When approached for a letter in the bleak midwinter of recommendation-writing season, many of us wish for responsible ways to say, like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, “I prefer not to.” Yet in weak or guilty moments, we may accede to a student’s plea and then spend hours racking our brains for something to say.
It’s hard for a scrupulous teacher to resist the fear that, in declining to write a recommendation, you may be torpedoing someone’s professional life. Ultimately, though, a student’s application materials will speak for themselves and the professional world will make its own judgment, fairly or not. Disappointment, even heartbreak, is a reality from which even the deserving can’t always be shielded. And you aren’t obligated to make a case for a student whom you can’t, in good conscience, support.