Old School Black Home Training: The I-Need-A-Recommendation Edition


A while back, I promised that I would start a series of blog posts that would “tutor” folks on old-fashioned African American manners. I thought no one would like that idea, but to my great surprise, I received a lot of encouragement to continue my series—and not just from Black people. Apparently, White, Native American, Latino, and Asian folks are fed up with folks of all complexions with no home training, too. So, I decided to keep this party going.

My latest home training lesson has to do with people who are in search of a professional favor, and how they should  act when asking for that favor. (Thus, the “hand out” in the picture.)  I’m writing this post now because this is letter of recommendation season, and a lot of folks are reaching out to older and/or more accomplished folks for letters of recommendation. For those of you who are doing that, I want to pull your coat before you make a fool of yourself. Even though the title says “Old Black School Home Training,” again, this is for all all races, complexions, backgrounds and genders.

As someone who is not famous in the least, but who nevertheless holds a tenured university appointment, I do have plenty folks who come to me for professional favors. These favors fall under what is called “service,” which is the equivalent in the academic world of community service. In other words, I don’t get paid for professional favors; all I get is a “thank you”—hopefully; we’ll get to that in a minute—an “I’m nice” feeling inside, and some credit from The Man/Woman Above.

Professional favors include things like letters of recommendation. These can be for students for graduate school or jobs, for professional peers’ tenure file, or for mentees’ fellowship applications. Also, writing a blurb for the back of someone’s book is a professional favor. All of these things—a job, a spot in graduate school, tenure, a fellowship—help to move someone’s career forward. So, I ask you, why is it lately that when someone asks me for a favor, all but a very few of these people don’t act like it’s a favor?

For example, a few years back, a young Black woman who had asked me to be her mentor and who had used me for a refernce asked me for a letter of recommendation. Correction. She wrote me and said: “I need you to send a letter of recommendation to this particular place.” No “please.” No “thank you.” No “I really appreciate your time.” Unh-uh. None of that.

So, I wrote the young woman back an email and told her that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but even when someone was a friend and little “play-sister” to me, her approach was not an appropriate way to ask someone for a letter of recommendation. I was thinking of my younger self—the self who didn’t have a lot of sense– when I took the time to write that email and I took pains to include lots of kindness because I didn’t want to be cruel. Though I didn’t say so, I know I didn’t always act the best in the past and I wanted to give her an opportunity to get herself together.

But you what? She didn’t get herself together. This child wrote me back a four page email letting me know I was very condescending. I didn’t even bother respond—or pray for her rude self, either. I just gave her The Heisman Hand and went on about my business, which would be working on my own writing hustle.

But now, I see kids/young folks/even very grown folks who are perfectly nice but who have no idea how to approach folks for favors and I feel badly about deleting their emails—even as I’m scared to personally correct. So, I’ve included below some things to consider when asking someone for a professional favor.

#1

If you were a student of someone and you know you dogged that person out on the teaching evaluations, don’t ask for a letter of recommendation. Similarly, if you have thrown shade on somebody in a public forum and you know this might have gotten back to him or her, do not have the colossal nerve to ask him or her to recommend you for a job, fellowship or tenure.

Why would you want someone you don’t respect to recommend you for something? What kind of sense does that make? Nonsense, is what kind.

#2

If you haven’t talked to this person in a long time, you should consider putting off asking him or her for a professional favor until you can get reacquainted. If you don’t know him or her at all, don’t even think of asking for a favor. Facebook friends does not count, okay?

I have had students from eight years ago show up at my office or write me looking for a letter of recommendation, and not only don’t I not remember the student’s name, I don’t even remember his or her face. If you live close by, consider visiting the person in the office, or offering to take the person out to coffee or lunch. He or she may not take you up on the offer, but the gesture will be appreciated. Or, start up an email correspondence before you launch into what you need.

#3

If you are asking a much older person for a professional favor and you have never been on first name basis with that person, don’t assume familiarity by call him or her by first name.

Put a handle on that name, like “Professor” or “Ms,” even if this person taught you twenty years ago and you now have gray hair. Some people don’t like familiarity. Don’t be lecturing them about that, talking about times have changed. Just don’t be familiar. Don’t you need a favor?

#4

Do not begin your professional request email or phone call with “I need such and such.”

Look, even if you are close friends with someone, who wants someone to who has what my mama calls “a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much-obliged”? Ease into your favor. Ask how the person is doing. Make some polite small talk before you start talking about what you need.

#5

Let the person know that you know how valuable his or her time is and that you understand if the answer to your request is “no.”

I’m busy as all get out. I’m always working on a book. I start working on the next book while I’m finishing the present book, because I don’t like Postpartum Book Depression. So when someone asks me for a favor, I have to set my work aside for a few days to get that favor done. And let me tell you, no writer ever wants to do that, but I will for a polite, kind person.

