Sunday, April 4, 2010


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.


skg said...

The hardest-to-write letter of support I've sent was for a friend, a fellow volunteer on a long-running cluster of projects. My prose kept sliding into the mode one uses when writing for a strong, promising student, and I kept having to fish it back out.

Natalia said...

That does sound hard. Goodness.

ntsang said...

I have written about two dozen book reviews in the last few years for a website that only takes positive reviews. The philosophy is that every author deserves at least one good review.
There were times where I would sit and grind my teeth at the agony of generating praise. Bitterly, I created veiled barbs. For example, "The book never feels rushed" meant that I found it incredibly dull. The experience came in handy later when I started grading stories for a student-run workshop. A few weeks into the term, the praise gradually became more genuine. And I positively basked in the glow of the rare smiley faces my classmates bestowed on me.
You don't often hear about how helpful praise is and how a well-thought out compliment often gives as much direction and insight as a critical remark. The world/ university would be a much happier place if praise was cultivated more.

Natalia said...

Well, that is an interesting point, Natalie. As formalized as praise is in this profession, I'd say we're basically never trained in it. I remember that when I had to write my first letter of recommendation, I sent Kent (for whom I'd just TAed) a panicked email. Being a good egg, he schooled me in the basics, but that was really the beginning and end of my training in the art of praise. Certainly it wasn't covered in the pedagogy course!

When I ran a humanities teaching workshop this past summer, I actually included a handout on ways to praise otherwise ungood papers. You have to train yourself to notice things that are going right, and it takes practice.

skg said...
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