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MONTHLY BLOG 82, WRITING PERSONAL REFERENCES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

2017-10 No1 AUTHOR THINKING

What do today’s academics spend their time doing? Next to marking essays and planning research applications, one of the most common tasks is writing personal references for past and present students (and sometimes for colleagues too). Happily, such evaluations are not presented anonymously.1 Yet that makes writing them all the more testing.

The aim is to do full justice to the person under consideration, whilst playing fair with the organisation which is receiving the recommendation. Sometimes those aims can be in conflict. Should you recommend someone for a job for which they are not suitable, even if the candidate pleads with you to do so? The answer must be: No.

Actually I can remember one example, some years ago, when an excellent postgraduate wanted to apply for a new post which demanded skills in quantitative economic history. Since she did not have those special skills, I hesitated. She implored me to write on her behalf – it was in an era when new academic posts were rare – and, reluctantly, I did so. However, I told her that my reference would explain that she did not have the required skills, although she would be a great appointment if the University in question decided to waive those preconditions. (It was theoretically possible). In the event, she did not get the job. For the future, I resolved not to waste everyone’s time by writing references in unsuitable cases. A polite refusal does sometimes upset applicants. But it’s best to be frank from the start – and certainly better than writing a thumbs-down reference. (I decline to act if I can’t find anything positive to say).

Truth with tact is the motto. When writing, it’s good to dwell on the candidate’s best qualities, in terms of past attainments and future potential. But it’s seriously unwise to go over the top. Referees who praise everyone unreservedly to the skies quickly lose credibility. What is written should strive to match the best qualities of the person under discussion. Candidates often get called for interview; and it undoubtedly helps interview panels if the candidates broadly resemble their references. (It is ok, by the way, to warn panels in advance in cases of exceptionally nervous interviewees, who may need help to ‘unfreeze’).

Equally, when writing in support of candidates, it’s seriously wrong to go not over but under the top. There used to be an old-fashioned style of wry deprecation. It had a certain period charm. Yet in recent decades there’s been a definite inflation of rhetoric. Wry self-deprecation is still ok, when used in front of those who understand the English art of meiosis or ironic understatement. But deprecatory assessments, or even deprecatory asides, about other people are distinctly unhelpful in today’s competitive climate. Even one passing put-down can harm a candidate, when competing against rivals who are described in completely flattering terms.

Again, I remember a case at my University, where the venerable referee – a punctilious scholar of the old school – was warm but could not resist adding a critical aside. The candidate in question was much the best. Yet she lost out in the final choice, on the grounds that even her friendly referee had doubts about her. Really annoying. She went on to have a distinguished career – but elsewhere. We lost a great colleague.

Some months later I had a chance to talk with the venerable referee, who expressed bafflement that his candidate did not get the job. He was blithely unaware that he had, unintentionally, stabbed her in the back. It was a complete conflict between different generational styles of writing references. Later, I advised the candidate not to press me for further details (since these things are all confidential) but simply to change her referees, which she did. Such stylistic inter-generational contrasts still continue to an extent, although they take a somewhat different form these days. Either way, the moral is that balanced assessments of candidates are fine; shafts of sardonic humour or any form of deprecatory remarks aimed at an absent candidate are not.

Then there’s the question of different international cultures of writing references. Academics in some countries prefer a lyrical rhetoric of flowery but imprecise praise which can be very hard to interpret. (Is it secret humour?) By contrast, other references from a different stylistic culture can be very terse and factual, saying little beyond the public record. (Do they reflect secret boredom or indifference?) My advice in all cases is for candidates to choose referees from their own linguistic/academic/cultural traditions, so that recipients will know how to decode the references. Or, in the case of international applications, then to choose a good range of referees from different countries, hoping to balance the contrasting styles.

So there we are. Refereeing is an art, not a precise science. Truth with tact. Every reference takes thought and time, trying to capture the special qualities of each individual candidate. But, a final thought: there’s always one exception to the rule. The hapless Philip Swallow in David Lodge’s brilliant campus novel Changing Places (1975) encounters this problem, in the form of the former student demanding references – who never goes away. The requests pile up relentlessly. ‘Sometimes he [the former student] aimed absurdly high, sometimes grotesquely low. … If [he] was appointed to any of these posts, he evidently failed to hold them for very long, for the stream of enquiries never ran dry’. Eventually, Swallow realises that he is facing a lifetime commitment. He therefore generates an ‘unblushing all-purpose panegyric’, which is kept on permanent file in the Departmental Office.2 It’s just what every referee secretly craves, for use in emergencies. Just make sure that there are no flowery passages, no hyperbole, no ambiguities, no accidental put-downs, no coded messages, no brusque indifference, no sardonic asides, no joking. Writing personal references, on the record, is utterly serious and time-consuming business. Thank goodness for deadlines.

1 For my comments on writing anonymous assessments, see BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017) and on receiving anonymous assessments of my own work, see BLOG/81 (Sept. 2017).

2 David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), pp. 28-9.

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MONTHLY BLOG 7, WHY ARE BRITISH UNIVERSITIES POLITICALLY SO SUPINE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

I know that I am not the only person with an interest in and affection for Britain’s Universities, who is deeply worried by the Universities’ collective failure to stand up to successive central governments. Many people raise this point with me. There is a general perception that Britain’s Universities do not stand up strongly enough for the values of education – and for the supreme importance of knowledge that is not subject to tampering by political leaders. The old arms-length system of governance has already been much eroded. Ministers now talk as though Universities are agencies of the central state, instead of being independent self-governing institutions.

