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Recommendation Moral Dilemma

  1. Dec 25, 2014 #1
    Hello!
    I am wondering if anyone can help me decide what to do about this problem. I'm at a college majoring in physics, and I'm almost done with my two years. I'm applying to different universities,and I have a professor that wishes to write me a recommendation for when I transfer. He asked me if I needed one, and I said yes. The thing is, he wants me to write the recommendation letter, and he's putting excellent on all the options to evaluate me. He told me to go to his office, and I watched him put excellent on everything and he didn't give it much thought. Now he wants me to write the letter. I do not like nor agree with what he is doing. I tried to back out and tell him that I don't need it, but he insisted on it.
    I feel like he should at least put some effort into it if he wants to help me. Like, actually evaluate me instead of putting everything so unrealistically and false. I don't want to mention anything about it to him. He's like my family, and I would feel bad telling him that I don't want his recommendation, but I'm not even supposed to see the recommendation, and I feel bad letting him turn this in, as well as frustrated and angry because this could even affect me negatively. What do I do in this situation?

    Thanks in advance :/
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 25, 2014 #2

    jedishrfu

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    In my experience this is not uncommon. I have had to do this several times. I know it sounds weird but you know your abilities and you want the letter to hilight them. The prof has agreed to help you but it's hard for him to put down everything right and he might even say something that not true.

    If it's one consolation, I'm sure he wouldn't agree to do this and he certainly wouldn't sign it if what you said was untrue.

    With respect to the reader, whatever the prof says is taken with a grain of salt so if he says you're excellent then they think good, if he says good then they think fair. Given that tendency it's good to toot your own horn and make the letter as good as you are comfortable with.

    Now, go look online for how to write a good recommendation letter and write one up.
     
  4. Dec 26, 2014 #3
    I agree with jedishrfu on this one. It may feel weird, but it is a common practice, as professors often don't have the time to write letters on a timeline that would work for you. Additionally, the more specific a letter can be, the better, but events that you can remember in detail (as they impacted you significantly at the time) are often hazy for the professor.

    As a high school teacher I wrote quite a few letters for students. I never allowed students to write the letters themselves, but I would generally ask them to put together a page highlighting a few things they would like me to focus on in my letter. I would never compromise my integrity by writing something I didn't believe, and I would assume that your professor would not sign his name to something he felt was untrue (as jedishrfu noted); after all, it is his reputation on the line if you don't live up to his billing.

    Are you sure you aren't supposed to see the letter? Universities generally require sealed letters to ensure that students don't manipulate letters, but I think it is uncommon for a student not to have any idea what their professor has written. I could be wrong about this point, though. I wouldn't mind hearing what other people think about this.

    It is admirable that you are honest. If you still feel uncomfortable and you really don't want to do it this way, just tell your professor that you feel uncomfortable writing the letter yourself. This way you are making it about how you feel and not about him. I don't see how he could fault you for being honest about how you feel.
     
  5. Dec 26, 2014 #4

    Choppy

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    I concur that this kind of thing is reasonably common.

    The thing is, if he's signing his name to it, then he's endorsing what's in the letter. So it's not like you're somehow cheating.

    Something else to consider is the fact that he might change what you've written. He might use that as a base and then either add or subtract points as necessary. He might also go back and change what he's checked off about you while you were in his office watching him.
     
  6. Dec 26, 2014 #5

    Dale

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    This is what I usually do. I use the provided reference letter as a base, and then add, subtract, or change things to make it my own letter of recommendation.

    rakeru, it isn't about trying to "cheat" or anything dishonest or underhanded, it is about having the person for whom I am writing the reference remind me of some of the things that they think are good and put it in the appropriate context for the application. If I disagree then I will delete or change, if I remember something else then I will add. I wouldn't sign it until I agree with it. In business signing your name means that you agree to the letter. There is no implication or assumption that you did not have assistance in preparing it, so having such assistance is not dishonest.

    It is important, however, to be cognizant of the rules of the specific application. If something like this is expressly forbidden in the written rules, then it would be dishonest. The professor likely would not be aware of that, so you would need to let him know that this particular application was different than most. I had such a case twice (once on the giving end and once on the receiving end), but it is by far the exception rather than the rule.
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2014
  7. Dec 27, 2014 #6

    Drakkith

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    I don't know about academic circles and whatnot, but this is also a fairly common practice in the Air Force and probably the military in general. Most of the time the evaluation/letter is looked at by about 3-4 different people before being approved, and changes are commonly made to it by each person. Making you write your own has several advantages, most of which have already been touched on by others above me.

