Earlier in the spring, a student sent an e-mail asking me for a letter of recommendation for his application to a play writing program at Julliard. I asked him to send me a sample of his creative writing as a reminder of what he could do, and he has sent me a few snippets of one of his plays--and has not been very proactive in responding to my e-mails letting him know that I can't open some of the snippets. When he has contacted me, however, his e-mails have been so badly written as to be opaque. I hadn't yet sent the letter to Julliard, waiting to see the whole play--and he's now asking for a second letter. I offer a portion of that e-mailed request as an example of his communication skills: "I am also applying to Five Towns Music, may you send me your letter of recommendation to their school, of course though, English is not music but the fact remains of a student. I can't describe more."
What?? I think what he means is that he wants me to write a letter about him as a student in general, since I'm not in a position to comment on him as a musician--but the fact that he can't express that clearly and says he "can't describe more" is problematic, to my way of thinking.
I also have to say that what I've seen of the play may be groovy and avant garde, but it might also simply be a pretentious mess.
When I got his first request, I actually thought the request was from his older brother, who had been in my fiction writing class and whom I remembered as an excellent writer and an earnest and responsible student. Now that I've spent some time looking into my records, I realize this is the younger brother: he was in my 101 and got a C, and he was briefly in my SF class (last time I taught it) but withdrew because I had a stern talk with him about the fact that he kept coming to class unprepared--and kept trying to derail the conversation by throwing out big, amorphous philosophical questions instead of focusing on the readings (which he hadn't read). I had expected him to respond to my little lecture in the hallway with dedication to doing the work--but he chose to bail instead. That did not leave a favorable impression.
I was already feeling concern, thinking I was dealing with the older brother, because I saw clear evidence of a lack of responsibility, as well as a lack of verbal clarity. I was baffled, because that didn't fit the student I remembered from Fiction Writing. Now that I'm clear on which brother the request came from, I'm even more hesitant to write the letter--because my memory of him is significantly less positive. If I hadn't made the original incorrect assumption, I would not have agreed to write the letter: I'd have said that, given his track record in my classes, I wasn't a good option for a positive letter and that he should look elsewhere.
Oh, and there are holds on his records, which means he hasn't paid a bill or in some other way has not followed through on a responsibility to the college as a whole. More reason to feel I can't, in good conscience, write him a positive recommendation.
So, what do I do? Do I write the letters I've promised but express an honest appraisal that will almost certainly completely sink his applications? Or do I withdraw the offer--and if so, what do I say to him about why? Should I be honest with him about my concerns, or should I beg off on some other excuse?
I started to write a response to his latest request, saying I'd be glad to send letters anywhere he likes, as long as he gets me the information I need about where/how to send them, but then the doubts got too loud, and I left the message unsent, as a draft, while I think about it more carefully. Thank god, since the whole saga began with a misidentification of the student.
But now, having written all this, I do think I can respond to him somewhat honestly and withdraw the offer to write letters. It will certainly take several drafts before I get the correct tone--I don't want to be unnecessarily harsh--but I truly think the best course is for me to withdraw the offer and suggest that he look elsewhere for the recommendations.