Those Infamous Grades and
Letters of Recommendation
Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright July 1999.
California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 3, 1999
Faculty on the Site.
I. A Little Authentication Theory:
Understanding the Ideas Behind "Grades" and Evaluation Reports
The Measurement of Competence and Learning
Authentication as an Interactive Project
The Gifts of Hierarchy and Our Comfort with Labelling
Sample "Dog" Letter: "That Could Be My Dog!"
"Dog" Letters Mean No Specifics Are Known
Forms to Guide Us Through Interactive Measures
II. A Little Authentication Policy:
Socially Constructing the Reality of "Competence"
Asking the DOG LETTER Questions
Asking the Skills Questions
Asking the Character Questions Not up yet. July 6
Anticipating THE Form Not up yet. July 6 These are bits and pieces from Susan and Jeanne's Career Book
New Edition, Copyright, May 1999, Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata.
III. A Little Authentication Praxis:
A. Creating through Inclusion and Sharing
Interactive Sharing of Measures that Work for Student and Teacher
Authentication of Knowledge as a Necessarily Shared Project
Doing Your Homework Not up yet. July 6
Following Through Not up yet. July 6
Permission to reproduce and use under "fair use" for your students.
Not to be used for publication or any "for profit" venture.
This is a partial posting to be completed in Summer 1999.
Anticipating THE Form Not up yet. July 6
These are bits and pieces from Susan and Jeanne's Career Book
New Edition, Copyright, May 1999, Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata.
We approached this file from the perspective of letters of recommendation, for at each end of semester students suddenly realize they need letters for applications for jobs, for internships, for professional programs, whatever. But most of us need them, and most of us are generally unprepared to seek them and to assure that those we get represent good measures of our actual competence and value.
Many of you, already on the second day of class, asked for such letters, for you are preparing for graduation and new pursuits. The policy of Dear Habermas is to prepare you to work interactively with the teacher to guarantee that your learning and your skills are fairly and well represented. We incorporate such learning into everything we teach. And at the end of the course we write a recommendation for each of you on what we perceive as your learning in the course.
It is your responsibility to read and discuss our theoretical perspective so that you have an opportunity to contribute to that theory, and to the policy which results from it. The final recommendation must be developed over the semester interactively so that it truly represents you.
This amounts essentially to our theory on how to measure what our students have learned, and how to allow them inclusion in that measurement. This brief paper offers you our theoretical perspective, how we translate that into policy, and some hypotheses we have about what will work in practice. Consider adding to this text as you actually experience learning as we are describing it. That allows your validity claims to be heard in good faith, and it provides for interdependence in the social construction of the relationship which binds student and teacher.
There are many problems of measurement in interactively preparing with students effective competency statements for both academic and career purposes. In some ways the claim to competence is the most important validity claim any of us will ever make. We need to find a community of others that will hear that claim in good faith, and accept us, for that claim shapes the roles and activities to which we will have access in the normal transactions of everyday life.
There are many contexts I have experienced that do not fit the normative narrative of learning in the traditional academy. These are some of the concerns I see in those contexts, and issues for which I want measures:
I doubt that any respectable theory would suggest as a solution to this problem that we throw out all our present students and recruit the best and brightest according to standardized tests on verbal and math skills. Assumptions unstated, such a solution to sociology's problems is not socially acceptable in the postmodern world. Blalock is right to despair of our logic and math training. But so are others right to despair of the privileging of subjectivity. Barney Glaser offered one solution: reintroduce the thrill and joy of conceptualization. To all those students, mathematically sophisticated or not. And then recognize, as Blalock also does, that our doctoral students "who are socialized to 'produce' publicaations by serving as junior authors of faculty-sponsored research projects often serve more in the role of data-analysis specialists than theorists. . ." And recognize what a study at Stanford in graduate education showed that the difference between the working class Ph.D.-granting institution and the elite Ph.D.-granting institution was the proportion of time and energy doctoral students got to spend on theorizing with their mentors. The working class institutions used their doctoral students to run their research labs, and that was reflected in the jobs that later became available to them. (Paper given at Queens conference on Class Bias in Higher Education.)
Blalock again, at p. 132, complains that most of our Ph.D.-granting departments offer "a compartmentalized training program in which both theory and methods courses are merely incidental to the students practicum research experience. . . and perhaps enough training in several substantive areas that they are in a position to teach a variety of courses at the undergraduate level." Well, yes, that does pretty much describe what it's like out here. But it misses the narrative of learning of all of us who went into those programs hoping to delve deeply into research. Some of us were mathematicians, Blalock. You cannot palm off mathematics as the key to why those already privileged in the academy chose not to provide access to those who came after them.
