Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hitting me where I live

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.


Bardiac said...

Wow, that's impressive (the note)!

I think a lot of folks have no clue how good an education students can get at regional state institutions, and at community colleges, too. Nor do they often realize that students do really good work at these institutions, alas.

Flavia said...


I know. It's a peculiar kind of parochialism. It particularly frustrates me when the local assumption is the local small, expensive private college is much more prestigious--seeming simply because it's private, and maybe has a pretty campus--even when it's a place that no one more than a few hours away has heard of. I am by no means putting down such schools, which can also provide a great education (and are sometimes good with financial aid, too). But locals sometimes build them up by putting public schools down, even if the faculty at the latter are just as good or better, the class sizes are equivalent, and the reputational difference outside the immediate region is negligible.

Servetus said...

I used to get these from Yale Div School back in the day, although it was mostly about having recommended minority students if I recall correctly. I got two or three over the years, and then one from a law school in Michigan as well. It's true, it makes you think about that place when students ask.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Very savvy on the school's part!

I was thinking earlier today that I think that students who go to larger, public schools are often more independent, savvy, and intellectually self-driven than the students I deal with regularly, who are often from the greater metro area where HU is, and who are very risk-averse people by nature. I wish I had gone to a medium-sized public rather than a tiny private school. I would have had a completely different life! And, I must say, the mid-sized public school I went to for my master's was the best college experience I ever had. Loved my teachers and the school. I'd love to teach at a place like that.

undine said...

Smart move on that DGS's part!

Susan said...

I think that's very smart. And it also tells me that DGS has resources. I mean, we don't even have letterhead paper any more -- we just print the letterhead on any paper we have.

But yes, asking you about future students is really really smart!

Renaissance Girl said...

I love that DGS. And I totally understand where you're coming from; "so what's it like, teaching at [institution]?" covers a wide, wide range of snobberies.

Flavia said...


The thank-you card has the university logo on the back, sub-branded as "College of Arts & Sciences." So presumably this is something supported or encouraged at the college or university level. Interesting!


Yes, indeed. I bet you've heard your share from a somewhat different corner.