    A "fair" evaluation is a matter of opinion. In the Air Force we ended up with a horribly inflated evaluation system where if you didn't get a maximum score of 5 in all categories it meant you were doing something wrong. It's not supposed to be that way. The average person should be getting a 3 in all categories. Less than a 3 mean you were doing something wrong, while a score higher than a 3 meant you going above and beyond your peers. So when writing a performance report, the supervisor has to choose between doing things the "right" way and probably giving a person all 3's, or "taking care of their troop" and giving them all 5's. Note that a single performance report that isn't all 5's can have serious consequences on later promotions, awards, and a number of other things, so it isn't a situation to take lightly. I've even seen some people end up being forced out of the military because a single performance report was the deciding factor on a needed promotion. So what's "fair" here? Give someone all 5's even though they are an average performer, or give them all 3's, like it "should" be, but possibly screw up their career?
     
  8. Dec 27, 2014 #7

    atyy

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    Unless there are specific instructions that you cannot help the professor write the recommendation, what your professor is requesting is well within standard practice. The professor may have a hundred letters to write, and not much time to do so, and is simply asking you to help him write a good recommendation. He will alter the letter according to what he wishes to say, before signing it.

    In most cases it is ok for you to see the recommendation even if you have waived the right to see it, if the person writing the letter allows you to see it. The problem is if you see have waived the right to see the letter, and are seeing the letter without the person's permission. So again, what your professor is requesting is well within standard practice. If there are specific instructions that you cannot see the letter under any circumstances, then you should make it known to the professor that this application has this unusual condition.
     
  9. Dec 27, 2014 #8

    Dale

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    I agree, if this unusual condition is present the professor should be alerted and is probably simply unaware.

    In my company this is handled by a "round table" meeting where the managers of several different teams meet and discuss the ratings. The idea is to ensure that a 3 from manager A is the same as a 3 from manager B and so forth. HR moderates to make sure that there is consistency even at a higher level and to help move a group of managers to a more realistic assessment if they are all inclined to avoid doing things the "right" way.
     
  10. Dec 27, 2014 #9

    mathwonk

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    I am amazed at these views, which to me are simply out of touch with the reality I lived for 30-40 years in hiring. A recommendation written by you but signed by your professor is designed to deceive the recipient, and as such is unacceptable. Moreover it is potentially very harmful to you, when it becomes known that this is his practice. Not only will his recommendations sink to zero in value, but your reputation for honesty will also.

    Put yourself in the position of the person wanting to know whether to hire you. It is one thing to write and sign a letter recommending yourself, but to write one over the signature of another person is quite different. It is very common in academic recommendations to be asked to sign a waiver even of your right to view the letter, much less to write it. I always try to tell my students that they should never ask to see a letter written for them as it loses much of its value. since the recipient knows the writer is less likely to be forthright under those conditions.

    Indeed one should have no contact or influence whatsoever on the letter. Once when a letter writer for one of my colleagues asked me for advice on how to write it, in order to be properly understood by my colleagues, I was told the only correct response was to say that we simply wanted to know his exact opinion of the candidate.

    It is apparently true from these posts, that these deceptive practices do go on some places, but I strongly urge you not to participate in them. Just because cheating and lying are commonplace does not recommend doing it. What your professor proposes is not only lazy, in that he is unwilling to do his job, but may harm you seriously.

    Indeed after considering this situation, I would not even accept a legitimate recommendation from this man, as it could come back to haunt you when his behavior is more widely understood. It may even be well known already, It is not inconceivable to me that this man should be reported to his administration for this.
     
  11. Dec 27, 2014 #10

    Dale

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    It isn't cheating if it isn't against the rules. Check the rules for the specific application involved.
     
  12. Dec 27, 2014 #11

    mathwonk

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    If the letter is written by you, and you try to conceal that fact, that is deception, and you don't need to read the rules to know this is inappropriate. If you want to be open and honest, just write the letter yourself, then sign it yourself and say plainly that this letter was written by you at your professor's request. If you are not willing to do this, then that is evidence you are trying to deceive.


