Whom, under what circumstances, and how should we praise?
One needs a certain facility with praise in this profession. Every time I respond to a piece of writing, some praise must come in, and it must be honest. This is true of the work of the fragile freshman writer, and it is true of the work of a peer. It's a challenge to bring out the right praise, the praise that will be well placed and insightful as well as cheering.
I started thinking about praise recently, when called upon to engage in another kind of praise that we do professionally. It's the kind in which the person you're praising must not know what you say, but must know that you are praising her or him! The knowledge that the reference letter is a genre of praise makes it, for me, exceedingly awkward to ask for one. "Please," you are asking some senior scholar, "go on record praising my work!" What a thing to ask. I am so lucky to have the references I have.
Mary Beard humorously recounts the horrors of writing reference letters, "an average of about 30 minutes a reference, or 8 hours a week at peak times." Of course, that's Mary Beard's life -- in my juniority I write far, far fewer references. So for me the interesting question is not how to manage the influx, but how best to praise one person for another's benefit.
We do this in casual conversation from time to time -- it's hard not to tell your friends when a student asks, unprompted, for feminist history of science references. (That's just the kind of thing that makes your day. And yes that has happened to me.) But the thing you're writing also belongs to a genre of praise, which must itself be mastered.
That we have professional genres of praise is interesting. I've heard the tendency toward hyperbole in reference letters lamented (I think by Mary Beard, in fact); I've also heard it lamented that book reviews are rarely negative. But there is an art of praise; it must not be generic or canned; it must be stylized, but it must be real. To do it properly it's necessary to distill bright essences from weeks or months or years of small interactions and, perhaps, a few essays.
When I think of praise as a genre, I think of some quite formal poetic modes. I think of the stylized praise of Old English poetry, and the ambivalent praise of the ode. I once wrote a poem of praise for a colleague--a silly one, doggedly (and annoyingly) dactylic, but praise all the same. The formality of praise can be a help.
I think praise is a compelling competency to have to develop. Perhaps we should begin to compose our references in verse, the better to foreground its craft--the better to say, look, I have crafted this complex and well balanced thing on behalf of my student, who, after all, deserves it.
Beard, Mary. "How many references do you write in a week? A Don's Life. Times Literary Supplement Online Blogs. Web. 3 April 2010.