Wednesday, 18 February 2009


it's that time of the year... I'm being inundated with reference requests. Writing references is one of my less favourite activities. They are so important, the sense of responsibility so onerous, that procrastination is very tempting. And there's always a deadline...

And: there's the business of getting all the material together. Transcripts, essay feedback sheets, all that stuff. And: who is this student anyway? Was she the one who always sat at the back on the right and never said anything? And so on.

Well, not any more: getting the material together is no longer a problem for me. Maybe everyone does this already, in which case I'm an idiot for not having thought of it twenty years earlier, but maybe not. I have a web page. It's called 'How to ask me for a reference'. It's here.

In it I ask the students to send me everything I might need for writing a reference. copies of transcripts, feedback sheets, a photo of themselves, copy of their application, the whole lot. Anything that might be helpful. And, the following: 'a statement from you to me about what you would like me to say about you, what your strengths are as manifested in your contact with me, and so on. If I agree with it, I will put it in the reference'. Is that cheating? I don't think so.

The document goes on to say: 'I'm sorry if this seems a lot of work for you. References are important. This will help you get the placement you want. Please spend time and care on it.' And they do. Or else, a significant number of times, they decide it is too much like hard work, and (I suspect) go and ask someone else instead.

The document is up on the web, linked on a page with a memorable, if uneuphonious, web address: There I put things that I think might be useful for my students (and others): my contact details, and various how-to-do-its (how to write an essay, how to scan a poem, how to take notes, and so on). As a result, I can now in answer to many requests just refer the requester to tomdavisinfo, and get on with my life.

All of this is done in google docs. Google docs makes creating web pages ridiculously easy. I use it all the time. But, it makes unmemorable web addresses. To get a memorable one costs about five pounds a year. Go, for instance, here, and follow the (not difficult) instructions--in the top right rectangle, under 'domains'. Mind you, you have to think of one that hasn't been used up...


  1. 'How to ask me for a reference' was quite a surprise, I've never seen this done before! My first thought was that this will surely put people off - which you acknowledge, and perhaps you're right, if they can't be bothered then they don't deserve it. Wouldn't the next step be an online form for the prospective referent (is that right?), so that they can just fill out their required details, which go straight to the right places in the reference, thus saving more time.

    How do other cultures even survive without our trusty old system of references for all those significant points in our life's journey?

  2. That's a great idea, which I will probably steal/copy/emulate...

    And Bill's suggestion takes it a step further, just get them to fill in a form and upload all relevant things. Luckily reference requests are too rare for me to justify setting something like that up, but it might be an idea to do this department-wide, perhaps?

    I like the tomdavisinfo idea as well. Just one slightly pedantic comment: Alistair Cooke is no longer broadcasting his letters, sad though it is.

    Tom, you should be more evangelising about getting things in the dept into the 21st century! I will try to catch you at some point to have a chat about GTD!

  3. Actually, Bill, a number of them write and thank me, because they find the reference note so helpful; it gives them some control and input in the process, and they appreciate it.

    Oliver, thank you: feel free! And yes, sure, any time; I am a bit of a fanatic about GTD--I'll put up some posts about it, because much of my useful use of the computer is GTD-centric.