recommendation ethics

I actually had really good classes yesterday, despite it's being Thanksgiving week. Sure, a few people were absent (although at this time in the semester, that's not so unusual on any day, not just pre-holiday). But the students who came to class, came ready to discuss the material. And everyone seemed cheerful at the prospect of a couple of days off from school. I know I've been really looking forward to this holiday as a break from this semester's routine.

I came into our mostly empty campus this morning to work on writing recommendation letters for a few hours -- I have a larger stack than usual to write this year, some for undergrads going to graduate or professional school, and a few for MA students applying to PhD programs. Those are the really tricky ones to write. I have one student in that category who I think is fantastic -- I think she could hold her own in a 1st or 2nd tier program. There's another student who is not only not fantastic, I don't think she's really cut out for PhD work. I suppose she could probably get into a fourth- or fifth-tier program like our own, but instead she's applying to schools way out of her range (despite advising from me and from her thesis supervisor). But because I sat on her thesis committee, there was no way I could get out of writing a letter for her (I tried, I really tried, but she was persistent). Everyone should apply to one "reach" school -- but not six of them. It doesn't do her any good to set herself up for that kind of disappointment. And, because she's applying to 1st and 2nd level schools, it puts her recommenders in a difficult rhetorical situation.

I think I'm going to start with the easier letters first. Warm up by being able to write real solid praise for a student's work before I have to craft those lukewarmly positive sentences that will appropriately signal to an admissions committee (made up of scholars who I know and admire) that I realize another student is probably not quite up to their standards, but that I have to write the letter anyway.