What not to say in a letter of reference

Posted: March 8, 2013 by Jender in failure to perceive problem, failure to take women seriously, focus on appearance, trivialising women

I am a female philosophy professor on a graduate admissions committee. This year I found the following sentences in a letter of recommendation for a female student:

“You will have to forgive a bit of political incorrectness, but I think it important. #### happens to be a beauty and enhances her fine looks with a careful attention to her grooming and clothes.”

Naturally, after recovering from my initial sense of shock that someone would put this in a recommendation letter, I tried hard to ignore the comment; it is plainly irrelevant to the applicant’s academic prospects. Yet I found that the comment was nevertheless infecting my evaluation the file: rather than taking the academic content of the letter seriously, I started thinking about whether the letter (as well as all the others) wasn’t as strong as it was just because of the student’s looks. More disturbingly, and for reasons that I find difficult to state, I also felt I was having a harder time taking the student’s own writing seriously, once her physical traits had been brought into the foreground.

I do hope that I ended up successfully overcoming whatever biases this comment introduced and that I judged the file fairly. Nevertheless, reflection both on the terrible judgment of the letter writer and my own involuntary reactions to it left me with a sense of despair.

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