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Prof. Z has taught thousands of students in my former school since 2010. In the Biology course that he taught, there were two students (A and B) with similar full names and nicknames, but their academic results were totally different. Prof. Z liked student A but hated student B because student B used to be very naughty in Prof. Z's courses and got very bad grades.

On January 4th, Prof. Z received student B's email for a letter of recommendation. Prof. Z agreed to do so and arranged a time to meet student B. On the day when they met, Prof. Z knew he had made a big mistake, and he refused to do anything for student B. Given that situation, what would you do if this happened to you (as student B)? This really happened recently in my former school, and student B was very angry and made a complaint to the head of Prof. Z's department.

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    While I agree that this is kinda awkward, what in ${deity}'s name did B complain about? "He promised me a letter, and after figuring out that I was horrible in his course [something that I of course knew] he retracted his offer rather than writing a bad letter"? – xLeitix Jan 15 '15 at 18:42
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    "Given that situation, what would you do if this happened to you (as student B)?" Be happy that Z did not write a letter, specifically pointing out how B was hoping to get away with this misunderstanding that he presumably knew about (otherwise, why ask a Prof. where you did horribly in class in the first place?). – xLeitix Jan 15 '15 at 18:44
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    Yes, even if you give the student the benefit of the doubt regarding the misunderstanding (and whether he was deliberately trying to take advantage of it), the alternative would be for Prof. Z to write a short letter saying "B was very naughty in my course and got very bad grades, and I assume that's not what you are looking for." That would waste Z's time and hurt B's application, so not writing a letter is better for everyone. – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 15 '15 at 18:47
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    Student B has some issues... – paul garrett Jan 15 '15 at 18:52
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    As B? Use it as a lesson not to ask for a letter of recommendation from a prof in whose course I made a fool out of myself. Seriously, as prof I wouldn't have dreamed that the bad student would ask for a letter of recommendation, so of course I would have assumed it was the good student. The prof did nothing wrong, B acted wrong in the course and by asking for the letter. – Daniel Wessel Jan 15 '15 at 19:00
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As Student B, I would be pretty mad about this, even more than if he had declined to write me a letter in the first place. But I would also recognize that it was for the best (if he hadn't done this, he would have written me a bad letter).

Also, I would never have gone to the department head about this because

  1. It's not something that merits a formal complaint
  2. It's not something I'd want to be known for, especially among other professors who may be writing my letters of recommendation.
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    I don't understand how a sane student could be made about this situation! Could there have been any reasonable expectation that the prof would write a positive letter based on bad behavior and bad performance? A @DanielWessel commented, most likely the prof figured it was the other (good...) student of the same name. – paul garrett Jan 15 '15 at 19:03
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    I must confess that I would have been unable to imagine that the requestor was the "bad" student, but instead would have powerfully presumed that it was the "good" student... and would have been dumbfounded for many reasons if/when the "bad" student showed up at my door. For one, I would have been completely confused as to what such a student imagined I'd write in a letter for them. In particular, it would baffle me if they claimed that they'd thought that I could somehow write a non-fatal letter, based on reality. I'd "apologize" in only the most perfunctory way... srsly... – paul garrett Jan 15 '15 at 19:28
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    There is nothing in the question implying the professor did not apologise. If someone here fails to be a decent human being, it is student B, who apparently has difficulty taking no for an answer, regardless of how it is presented. – fkraiem Jan 15 '15 at 19:43
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    There is a huge difference between refusing to hurt the student and treating the student as shit. And the prevailing opinion on the side is not "how dare the student ask for a letter from me" but "why would the student ask for a reference letter when he should expect a negative one"... – Nick S Jan 15 '15 at 19:49
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    You are right: the professor owes something to the student: a bad reference letter. – Nick S Jan 15 '15 at 19:50
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The questions-not-asked include asking about the basis for student B's actions. As @BenBitdiddle comments after his answer, perhaps student B was "advised" to ask the most famous professor, etc.

My blanket reaction to this is that this advice should not have come from any professionally competent "advisor", but probably from peers, or peer-based information. Abstractly, there's certainly nothing wrong with getting the opinions of one's friends and peers. However, it is exactly in such situations that the critical weakness in asking people who don't know much about a given thing is instantiated. How to know that this would be a problem? Difficult, for many understandable reasons, but that does not resolve the issue!