If you think their graduate training left something to be desired, imagine their research careers as funding dried up and they had to teach more and more courses to more and more students, who like them in their moment, were less and less well-prepared in the traditional mode of instruction. I understand the whine. And waht Blalock mourns is real. But time, space, and another century have presented us with new variables, new patterns, and less concern for theories that don't provide any solutions for the problems we face. That doesn't mean that we see no use for formal theory. It is a tool of logic, designed to help us analyze complexity. As such, only politically correct postmoderns will reject it. The rest of us can't afford the luxury of any labels, either formal or postmodern.
The problem of accuracy in assessment. No fudging. It is too easy to say "I know." For if you are not scrupulously honest, you will claim to know more than you can demonstrate, and then all will be ignored as untruth. Remember that all these measures need to be operationalized into some verifiable form. It may be as simple as telling us that you have mastered the use of the taskbar. That is verifiable; for as you work with us in the lab, your skill in use of the taskbar is evident. Not all will be so easy. But we need to think on ways to operationalize our proffered measures in verifiable form. When we do not, standard and largely inadequate measures are forced upon us.
Want some assurances that will be reflected in class, but I want the e-mail on them:
More on measurement to come. June 17, 1999.
For those of you who have little time to spend and are not wont to linger, we offer the form schedule first, kind of like putting a Table into a research paper, so those who just want "the facts, ma'am, just the facts," can gather them at a glance and come back to study the issue in more depth some other time.
These are the elements I look for in a form:
The eager and self-motivated recommendee will have a much longer list, based on specific requirements of the job or educational program or internship he/she seeks. Treat the job description, if one exists, as you would expect a reader to treat your recommendation. The seasoned teacher or counselor will also have a standard set of such lists, as will the professional reviewer. That's our homework. If the planned endeavor for which you are writing a recommendation has no such list, no problem; use your own. Few recipients of our recommendations have such scrupulously defined goals in mind. Ask the reviewer's questions.
Dear Admissions Committee
College of Slippery Tenure
Tiny Rock, Maine
Dear Admissions Committee:
Ms. Holdover SixTimes is applying for the Tiny Rock Certificate Program in Peer Counseling. This sounds like an excellent program for her, as she has many skills to offer in this area.
Ms. SixTimes has been my student in the Social Science of the Family for three semesters. I asked her to repeat the course as a teacher's aide because she enjoyed the class readings, and was enormously helpful to other students in reading and helping to formulate questions from the text and from the class discussions. She was also a great help to me in keeping class records. She moves easily from tasks that require special talent and skills to the more mundane tasks of managing the daily work schedule.
One of Ms. SixTimes special qualifications in the area of peer counseling is her willingness to follow the pace and the learning style of different students. Although she is an excellent student herself, she is tolerant and respectful of those who absorb the material more slowly. She also listens actively and finds effective praise for each student.
Your program will indeed benefit by her inclusion. She enjoys working with others, makes them feel comfortable at that work, and is eager to do all this successfully. Slippery Tenure has the potential in Ms. SixTimes for a young professional whose energy will benefit many in her school and in the broader community.
Tenure Gone High School
Tiny Rock, Maine
[Official Work Place]
[Official Street Address]
Dear [Official Reviewer]
[Student name] is applying [has applied, wants to attend, whatever] your [program, job, internship, whatever]. [Student name] is [qualified, well qualified, exceptionally qualified - not a good idea to write negative recommendations - sometimes student gets accepted out of curiosity in that case - just say no, and don't give a recommendation] for your [job, program, whatever]. [Elaborate on the qualification with some specific detail of character or skill.] [Student name] [skates well and delivers the morning newspaper with regularity and cheer.]
Clarify the relationship, how long, how strong. This is one of the places where you can comfortably delimit your recommendation. Try to link the relationship to the specific details you report. If you speak only in generalities, then what you say may also be true of my dog. For example, my dog is social, caring, sensitive. He works well with people, and shows considerable initiative. If there is no time for detailed direction, he takes it upon himself to find productive tasks, and does a good job of involving others in those tasks, while checking back frequently to be sure that he is meeting the planned agenda. He is persistent, if not tenacious, at getting his job done, and is a natural leader, encouraging others to join in the work.
Go back and look at those recommendations. My dog does every one of those things. Bet yours does, too. But my dog would not be good at peer counseling, nor should he be admitted to a college program.
The student should work interactively with you to identify those specific tasks you have both shared and can therefore describe in a manner that would not fit my dog.
Indicate knowledge of the reviewer's work or study place. That broadcasts that this is not a dog letter, pulled from a generic file. Good letters mean hard work. But that work should be shared with the students, with peers, with colleagues, to find jobs and programs suited to each real person student.
That's all for now folks. Be sure to end with your title, so the reviewer knows who you are.
More later . . .
Learning thoery and measurement: womdiff.htm