I turned Chris Evans down so she wouldn't know I watched TV for seven year olds

"I'm sorry to ring so late," said a woman's voice at the other end of the phone, "but I've applied for this job with a think-tank, and they've asked for a top academic reference, and you're the only person I could think of who knew my work well, and so I wondered if you could write and say that I was all right."

By this time I'd found the television zapper and managed to whip down the volume on the Chris Evans show. I still hadn't recognised my caller; but if my academic opinion was worth as much as she was suggesting, then it was hardly a good idea for her to think that her former intellectual mentor now spent the twilight of his years watching TV designed for seven year olds, rather than catching up on the intellectual fall-out from the Reith lectures on globalisation.

"I think you have the better of me," I mumbled.

"Oh yes, I'm so sorry," she said. "I'm Jenny Topping. I was on your 'Signs and Symbols' course. You gave me a B++ for my essay on the way women are demeaned by cosmetics advertising."

It wasn't enough to go on. My 'Signs and Symbols' course had staggered on for 12 years at York, and in every one of those years I'd suggested to the class that they might like to write an essay on how women were demeaned by cosmetics advertising.

"Oh, yes," I enthused, "an excellent piece of work. You drew on Barthes and Williamson and pointed out the number of advertisements that showed women touching themselves and then went on to show how this narcissism contrasted with advertisements for male cosmetics, where the subjects were invariably shown as sporting or active."

It was a brave effort, but Jenny must have been expecting more. "If you'd like a reminder, then I could send you the essay with all your comments."

"That might be helpful," I admitted.

When the essay arrived, I scanned my assessment. "This is a most promising essay! You deserve to be congratulated on your hard work. You have put a great deal of effort into this essay and covered most of the main points. Congratulations. Most promising."

It was bad enough to find that I'd resorted to such cliches as "most promising", but even worse was the evidence that I'd been so pleased with these turns of phrase that I'd felt them worth repeating. Her work was not merely "most promising", it was also "most promising", and for that she deserved not only "congratulations" but also "congratulations".

And yet this was the assessment that Jenny Topping had kept carefully for the past 12 years, in case anyone ever asked for specific proof of her academic capabilities. I imagined her taking it out occasionally at Christmas parties and listening with pride as an aunt read aloud the news that I had found their favourite niece's third-year essay not only "most promising" but also - hey, listen everyone - "most promising".

Now I had the chance to make amends. I sat down and carefully read every word of the essay. It all came rushing back: the standard references to Judith Williamson's Decoding Advertisements and Roland Barthes' Elements of Semiology, the predictable argument about self-preening and narcissism, and the inevitable conclusion stressing how such depictions of women reinforced the view that they were objects of men's gaze and not agents in their own right.

I filled in my academic credentials at the top of her prospective employer's form and carefully wrote out the first line of my reference: "I remember Jenny Topping very well. She was a most promising student."

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes