I really appreciate all the suggestions I've received regarding the student who wants a rec letter from me. I have contacted her, and, as when I talked with her a few months ago, I have the distinct impression she's completely ignoring my advice. Be that as it may, at least I've signalled to her that a letter from someone not in the area she hopes to specialise in may not be that useful to her, and that I can only speak about how she performed in my class. My discomfort about this situation I think will help me in the future in how I handle rec requests -- I already ask students to give me copies of various materials (writing they did for my class, their app letter, their writing sample, a transcript, etc) and talk to me about what they hope to do in school and afterwards. But maybe I need to start adding some other criteria. At least for the MAs applying to PhD programs other than our own. Most of the letters I've written in the past few years have been for BA students applying to law school, for teaching jobs, or for MA programs. And there's just much less at stake in that sort of rec.
All this raised up a lot of issues for me about the profession, too, separate from this particular student and her misguided goals. I have real doubts about suggesting that anyone go and get a PhD. I always ask students what they hope to do, why they're going to grad school, and what's really motivating them. I talk to them frankly about the crappy job market, about how the system chews up a lot of people and leaves them emotionally maimed, and about the need for an almost insupportable dual identity: on the one hand committed to your field, your research, your academic goals; on the other, figuring out what else you can do if it doesn't work out. Because in English/American literature, anyway, it doesn't work out, for at least 50% of people who get PhDs. (If by work out you mean obtain a full-time job with benefits, whether tenure track or not.) But no matter how frankly you talk to students, there are always one or two who just blithely think to themselves "I'll be different." I suggest to students that they have to have some motivation that's internal, that doesn't have anything to do with the job/profession -- something that just makes you want to sit for hours in libraries reading and writing. If doing that will make you happy for a few years -- then by all means go to graduate school. But if you can imagine doing something, anything else, and also being happy -- think long and hard about it. It's years of your life, and probably thousands of your dollars even if you are funded, since most schools can't pay a living wage for 12 months.
Some of the greatest minds in my field have stopped teaching graduate students because the ethical issues are too painful. That's an extreme position (and one only the most esteemed scholars can choose, because they have already proven themselves etc) -- but it's an important counterpoint to the assumption that we all love to teach graduate seminars on highly specialised topics. Or that we want to produce younger versions of ourselves. I certainly don't.