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It’s that time of year again. The time when students start thinking about internships, work after college, or graduate school. Inevitably, students have to decide who to ask to be a reference (at least they SHOULD ask individuals to be references — it’s step #1 in reference etiquette). In the past, the students who approached me were ones who knew I would give them a good reference, but lately that has begun to change and I’m not sure why. Perhaps students did “less bad” in my class than others they took; perhaps they burned bridges with other faculty members; perhaps they think I’m a pushover and I won’t say anything bad about them… whatever the case, it seems more and more “average to poor” students are asking me to recommend them.

Usually, when I tell students that they should find someone else to be a “better” reference for them they get the hint (i.e., this person will not give me a good reference and I should look for someone who can). However, recently I have had a lot of students pursue the matter and ask “why not?” as well as “what are your policies on being a reference?” So in this blog post I have taken the time to outline my policies on whether or not I will be a student’s reference and although it says rules below, I do tend to be of the Captain Barbossa school of thought in that they “are more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules” (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003).

Rule #1 — If you received an average or poor grade in my class, I won’t be your reference

When I was in undergrad I had a professor who said she would not serve as a reference for us unless we had taken two courses with her and received “A’s” in both of them. She taught writing-intensive classes and getting an “A” from her was like learning how to walk on water. To this day I think she had this policy because she didn’t want to write any reference letters or answer any phone calls. Now, I’m not that tough, but I do expect you to be above average in my class. That means if you didn’t get an “A” or a high “B” in my class I won’t be your reference. My reason? I can’t speak to your effort, work ethic, critical thinking skills or problem solving if I haven’t seen you effectively demonstrate it. Average doesn’t cut it. Good enough doesn’t cut it. If I’m going to say your competent/good/worthy I want to see you be above average.

Rule #2 — If you were unprofessional in my class, I won’t be your reference

If you exhibited any of the following unprofessional habits during my class I can’t recommend you to someone else:

  • Consistent tardiness;
  • Constant excuses regarding assignments;
  • Failure to participate;
  • Failure to communicate;
  • Inappropriate communication;
  • Lack of enthusiasm or interest;
  • Exhibiting disrespect for other students, clients, etc.

To me, each of these represents a major character flaw or a limitation that affects your abilities. If I was an employer instead of a professor (and could pick and choose who worked for me) I would fire you for any of these deficiencies. As it is I can’t fire you from my class, but I won’t recommend you to someone else either. You will harm their organization and I can’t be a party to that. Unless you want to go work for a tobacco company, and then I would…. Just kidding (maybe not).

Rule #3 — If I don’t know you, I won’t be your reference

If you haven’t completed a class with me — or you took one where you were a face in a sea of faces (usually classes of 100+ students), then I don’t really know you. If I’ve never seen you outside the classroom (for example, during my office hours), then I don’t really know you. If we have never had a conversation that didn’t involve how you should complete an assignment, then I don’t really know you. If I don’t really know you I can’t refer you. I have no idea what is lurking underneath that calm, cool, collected exterior that somehow manage an “A” in my class. You could be a serial killer, a movie theater bomber, or a Craiglist killer. Or you could simply be a narcissist who thinks the whole world owes him something. I’d like to find that out by getting to know you outside of my class before I refer you to someone.

Rule #4 — If your skill set will reflect poorly on me, my department or my university, I won’t be your reference

It matters what you do in class. But sometimes, someone slips through my class with an “A,” they acted professionally, they aren’t a psychopath, and I still can’t give them a reference. Why? Because I am not willing to vouch for their skills. This usually happens when I teach the MC 4001 (PR Writing) class. The student managed to eek out an “A” or high “B” because they met with me outside of class for help, they edited the crap out of their writing samples, they got their teammates to do the majority of the group project, or they did a load of extra credit. Whatever the case may be, they got the “A.” However, their writing skills are still not where they should be. I can’t trust that they will be able to walk into an agency and write a news release, use AP Style, or put together a blog entry. If that’s the case I won’t recommend you. Because I teach writing classes, that skill is very important to me. But, the same goes for your grasp of mass communication ethics and law. If I have the slightest inkling that you will go somewhere and make me, the Manship School of Mass Communication, or LSU look bad I won’t refer you.

It’s a small world after all… I could still end up being your reference

Keep in mind too, that just because you don’t list me as a reference doesn’t mean I won’t get a call or email about you. As this blog post notes, good reference checkers don’t stick to the list of names you provide. They call people they know at the organization, people who you worked on projects with, and people who served as your advisers. List your contributions to PRSSA at LSU and I will likely get a call asking about your attendance, your performance, your attitude, etc. So, if you signed up for a PRSSA committee, never showed up for any meetings or helped the committee with their activities, and you put it on your resume as part of your experience I will give the reference checker an honest, factual evaluation of your performance. Which, by the way, is not illegal to do (despite rumors to the contrary).

It’s all up to you

Students, here’s the deal… if you want a good reference you have to work for it. It’s not going to be handed to you on a silver platter next to your tuition bill. If I tell you I won’t be your reference it is not because of me, it’s because of you. You didn’t earn the grade, you didn’t act professionally, you didn’t learn the skills or lessons you should have and most of all, you didn’t get to know your professors so they understand  you aren’t the next unibomber. It’s all up to you.