So why are the Universities supine vis-à-vis successive governments, whether Tory, Labour or Coalition? In reply, I generally comment, rather supinely myself: ‘Oh well, he who pays the piper calls the tune’.

Yet consider the British Army. Or the National Health Service. Both are funded by central government. But both they and their supporters among the wider public can rally formidable protests at changes which they consider undesirable. So my answer doesn’t really tackle the question.

Of course, there is never universal agreement as to which policies of successive governments are or have been detrimental to academic life. That point, however, is not my concern here. Public opinion is often divided over changes to the Army or Health Service but that has not stopped campaigns either against specific changes or in favour of other innovations. The debates over what is now called the ‘Military Covenant’ constitute one example. This traditional, if entirely unwritten, pact between the armed forces and the state may potentially be traced back to sixteenth-century levies to assist disabled solders. The term, however, is novel. It arrived in 2000, courtesy of a Ministry of Defence booklet, entitled Soldiering: The Military Covenant. And it has already become a hot political issue, with contested proposals (the Coalition currently against; Labour currently in favour) to codify the vague unwritten pact into positive law, which is likely to be costly.

By analogy, is there anything like an Educational Covenant? Or, if that’s too grand, then a general Educational Concord between the state and lifelong learners? What would it comprise? But no, education is a fragmented cause. And in the UK the Universities fall within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Skills! Yes, they are necessary. But what an insult to Knowledge and Learning, without which skills don’t work.

Why was there no outcry from the Universities? One answer must certainly be that the elite institutions within the tertiary sector view themselves, and are reciprocally viewed, as part of a nebulous but nonetheless discreetly powerful ‘Establishment’. That perception works against any forms of public lobbying or confrontation. Sound ‘chaps’ (both male and female) apply pressure discreetly behind the scenes.

The perception applies particularly to Oxford and Cambridge. And it holds whether individual Oxbridge dons are languid establishment-types; or scatty bohemian-intellectuals; or (comparatively rare these days) earnest workerist men and women of the people; or (even rarer) zingy Morris Zapps jetting around the world from conference to conference; or (very common) harassed professionals with a preoccupied look as they continually chase behind a hundred tasks that are never done.

Behind-the scenes lobbying, however, doesn’t work nowadays – even for the elite. And it does nothing to combat out-of-date assumptions about Universities. The power of traditional assumptions is sufficiently great that Tom Sharpe’s satire of Porterhouse as a bastion of upper-class privilege, anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, organisational incompetence, and elaborate feasting is too readily believed to be the institutional apogee to which all other tertiary institutions secretly aspire.

april001In fact, the reality is different in many ways. The tertiary sector is very variegated. It has faults, but they are often too neo-brutally managerialist rather than slumberingly Porterhousian.

Thus a second reason for the strangled public voice of the Universities stems from the divisions within the University sector. The tactics of the old-Establishment no longer work but there is no new-Establishment consensus to make a new case. The non-Oxbridge campus novels by academics Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, witty and penetrating as they are, provided further satire of a sector in quest for a viable role in a doubting world.
april002april003Divisions between Universities are now institutionalised into rival lobby organisations. The Russell Group (founded 1994) represents 20 Universities, self-defined as the research elite, constituting a limited company (no: 6086902), operating from a base in Cambridge. Feeling excluded, another 19 smaller research institutions created the 1994 Group to defend their research credentials. It operates with an Executive Board, chaired by an academic, with at least five permanent staff members. A similar corporate structure services the University Alliance, which represents 23 ‘major business-focused’ Universities. And from 1997 onwards the Campaign for Mainstream Universities (CMU) has organised 27 former Polytechnics and University colleges – then known as ‘new’ Universities although many already had long histories. This group now operates as a London-based Think-tank, known as the Million+ Group. These divisions mark a classic case of self-divide and be ruled.

Off-setting this plurality of voices and competing interests is the pan-University alliance, known as Universities UK (UUK). It began with informal meetings in the nineteenth century of a handful of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Now it serves 133 Universities and University Colleges, together with two national sub-groups comprising Higher Education Wales and Universities Scotland. Together they seek to provide a ‘definitive’ voice for all these institutions. And they do good deeds. Recently, for example, UUK helped to pressurise the Coalition government into a partial climb-down over the conditions attached to visas for overseas students – restoring some possibilities for post-study work within the UK. Nonetheless, this umbrella organisation has a difficult task in view of the organised separatism of its constituents. UUK can campaign at the level of general policies that affect all but has to tread cautiously or not at all on issues that divide its membership.

Furthermore, there is no one governmental Department that speaks to and for the educational sector. No equivalent of the Ministry of Defence, battling for the armed forces. And without such protection, education politicians often seem to be battling against the very sector which they are supposed to be leading.

Thirdly and lastly, therefore, the Universities have an urgent job of education to do. They need to explain their intrinsic value. Higher education is not only a massive economic multiplier but it’s also an essential component of the human educational endeavour – developing and transmitting to the next generation the corpus of stored and codified human knowledge to date. The more we have of it, the better for all.

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