That is, younger people would benefit from appreciating the palpable fact that important decisions affecting their lives are made by people (often older) who need not share their viewpoint, nor their same-age friends' viewpoint.

While it is true that some people who "have power" abuse it, this is not a universal, and it is not wise to postulate that all experienced/older people are oppressive or selfish. Genuine experience, as opposed to conjecture, is hard to replace. Thus, ideally, letter-of-recommendation writers are sufficiently experienced to have been through (and succeeded in) the endeavor for which they're writing a letter. Perhaps also experience (and successful in) appraising the likely future success of people in those endeavors. From this comes the value of letters of recommendation.

Yes, unfortunately, even a pretty-darn-good performance in a routine course doesn't give a letter writer much to work with. Many people hit that mark, etc.

What's a student to do who has trashed all those bridges, before they realized that it'd matter? Probably spend extra time proving exactly that they'd caught on, and have moved to a different plateau. But there'd need to be tangible evidence, not just a promise.

So, in effect, "tell your friends not to hope for letters from faculty in whose courses they'd done badly"... And, if people discover themselves in the position that there's no alternative, then they need to get as close to a "do-over" as they can, because otherwise they've sealed their own fate, in any conventional avenue.

Yes, it is indeed unfortunate that this "appraisal" period comes during a period of peoples' lives where many things are in turmoil...

So, again, people who become aware of this mechanism should "tell their friends" to work hard to avoid finding themselves in such a situation. If one does, then it is almost surely better to allocate considerable time to repair the damage, rather than somehow "fake it" and limp along with fatally bad letters of recommendation.

By the way, part of the "currency" that faculty have to spend (or not) is their word/reputation, so they are very, very hesitant to blow it on bogus not-so-bad recommendations. Faculty who'll give glowing recommendations to nearly anyone will have debased that currency to an extent that it is nearly worthless... so you'd not gain from a letter from them anyway.

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Semi-serious answer:


As student B: Next time, claim a family emergency and ask whether the prof can please send you the letter of recommendation. As much as you liked to see him in person, you're at home caring for your dying grandmother (again). (And drop this case, you're getting an even worse reputation.)

As better student B: Don't ask for a letter of recommendation from a prof if you did show abysmal behavior and performance in class. It's a letter of recommendation, not cronyism, there should be something to recommend.

As an even better student B: Behave better in class and learn to learn (and to perform). University isn't school and you're supposed to be an adult by now -- you actually have a job: to learn the material, to understand it, and to learn how to think. And BTW, there's a place for naughty behavior in class -- if it's smart. But that requires understanding the material, which according to the grades B did not.


As prof Z: Apologize that you have written the wrong letter of recommendation, which was a honest mistake. Ask the student whether s/he really wants a letter of recommendation which essentially states that s/he was in class, disrupted it and got bad grades (if it's legally possible to write about negative events)

As a better prof Z: Never write a letter of recommendation without checking first for whom you are writing the letter of recommendation. Ask for the identifying information that differentiated between the students when it came to assigning their grades. If students failed to understand their job, they might fail to understand what is involved in getting a letter of recommendation.

As an even better prof Z: If you have a student B in your class, try to inform this person about the consequences of his/her behavior. And that in earlier schools, everyone might have been a winner, but here good grades require knowledge/skills/performance. Also inform administration that you have a student apparently riding on the coattails of another student. Every prof who had both students in their class should get this information.


As student A: Never give student B your diplomas.

As a better student A: Ask prof Z. for that letter of recommendation.

As an even better student A: Legally change (add to) your name.

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    As prof Z: Apologize that you have written the wrong letter of recommendation, I don't think Prof. Z actually wrote the recommendation letter based on the OP's description. – scaaahu Jan 16 '15 at 7:02
  • Agreed. I read it as if the prof already did the work, but it seems he "only" promised to do it. Waow, even worse. Overall, the lack of reflection is what would kill writing a reference letter for student B for me. – Daniel Wessel Jan 16 '15 at 22:20

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