    These statements by the OP summarize the situation exactly correctly:

    "I feel like he should at least put some effort into it if he wants to help me. Like, actually evaluate me instead of putting everything so unrealistically and false. I don't want to mention anything about it to him. He's like my family, and I would feel bad telling him that I don't want his recommendation, but I'm not even supposed to see the recommendation, and I feel bad letting him turn this in, as well as frustrated and angry because this could even affect me negatively."

    I was a college math professor for 40 years. This sort of thing was not ever considered normal or acceptable.
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2014
  13. Dec 27, 2014 #12

    Dale

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    That is a mischaracterization of the situation. You write a draft, someone revises it until they agree with it, and since they agree with the content of the final letter, they sign it.

    You are not going out and using someone else's name deceitfully. They are using their own name and attaching it to a document that they agree with.

    Similarly when you sign your name at the bottom of a legal contract there is no implication that you wrote the document, only that you agree to the content.

    Do you believe that it is morally wrong to ever have any help drafting any document that you sign? If not, then what is it about recommendation letters that makes them different from other documents?
     
  14. Dec 27, 2014 #13

    Choppy

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    In some places this is how evaluation is done though. I've had to write my own professional evaluations before and I think there can be a lot of value in this exercise. It allows the person evaluating you to gauge how consistent your own opinion is with that of him or her and then focus follow-up on those areas where this is a disconnect. Often, in my understanding, people tend to err on the side of humility in such exercises, and understate that value of their work ethic.

    Another point to consider is that some people are more persuasive writers than others. Consider, for example a professor whose first language is not that in which the application is being made, or is not familiar with idiosyncrasies of the culture. Undergraduate students don't have an infinite number of possible referees to choose from, and should choose mentors based on the value of the mentorship and not on the mentor's abilities to persuade an audience through writing. By giving the student the opportunity to craft his or her own reference letter, this can mitigate for this issue (assuming at least that the student is more articulate in writing), and it would in many ways be unfair to penalize a student for the shortcomings of people that he or she has chosen to work with.

    Also to consider is the issue of what committees get from these letters. In my experience, evaluation committees are looking for tangible, verifiable evidence of the student's history or potential. So beyond a GPA or bullets on a CV, they want specific details of working with the student. Statements along the lines of "has an excellent work ethic" are of little value because they are subjective. Instead, people reading these letters are more interested in statements along the lines of:
    - showed up promptly for scheduled meetings
    - read papers beyond those assigned
    - spent extra time in the lab to solve a particular challenge that had impeded progress on the project for several months
    - etc.
    The point is that these are less "opinion"-weighted and are factually based. If the letter simply contained a lot of "student is a pleasure to be around" type statements then, yes, the statements could be more influenced by the writer. But the hard points are either true or untrue.

    Hence, the ethical line lies at the distinction between true and untrue, and whether or not the person whose name is attached to the statements is endorsing them, not with who wrote what.
     
  15. Dec 27, 2014 #14

    Drakkith

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    I wish a similar thing could be done in the military, but it's simply too large.

    Well, reality for you is obviously different than reality for others. There's nothing inherently wrong with either side.
     
  16. Dec 27, 2014 #15
    Isn't this normal in the medical world? Up to a degree where anyone requesting a letter of recommendation will naturally assume that you wrote it?

    Of course this is about students and academics, but this may also be true in other fields.
     
  17. Dec 27, 2014 #16

    mathwonk

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    Have you guys even read the OP's statement? He clearly states:

    "I'm not even supposed to see the recommendation." Hence the proposed procedure is a clear violation and deception.
     
  18. Dec 27, 2014 #17
    Violation of what?
     
  19. Dec 27, 2014 #18

    Dale

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    If that is true then he simply needs to alert the professor to the fact that this application is different from most. The professor is probably simply not aware of the unusual nature of this application. It would be unjust to automatically assume malicious motives on the part of the professor when it is more likely either a misunderstanding on the OP's part or a lack of knowledge about the specific application on the professor's part.

    You are trying to make this into a broad moral issue when it is a narrow procedural issue. There is no moral deception involved in signing a document whose content you agree with, regardless of whether or not you had assistance in writing the document itself. The only question is whether the rules and procedures of the specific application process in question forbid a recommend-giver from seeking outside help. If it does (and those that do are clear in their written rules) then they need to follow the process. Otherwise, what the professor is asking is fine.
     
