Here’s the dilemma. I’m about to send another application to grad school (Dalhousie, Masters in Planning) and I’m in the process of seeking out new reference letters. Should be fairly straighforward, yes?
Not one bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten them before. To apply to English programs, I got references from English professors. Good letters from good teachers. Easy. Great. But now that I need reference letters from my former political science and women’s studies, I’m totally fucked, and here’s why:
Since McGill doesn’t exactly have a thriving women’s studies program there are no actual tenured women’s studies professors – all the assistant profs I studied under are long gone. I mean really fucking gone who knows where, probably at the community college of Talahassee or the state university of Alaska. They are all fresh out of grad school, bouncing around from school to school out of necessity. (One of said profs admitted she only made $42,000 a year. With a PhD. Ouch. No wonder she left, chasing tenure down the yellow brick road.) So now, I can barely remember them let alone track them down. And I know what you’re thinking. We live in the age of google, etc etc, but it’s not that easy. What do you imagine the chances are they’d actually remember me? The farther I get from my undergrad the less remarkable I get. This fact stings, but it’s true.
The political science problem is a little different – it was a huge program. With huge class sizes. I don’t think I’ve ever had a poli sci class with less than 50 other people. Even then, most of my courses were also taught by those wonderfully mobile Asst. Profs. I did have Tenured Honest to God Real University Professors for a few classes but I never spoke to them once. Again, I know what you’re thinking (especially you, Boston.) You’re supposed to be remarkable and stand out and ask questions in a giant lecture hall and get yourself noticed. I know I know. I fucked up. So I wasn’t Sally Keenerpants. I still deserve a kick at the grad school can. My GPA warrants it. I worked exclusively with underpaid TAs who were generally wonderful.
I can’t ask one of theses Professors-with-a-capital-P to write me a reference letter. What would it say:
“I think Alexandra MacLean was in my class. She sat beside that really smart brunette named Adela, didn’t she?”
So I’ve decided to send reference letters from a former TA, a religious studies prof who is no longer at McGill, and a professor from a university I didn’t even go to. He just knows me really well. I really don’t have much of a choice.
Now, this all has made something become very clear to me: most university admission systems are way out of touch and out of date. A transcript should say plenty about my academic qualifications (not to mention the reputation of the school I went to); my writing sample ought to say quite a bit about my writing skills; and reference letters, well, shouldn’t they be from a variety of folks who know me first hand – how hard I work, what my passions are, what kind of person I am – basically, whether I’m full of shit or the real thing? (The real answer is half and half, but hopefully the wont’ mention that). Employers, mentors, TAs – are these people less important than Professor TV Paul who wouldn’t fucking know me if he tripped over me?
So yeah, this bugs me, but it’s also got me thinking. I like that my profs were young, fresh out of grad school and full of piss and vinegar. I don’t mind that they are now all teaching in various far flung locations – I think it’s kind of cool. Hopefully they still have small class-sizes and are still inspiring the shit our of their students. It just sucks that they can’t write me those requisite ACADEMIC SUPER SERIOUS LETTERS OF REFERENCE. It also sucks that they make such shitty money after paying through the nose for graduate school. Which I’m about to do.