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It is important for you to be forthright with your students about how you perceive their work and their abilities. Especially if this is a grad student who hopes to be an academic (but also important for undergrads as well). I had a Ph.D. supervisor that did not want to be “forthright” with me regarding how he perceived my writing and how I was doing. I only found out through another faculty member who was privy to discussions where my supervisor was bringing up criticisms of my work that he never said to me, and for whatever reason, was never going to say to me. *This hurts the student.* It especially hurts women and minority students. It is my impression that people go easier on women not because there isn’t real criticism of their work, but because there is some perception that being honest will hurt their feelings and discourage them. However, finding out that your supervisor says one thing to you, but believes something else entirely is more hurtful and more discouraging. It breaks down trust. It also doesn’t give the student the space to actually improve! Being an academic is a job. Knowing honestly how you are doing at your job and where you can improve is essential. If you aren’t being forthright about this with your students, you are doing them a huge disservice and frankly being a bad mentor. I am sorry to be so forthright Marcus, but this idea that you can’t share a letter because you can’t be honest with your students about how they can improve, says nothing about whether people should share letters, it’s about you needing to take a management course or something that gives you the skills necessary to be honest in a constructive way with the people you supervise / mentor. Philosophy isn't Genius. It's hard work.


Tenured faculty member at a PhD program here. I think it's reasonable for Letterwriter to seek input on certain parts of Letterwriter's letter. What's off limits is asking a candidate for feedback on the evaluation of the work or the candidate him/herself. But it's fine to ask the candidate whether a summary of a research project or a description of background experience is accurate. The request could naturally be framed as follows: "I wondered whether you think these sentences are an accurate and fair summary of your project. Is there anything you think it would be helpful to add?"

Marcus Arvan

Honesty: those are all good points. I think I am forthright with my students about their performance. I also agree with you that it is wrong to project one picture of a student’s performance to them and another to others “behind their back.” That is indeed duplicitous. But that is not what I meant to suggest, nor something I think I do.

My main thought here is different. It is that if one shares one’s letter with one’s student, there may be some subconscious psychological pressure to be less frank that one might be than if the letter is what it is explicitly framed as in the application process: a *confidential* letter of recommendation. I think the very point of having letters be confidential is to protect against these kinds of pressures. We’re not robots, after all. And while you might suggest that we should guard against those subconscious psychological pressures, human beings are notoriously poor at introspecting their own motives—which is why (I think) institutional norms like these (confidential letters being confidential) exist.

I also worry that sharing letters could lead to students arguing with their letter writers and/or exerting institutions pressure on their them (e.g. by complaining to other faculty, administrators, and/or parents). Which is, I think, another reason letters are supposed to be confidential: nobody should be put in a position to exert pressure on a recommendation. Anyway, I agree that philosophy isn’t genius, but rather hard work. And I’ll think more on your comment, and am curious what others think.


Not directly relevant to OP's question, but FWIW:

I was given one of my letters. Because it's nice and encouraging, I read it when I start to feel down on my philosophical abilities. I got the idea from Parfit. He used to do something similar. So, one consideration in favor of sharing is that it can be a good thing.


I have written at least two letters of recommendation, (maybe more) one just last year, where the student *didn't* waive their right to see the letter. This is typically, an option, by the way. I still recall one undergraduate professor specifically telling me that she would not write the letter unless I waived that right. However, out of all the letters I've gotten over the years (and it is a lot) this was the only time that happened. However, I did always waive my right whenever that was something asked. Anyway, I would encourage professors to read the letter of recommendation request when it comes to your email, as that is where they typically tell you whether the student has waived the right.

I don't think that not wanting a student to see a letter means you are dishonest. Obviously, it is a different story if you think a student is in general not that great and (1) you don't tell the student, but (2) do gossip about it to colleagues, and (3) still agree to write a letter. That is indeed very dishonest behavior. And I do share the worry/impression that some faculty (but certainly not all) are more hesitant to be honest with women. This could be for all sorts of reasons, but those don't really matter. I think it just means that women, unfortunately, must go out of their way to get feedback from multiple sources and to develop close, trusting, relationships with a few advanced figures in the field.

As for honesty, there are all sorts of people that I consider myself honest with but that I would not say certain things in front of them, even though I would say them to others. Often it is that I would not compliment someone to their face the way I would behind their back, as certain kinds of compliments to someone's face can come off as over the top and a bit creepy. That is one reason I don't like the idea of students seeing my letter. I guess I am very sensitive to this, but still it is not fair that a student would get a worse letter from me because at some level I am scared as coming across as over the top in their recommendation. Also, things like comparing students are just not the kind of thing that seems okay to tell them directly, while it might be fine to say it in a letter. If I say in a letter that a certain student is the second best student I've every had, for instance, that might not be something I would want to say to their face. But it wouldn't follow I am dishonest because I didn't say this.

I've had some faculty send me letters they wrote for me, although I've never asked them to do this. I have never read them, because it would make me feel uncomfortable. I did have them vetted by a trusted fellow philosopher.

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