  20. Dec 28, 2014 #19
    I have tonnes of respect for mathwonk's opinion, as I am someone who has followed these boards for a long time (despite not having posted often) and followed a lot of his suggestions, so I must admit that he made me think twice about my position on this.

    I want to clarify my position, lest a person I respect, like mathwonk, think that I was suggesting I followed a similar practice. Like I said above (or at least I hope it was implied), as a writer myself, I would never do this. I mentioned asking for a page from the student. I only did this if I had taught them two or three years earlier and some of the details had become a little fuzzy. I have never been asked to write a letter that the student was not allowed to see. I would allow students to see letters that I was providing in order to correct any potential typos or errors in detail that could reflect poorly on the student, but I would never, ever write anything (nor change something) to make a student sound better than they were.

    While I have never been told that the student could not see the letter I have written, I have received a few applications that were of the 'checkbox' variety where I was supposed to check some boxes, write some short answers and place the paper in a sealed envelope. In a situation like this, I would never allow a student to see what I had written, and I would seal the envelope and sign over the seal to ensure it wasn't tampered with. To show the student one of these forms would be unethical.

    I have edited this post a few times, as I initially planned on sticking to the idea that the practice is common and, thus, okay. The more I think about this, though, the more I think mathwonk is right. I don't think the issue is a moral one, as he suggests, but it is certainly an ethical one. Even if it is common practice, I think that this practice must be seen as a form of plagiarism. While the professor agrees that everything in the letter is true, they are still representing the letter as what they wrote about the OP.

    This isn't the same thing as signing a contract, as DaleSpam suggests. The practice of having a contract written by lawyers is expected in our society. The letter is assumed to be written by the professor, not the student. As such, it is a misrepresentation.

    If a student writes an assignment for another student, that is plagiarism, whether or not the second student believes everything that the first student wrote is true. Should we not hold professors to the same standard?

    Again, I don't think it is a problem for a student to see what their professor has written. Indeed, I think that they should be allowed to see it if they are the one who requested the letter, as they should not be asked to provide evidence against themselves. I do, however, think that writing the letter for oneself is unethical. I guess that is why I would never allow one of my students to do it.

    As such, I think I have changed my opinion and recommend that the OP discuss his concerns with the professor.

    **Please note that this post originally went in the opposite direction. Immediately after posting, though, I had second thoughts, and changed it to reflect my position. I hope that this doesn't go against the spirit of the forum.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2014
  21. Dec 28, 2014 #20

    mathwonk

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    DaleSpam is quite right that the matter hinges on what the rules are for the situation. To me as well, it all hinges on what the recipient of the letter is being told to assume. If the letter is being represented as an objective, fair evaluation of the candidate that the candidate himself has not seen, then it must be exactly that. This in fact is the normal rule in academics. The candidate has a choice to check a box that says he has had a right to read the letter, or to check one that says he has waived this right. If he checks the latter, which is always advised, then either reading or writing the letter represents telling a lie.

    In academics, it is always assumed the letter is actually written by the recommender, not the student. It is certainly permitted to accept factual information from the student about his/her experience or accomplishments, but some things are expected to be provided entirely by the letter writer (the professor). Namely, it is usual to ask that professor to rank the student in comparison to others the professor has known, and for job candidates, to provide names. I.e. in a job recommendation, the professor is asked to name other known mathematicians and to name some who are stronger and some who are weaker than the current candidate. These comparative judgments cannot be made objectively by the candidate himself, and should never be read by him either.

    There are other reasons the letter should not even be read by the candidate. The recipients usually request a list of both strong and weak points for each candidate, not just a rave. If the candidate reads the letter, this must be openly admitted to the recipient, and this will lessen the impact of a positive letter, since the recipient will assume, correctly or not, that the letter has been inflated if the candidate has read it.

    Another problem that has occurred in my experience is that the candidate can get an unrealistically "big head" from reading even an honestly positive letter. Unfortunately some candidates are so paranoid that they insist on reading the letter to be sure they are being stabbed in the back, hence weakening the impact of a good letter.

    I understand that conditions may be different in some other environments but this is a description of the situation I lived for, well really, 50 years. When I app[led to college and asked for a letter to include in my folder, my boss kindly told me that it was inappropriate for me to see the letter, and sent it separately. I have no doubt that one reason I was admitted was that hes ent a good letter that he honestly stated I had not seen. Give yourself the same advantage.

    I am very grateful for the thoughtful post by Porthos, which has inspired me to write this one.
     
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