of recommendation, something which should be an honor for both parties–the party that says yes and the party that is the recipient of the well-wishes and “go forth.” As for the middle person, there should be no room for him or her in this relationship. After all, who would want a ghost to write a letter on one’s behalf? And how disappointed the recipients would be if they knew the letter came not from the mind, heart, keyboard, and ink pen of the “higher up” recommender, someone they expect to be made of flesh to go along with that esteemed title.