How to avoid looking like a jerk

Recommendation season is ending soon (although like the Winter, it seems to be dragging on forever). Math professors and instructors everywhere have been writing and sending letters of recommendations for their students since last Fall for various reasons, like academic jobs, grad school, REUs, and summer internships. It is a delicate process, and you want to make your students look as good as they possibly can, while at the same time trying to maintain your reputation as a trustworthy judge of the student’s talent and preparation for these different tasks. You are possibly writing for many students and you want to speak highly of all of them but still individualize the letter so that it’s clear why each student is worthy of the thing you are recommending them for. I have written many (MANY) such letters myself recently, so I understand how difficult, time consuming, and complicated this process is. But there is no excuse to sound like a jerk. In particular, there is no excuse to sound like a sexist jerk. I am referring to the not-the-compliment-you-think-it-is statement “Best female student I ever had”  and all of its variations. There are so many things that are wrong with this phrase, but I’ll focus on three.

The first thing that comes to mind is that by every word you add to “best student” you are weakening the statement. See “best student I ever had” vs “best student I ever had in Calculus” vs “best student I ever had in Calculus whose name starts with an H”. It’s pretty clear even when we leave the “female” out of it, right?

But there’s something else going on here. My friend posted a comment on facebook about getting one such letter for an REU she is organizing. The responses were all quite good (one of them inspired my examples in the previous paragraph), but there was one by a linguistics person that I found particularly compelling. The thread (until that point made up of angry/surprised reactions) led to a person asking whether it was bad that she had referred to a student as the “most mature young man I ever taught”.  I loved the linguist’s response so much I am copying it verbatim (hyperlinks mine):

“I think the issue is that if you appear to be going to extra effort to mention somebody’s gender (for example, if you do something that adds extra over an obvious alternative, increases sentence length or complexity, or makes use of a less common word), people start to wonder why you chose to add that (Grice or Searle could tell you why in more detail), whereas if you give the impression that you were just casting about for a boring noun to refer to them by, and happened to grab something like “man” or “woman”, the “why did you say that?” effect is less pronounced.”

So in a way, adding that extra word doesn’t just narrow the field of comparison (as in my example above) but also draws attention to the fact that you added that extra word, and leads people to wonder why you added that extra word.

This leads me to my third point on this matter. In many cases when you write this in a letter, not only is it not high praise for the student, but it makes YOU look really bad. If not sexist, at least you are oblivious to the fact that people will think you are sexist (I’m not sure this sentence makes any sense but I’m keeping it). Of course, there are many reasons that one might end up with that phrase. I am imagining that if this person has two students, one male and one female, and the male happens to be better (hey, it’s possible), then you avoid comparing them to each other by comparing each to different groups. But in general, people don’t seem to highlight or add extra words for what they think is the “normal” student. If the best student you ever had happens to be male and white, you don’t say “best white male student I ever had”. So when you compare male students to all students, and female students only to female students, you are implying that you think the female students belong to a different, lesser category. You might be a perfectly nice person, non-sexist,  non-racist, and very supportive of all students, but when you point out gender and race only for an underrepresented student, you are going to look like a jerk.

So take this as my PSA, letter writers everywhere. Don’t look like a jerk.

So, dear readers, I can imagine you have stories like this one. In particular, I focused on one phrase that is problematic, but I’m sure there are many examples of other phrases, adjectives and nouns that may be used carelessly (let’s assume people are oblivious and not actually jerks), and may end up hurting the student and the letter writer. Please share your stories in the comments section below. By the way, I am not discounting the possibility that I myself may one day look like a jerk (or already have), but I want to avoid this if I can, and I know most of us do.

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