The last time I checked my campus mail, I found a card-sized envelope of high-quality paper bearing the return address of an English department to which I have no meaningful connection. It turned out to be a thank-you note: the Director of Graduate Studies was writing about a former student of mine, someone for whom I'd written a recommendation letter and who will be starting their PhD program in the fall.
I don't know about you, but I've never received anything like this. And I was impressed: the point of the note, obviously, wasn't so much to thank me for past services as to build a relationship for the future. It was typed and lightly personalized (naming my student and a few specifics about what s/he would be doing), but most of it was well-written promotional material consisting of a quick overview of the intellectual and pedagogical training that students receive and the financial and other resources available to them. It concluded with the hope that I might recommend them to other students I thought would be a good match.
And I gotta say: that is one savvy DGS. I'd already felt good about the program and the fact that my student had landed well, but the note succeeded in generating a deeper and more personal kind of warmth. Its underlying message wasn't "Student X is awesome! We're so glad s/he is coming!" but "we bet you have more great students and we'd love to hear about them, too."
That hits me where I live. Though I've never felt any personal anxiety about being judged negatively based on the institutions where I teach--I have enough professional and social capital that I figure anyone who dismisses me based on assumptions about my institution isn't just a snob, but an actual idiot--I know that the credit people extend to me isn't always extended to my students.
It's rare for anyone to express their snobbery to my face, but I hear their dismissals clearly enough. When someone I know socially asks, "so what's it like, teaching at [institution]?" I hear all the local prejudices against public institutions, or commuter schools, or schools with a large minority population. And when they say, "You know, [school] has really come a long way in the past twenty years!" I hear, "but I still wouldn't send my kids there." It's different with professional acquaintances, but when they bitch about the incompetence of their own students or their disinterest in teaching certain kinds of classes, what I hear is that they don't value and wouldn't respect mine.
Sometimes, I'm sure, I'm being too thin-skinned and hearing judgments that aren't there. But I adore my students and I believe in them--and I hear the way they sometimes put themselves down for where they go to school. So I have a default defensiveness, a chip on my shoulder on their behalf. When I write a recommendation letter, then, I worry that my praise is being filtered or discounted. I imagine the admissions committee saying, in effect: sure, she says this student is phenomenal, but what's her point of comparison?
So when the DGS of a strong program asks me to send them more applicants, what I hear isn't just that the department was impressed by this one student, but that it believes, as I do, that talent is widely distributed and that some students who start out behind can make up for lost time, outstripping their more privileged peers. I hear that it trusts my judgment and would take future applicants seriously, even ones who might be a little rougher around the edges.
That note probably cost the department a buck-fifty in postage and paper, and maybe sixty seconds of the DGS's time. But damned if I won't be keeping them in mind for every future student whose grad school ambitions I believe in.