Superlative Fatigue

Superlative fatigue — a condition that emerges after writing too many letters of recommendation or award nomination within a short period. It stems from the inability of the human brain to use, in earnest, more than a limited number of superlatives per unit time without wanting to vomit and/or use more realistic adjectives. The condition is particularly severe in North America, specifically in the United States, where discussing someone’s mere excellence in academic pursuits is woefully inadequate, and all manner of Red-Sea parting, water-to-wine turning, and water-on-foot-traversing must be described instead. There is evidence that the residents of Lake Wobegon may be immune to superlative fatigue.

It has been shown that some letter writers in the STEM fields (usually, but not exclusively, men) can successfully stave off superlative fatigue by writing a letter for a female student or colleague. Similar to how the aroma of coffee beans resets one’s sense of smell after sampling perfumes, composing a letter on behalf of a woman can completely reset the letter writer’s superlative counter, so the next real letter, for a man, can again employ the full force of superhuman-worthy embellishments. This effect apparently arises from the total absence of necessity to ever use superlatives when describing the professional accomplishments of women, because everyone knows that it’s better to use the more appropriate womanly qualifiers, such as “warm,” “collegial,” “hard-working,”  or sometimes “difficult,” “insecure,” and “accidentally stumbled upon her main finding“.

6 comments

  1. Love this.

    Have you read *Dear Committee Members* by Julie Schumaker? I wasn’t crazy about it, but most folks I know are…it’s an academic satire.

  2. In order to make sure I don’t pull this shittio when I write letters for women, before sending them I compare them to letters I have written for similarly situated men. When I first started doing this, I definitely caught some boners and fixed them. Now I’m able to not do it in the first place.

  3. I always wonder what people write in my letters. However, the bogus excuses I have heard from search committees on why they didn’t invite me for an interview (while inviting men with lesser or similar credits) have been astonishing. I get back at them by making these excuses public and making sure that they sounds as absurd as they do (like whether one is a ‘real’ theorist, or can find a ‘ground fault’, all the main requirements for becoming a faculty member …).

  4. I should tell you that I changed the way I write letters for women because of you (not this post, but some previous one where you pointed this out). I just wrote a fellowship recommendation for a former student: I made sure that there are no references to her personality and focused on her incredible Red Sea-parting accomplishments and her amazing abilities.

    I re-read the letter several times to make sure that I did not leave any doubt that she is the best thing that happened to science since Isaac Newton, when suddenly everything started sounding like a bad thing. It was like a little faculty meeting in my head, discussing female candidates with male colleagues. She has really good grades. Yes, but that does not show that she can do research. She came up with this incredibly creative solution to fix a piece of equipment. Ok, but that does not demonstrate her understanding of science. She wrote a numerical simulation to describe our experiment. Cool, but again, does she understand any science? She came up with a theoretical model that perfectly explained the data. Yes, but only that one – is she a one-hit wonder? She works very hard. Then why didn’t she have any papers in like, three months? She worked with a super-famous dude. Great, but it is not clear how much of it was her own work. These are all actual comments made by my male colleagues (I do not have any female colleagues) about various female candidates. All those things would always be taken as positive for male candidates, and nobody ever questions whether they did the work themselves (this one particularly drives me nuts). Maybe you could write a post about your own experiences with advantage-flipping syndrome!

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