Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Reference Chain

Lorenzo de'Medici: would he write your M.Phil. reference?
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Photo by Jim Forest.
This Friday is the deadline for applications to graduate courses at Oxford, and like a lot of tutors I have been receiving emails from current and recent students asking if I wouldn’t mind writing them a reference for a Masters or D.Phil. programme. I’ve thus been spending a fair bit of time writing these, and then battling to upload them on the on-line system shared by many UK universities. I’m also writing recommendations every week or so for doctoral students, who are competing to win scholarships or Junior Research Fellowships. I don’t mind doing this (not just because it is my job to do so...!), but because I have painful memories of what it was like being a finalist or graduate student, sheepishly writing carefully crafted emails to tutors and supervisors, trying to persuade them to send off just one more letter to persuade some higher power that research on 15C Poland was worthwhile. What’s striking about academic reference writing is not just the inter-generational debts and obligations you accrue along the way, but the ways in which it is an on-going feature of our careers – even as my students email me, I’ve been emailing colleagues and trying to coax them into writing references for the various grant applications I’ve been putting together this year. References can feel like an academic feeding chain.

If I ever do flag in writing my 1-2 page accounts of students’ strengths and potential, I could console myself by thinking about Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of late 15C Florence in that city’s Golden Age (according to his supporters). In our Renaissance Special Subject class, we discuss with the Finalists research which suggests that the Medici’s highly ambiguous but pervasive power in Florence, where they held no official ruling office, was based on networks of patronage, which manifested themselves above all in letter writing. Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote literally thousands of letters of recommendation for his fellow citizens, for patricians and humble customs-collectors alike – no favour was too trivial - thereby creating a huge, socially diverse clientage base. I’ve come across some of these letters in my own research – minor Polish clergy passing through Florence, who acquired references from Lorenzo to help expedite their business in papal Rome. Lorenzo’s letters were often just one or two lines long, because the political weight of his name on the bottom of page alone carried massive persuasive force. Academic referees can’t really rely on similar tactics, but then in our humble letters we are merely trying to cultivate those students who will become the new generation of leading historians, rather than attempting to orchestrate European power politics.


  1. And Thus you have to write long recommendations... You Lorenzo Medici with his laconic recommendations reminded Erich von Manstein's saying about his officer: first of all there are stupid and lazy. Leave them alone they don't do any harm... Second there are hard working and smart. They are good officers... Third theire are hard working and stupid... They should be fired right away, and fourthly, theire are lazy and smart ones... they are useful in the highest ranks... Somehaw I can put Lorenzo in this place when it comes to recommendations :)

  2. That made me smile! The reference forms we are asked to complete are not anywhere near as subtle or colourful as that - they simply ask if the student is in the top 5%, 10% of their cohort etc...