#6

Even if you have known someone for a while or this person has written you a letter of recommendation before, do not assume recommendation is a gift that will keep on giving. Approach each favor with a lack of presumption.

I despise presumptuousness in folks. I remember all that correction from my mother, from my granny, from Black teachers, from ladies in church, from my mentors, and even Black female strangers I would encounter at the Walgreens. I didn’t put up with all that correction and do all this work on myself for some little poo-butt who barely knows how to pee straight coming at me assuming that my professional time is his time. Frankly, I appreciate reticence when someone asks me for a favor because I’ve always been reticent when I asked someone for my own favor.

#7

Even if you believe you are the professional equal of someone, remember that your asking someone for a favor puts you below that person professionally—if only for a moment. Act accordingly. That means act with some danged humility.

For about two years now, I’ve been having Black poets I know roll on me for favors like blurbs, manuscript reading, and letters of recommendation, yet they always roll on me with a “hey what’s up” attitude, like we are equals. I had a stranger ask me for a blurb and say, “You should be familiar with my work from such and such journal.” Uh, no, I’m not. Not only hadn’t I heard of her, I hadn’t heard of that journal, either.

Unless you have accomplished what I’ve accomplished, you are not my equal, and I don’t care how much “dap” and how many free t-shirts you get at the Associated Writing Programs bookfair. And further, if you were on my level in the first place, you wouldn’t need a letter of recommendation from me; I’d need one from you. So act like you know.

#8

Do not try to micro-manage your recommender’s letter of recommendation. Meaning, do not tell your potential recommender what he or she needs to include in the letter. This is very rude and might get you The Heisman Hand.

When someone gets the recommendation form or logs into the online recommendation site, it will tell the recommender what needs to be included. Plus, most of us have done this at least fifty times. We don’t need your input, unless there is no form and no site. And even then, just say, “Professor Doe, it is suggested that you address such and such in your letter, although that is completely up to you,” and we’ll get the hint, okay?

#9

Finally, follow up with gratitude after the professional favor has been received.

A “thank you” email is the very least you owe someone who has done you a professional favor. But what is more appropriate is a thank you card. It’s unethical for someone to suggest that you give gifts in exchange for his or her doing you a professional favor, and so, that will never come up. But if you choose to send a “thank-you” gift all on your own, no one is going to turn down your gift, either.

And if you receive that job, admission into graduate school, fellowship, or tenure, you need to let that person know that you are aware that the letter of recommendation helped you reach that goal. Remember, consistent gratitude is key to asking and receiving professional favors—because you never know when you might need another one.

4 thoughts on “Old School Black Home Training: The I-Need-A-Recommendation Edition

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am always afraid to ask for letters of recommendation for many of the reasons you listed in your post. And I never think it fair to ask assistance of someone when I haven’t spent the time continuing contact with them.

    Continuing contact. I think that is something that plagues my generation. We have Facebook, yes, but Facebook has replaced continued relationships with people. This makes it difficult when looking to go back to school or searching for a new position. I might not be the best at continuing all relationships, but I am trying to find a few people to remain close with and ask for their help when I need it – always letting them know that I will return the favor.

    Years ago, I was in several of your classes. Back when I was blond, naive, and single instead of brunette, a bit more cynical, and married. I remember those classes well. You taught me what it was to be a writer. You put effort into me and made me realize that I was a writer and that, as long as I spent the time and effort (which I am working on), I could make a living out of writing.

    I’ve held onto much of the wisdom you passed on. I don’t expect you to remember me, but I at least wanted you to know that I remember you and that your teaching meant much more than a grade for college.

    • Hey Leslie:

      Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate you. I’m a tough teacher, and sometimes, my students don’t always immediately respond to ” Prof J’s tough love.” It usually takes a few years out in the real world for them to get it–and me–but by then, they’ve moved on and I don’t ever hear from them about what has kicked in. So, I appreciate your letting me know!–Especially at the end of the semester when the NEW students aren’t understanding the SAME “Prof J’s tough love.”:-)

      Take care,
      “Prof J”

  2. A friend once shared that a Rabbi who was leaving a community (I will leave out details deliberately), on less than happy terms, used a member of that community as a Reference, and did Not Even Ask in advance!

    This was a few years before Facebook.

    The community member, is also a friend, a very polite, kind, diplomatic person, was not pleased!

    ~ ~ I think this essay is pitch perfect, and I have only a clue as to the * Heisman Hand* (football?), but I am going to research that now. ~~

    • Hi there:

      Thank you reading! “The Heisman Hand” is my own term so research probably won’t help you.:-) But if you’ve ever seen the Heisman trophy, it depicts a young man in football uniform holding a ball in one hand and pushing away his offenders (on the field) with the other hand. So, when you give someone The Heisman Hand, you push a person away–and out of your life–so you can hold on to what’s important. I hope that explanation helps.

      Thanks so much again for reading and I hope you will visit the blog again!

      Take care,
      HFJ

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