Monday, August 27, 2012

Seeing Mini-me's

Being asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student for something other than a gradschool or summer job application is, I think, an interesting way to get to know someone. I've been lucky enough to not have a student who did poorly in my class ask me for a letter. There are a few students who ask me for a letter, and I tell them that I don't really know them outside their good grades in my one class, I don't think I can say much about them. Most of the people I write for, I feel like I know a bit of their academic capability, as well as their hopes and ambitions. I like chatting with my students, so if I see them often in my office hours, or if they ask questions before/after class, pieces of both our personal lives sneak into the other's knowledge.

But letters for scholarships that judge on more than just a student's ability in my field require more knowledge. I've been asked to do this twice now, and both times I've conducted a bit of a lengthy interview with the person I'm writing for, so I can say something about the other relevant aspects of their life. And both times* I've come out seeing shadows of my (younger) self in the person I'm writing for.

It may be that I remember going through some of the same trepidations about balancing science and family, or having the same favorite poem, or caring about the same social issues. Whatever the case, it leaves me feeling more invested in the success of the student, which (I hope) causes me to write better letters. It also makes me want to become friends with the student. Between being a postdoc and the fact that letters are usually written at the end of a student's tenure at a university, this hasn't caused me to cross anything that might be misinterpreted as a professional line. However, I wonder if other people have the same experience when writing letters for undergrads.

*Yes, I realize this is a tiny, very biased sample.

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