How to write an external review letter

It is summer, and many of my tenured colleagues around the country are writing external review letters evaluating the scholarship of candidates for tenure or promotion. In an era with a shrinking proportion of academic jobs holding the chance of tenure, it becomes more important for those of us who hold tenure to understand the role of the tenure and promotion process.1 This blog entry has a brief description of the role of external review letters, the advice I generally give colleagues when they have the chance to nominate external reviewers for either the tenure/promotion-to-associate step or promotion-to-full step, and what is important for an external review letter to contain.

The brief, tl;dr version of my plea to letter-writers:

  1. Spend 80% of your time/words explaining how you look at the candidate’s vitae and scholarship in the context of your and the candidate’s area, written for fellow academics who are in other disciplines — either a college/university-wide faculty committee or a provost may treat your letter as critical to the decision. Trust that a provost and faculty can count articles; what your readers need is your disciplinary (or interdisciplinary!) perspective.
  2. Read the writing samples and comment on them — explain what you learned from them, or if necessary, why you did not learn from them.
  3. Update your vitae before sending it with your review letter, and include everything that puts your position in context — that is, brag to make clear your expertise as a member of the field. Do not omit editorial board service, service as a program officer in a funding agency, or the like.
  4. Keep your tone civil.
  5. Do not accept an invitation to write a letter if there is a clear, discoverable conflict of interest and/or if the candidate explicitly asked you to be willing to be an external reviewer.

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  1. … and not botch it through carelessness. []

Yoda causality: Do, or do not. There is no why.

A few weeks ago there was a minor flamewar on Twitter about the alleged abuse of the term causality in various social-science fields, and after the destruction of a small galaxy or two, it ran out of fuel. But this semester I directed an undergraduate honors thesis that used a difference-in-difference approach to a policy question, and I want to put a stake in the ground about the term causality. This is to avoid the future destruction of small galaxies and promote more peaceful gatherings of social scientists.

Here’s the gist: econometric techniques that clearly identify causal relationships target a very specific type of causality, what we might term sufficient-conditions effects in the sense that they identify sufficient causes (if you do X, you will see Y). This sufficient-conditions effects is different from necessary-and-sufficient causes (only doing X will result in Y, and nothing else will budge Y without doing X). But because sufficient-conditions effects is an awful phrase, I propose the following:

Yoda causality: do, or do not. There is no why.

And now the gory details:

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Christina Sommers is not the typical target of attempts to suppress speech on campuses

This morning, New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait tried to address the question of political norms on the left in response to several academics and a few journalists who have pushed back against the idea that there is a free speech crisis on college campuses. The headlines of some of the pieces Chait is reponding to:

The common theme of these and other recent articles is that whatever one thinks of individual examples of efforts to deny platforms to external speakers on a campus or harass faculty and students for their views, those individual incidents are swamped by broader trends in favor of free speech, and moreover, that young adults are more tolerant about free speech than older adults.

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How the “industrial era schools” myth is a barrier to helping education today

Betsy DeVos got slammed on Twitter Tuesday after posting a tweet from SXSWEdu that included the following:

Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely hasn’t.

Last time that I checked, that tweet had 629 likes, 194 retweets, and about 5200 replies, most of which read something like the following:

Don’t you know that stock photos aren’t real? How many classrooms have you visited in the past year? Classrooms don’t look like that anymore. Students don’t work like that anymore. I would think that as Sec of Edu you would be celebrating us, not putting us down. #Bye

Ouch. I recommend you scroll through a few dozen responses, because there is no way I can do justice to how a set of classroom teachers are explaining how they work. And how viscerally classroom educators are alienated by DeVos.

At this point, comments by both Audrey Watters and me on the terms factory education and industrial-era education are showing their age, and I wish to make somewhat different points. To put it bluntly, efforts to improve educational practices are not helped by bad history.

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The missing methods section: Origins of the dropout problem

A quarter century ago, the History of Education Quarterly accepted my first article, on when and why people in the United States began to use dropping out as the dominant term for people who left school without a high school diploma. Spoiler: we started using the term not because dropping out was a growing problem in the 1960s but the reverse. When graduation became expected for teenagers, we needed a term for those who violated the new norm.

Like many history articles and books, it had no formal Methods section, and if I had tried to write one, I suspect HEQ editor Bill Reese would have nixed it. So: in the spirit of tech publisher O’Reilly’s The Missing Manuals series, whose motto is “the book that should have been in the box,” I present to you the missing methods section for that article, with a postscript and a personal note.

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