Recommendation Letters . . . Okay to "Ghost" Them?


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.

2 thoughts on “Recommendation Letters . . . Okay to "Ghost" Them?

  1. I do require a draft from any student requesting a letter of recommendation from me. It takes me a long time to produce a first draft, but I can edit and rewrite fairly quickly. I never just sign a letter a student has written, but change it to be in my own voice. But requiring a draft from the student has some positive effects:
    1) students have to figure out what they have done that I should know about, reminding me of things I might have forgotten.
    2) students don’t ask me for letters of recommendation unless they really want them—there is a non-zero cost to them, so they only ask if they need them.
    3) I get the letters done in a timely fashion with finite effort, which would not happen otherwise.

  2. This discussion falls outside of my own experience (just when you reach the point at which you think that you have heard everything, you hear something that makes you scratch your head with fresh consternation), but it appears to be yet another area in which there are not the same expectations for administrators as for faculty.

    I can understand why the administrative assistant to the president or provost might be tasked with responding to routine correspondence. If we are paying the president and provost what we’re paying them, we all would prefer that they be doing more than responding to routine correspondence. (I know, I just re-read that sentence, too. It does beg the question of what they are actually doing with their time that is so significantly more productive. I recognize that that remark is very snarky, but the president of my university is now making almost $650,000 per year. Assuming he works 40 hours per week and gets a month’s paid vacation, that’s about $335/hour. What exactly does one need to do to actually “earn” $335/hour–in a university?)

    But, beyond all of that, assuming that the faculty member deserves the recommendation and that the request is not made at the last minute, for a dean or chair to not write a letter of recommendation for a faculty member because he or she is “too busy” to do so would seem, to me, to be simply unacceptable. What if a faculty member repeatedly declined to write recommendation letters for students simply because the faculty member did not wish to make the time to do so? I am quite certain that the chair or dean would raise an issue about that rationale. Or what if a faculty member started asking the faculty secretaries to write such letters? How long would it take before that practice became a serious issue?

    I could be more snarky and suggest that perhaps a new category of administrative staff is needed: an administrative assistant for professional correspondence. But that’s such a likely possibility that it’s no longer even funny. At my university, we suddenly had a “Director of Protocol and Ceremonies.” Several months later, we noticed that the title had been shortened to “Director of Protocol.” We could only assume that the position had been too much for a single person to handle.

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