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  • Writer's pictureStephanie J. Silverman

Some thoughts on the ethics and politics of letter-editing

Over on LinkedIn, a colleague from Ryerson, Professor Harald Bauder, responded to a post of mine with the very reasonable and straightforward question:

How can I assess an applicant's writing skills if the letter is edited by an experienced scholar and writer?

I have also thought about this issue, but more from an angle of

How can I do this editing service without contributing to the problem of the for-profit subcontracting industry building itself up around these applications outside of the university itself?

To address both of these questions, I think we should first acknowledge some elephants in our (zoom?) room that often go unmentioned:

-Students are already receiving feedback from editors, mentors, administrators, and senior students; my anecdotal tally of my own students whose letters I’ve read and assisted on, is 30 or more.

-People employed at private firms circling the process have a stake in making it seem scary and opaque, causing untold stress and anxiety (ask any fourth-year undergraduate looking to transition next year!). They then tear students down to build them back up at a high financial cost. They are also interfering in a professor-student relationship, mostly by either deifying or demonizing the teacher.

-Friends and senior students don’t necessarily have first-hand experience with the process so may be giving well-intentioned but misguided advice.

-Critical discussion has recently focussed on how many PhD and MA students have parents or close relations in academia. These students have an advantage that other candidates for the same spots don’t have. What do we do about this inequity?

-Lots of people with English as a second language are already hiring professional and experienced editors to check their manuscripts, grant applications, academic papers, and so on. So why not extend this ‘translation’ idea to students?

Please join Harald's and my discussion as we parse through the ethics and politics of letters of intent and admission! You can email me or join the LinkedIn conversation, too.


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