The arcane art of writing review letters for tenure/promotion

A colleague recently asked me how to write external review letters. These are letters written by nationally-known scholars who are asked to provide an independent outsider view of a faculty member who is up for tenure and/or promotion in rank. My first thought: Thank goodness there still are tenure-track positions, so view this as a wonderful obligation. This does not apply to the majority of faculty in the country, but it is important to understand both by letter-writers and by faculty going up for tenure. Assistant professors often hear all sorts of advice on compiling lists of potential reviewers, and I consistently tell colleagues that the most important qualification is the ability to put a body of scholarship into context. Someone who is nice to you but cannot perform that job should not be on the list. Someone who disagrees with your advisor on a critical question in the field but has a track record of being fair and articulate in reviews (or in contexts where you can see someone “review in the wild”)? Absolutely on the list.

In my response to my colleague, I explained my perspective in reading external review letters, as a member of peer review committees and as an academic administrator. For what it’s worth, here are the types of traits that make an external letter valuable for faculty review committees and administrators:

  1. A clear statement of the letter-writer’s relationship with the faculty member — stating whether there have been any collaborations, especially, or if there are institutional commonalities (I once received a request to review a former fellow grad student at Penn, someone who’s a good friend). If it’s more than an “I’ve known the person primarily through interactions at conferences and been authors in the same anthology two times” type of connection, pick up the phone and call the person who asked you to review. You may still be the right reviewer, but transparency is the key to a valuable external review letter.
  2. Putting the intellectual contributions of the faculty member in context — most useful to me has been when letter-writers explain two features of a body of scholarship: what is new or unique, and what people in the field generally find valuable. This is where it is important to explain the contributions as if you are writing to a provost who is a biologist and a vice provost who studies Romance languages: what are the key questions in the field, where does this faculty member’s work intersect with and help address those questions. Depending on the vitae and the instructions, you may also need to explain common arrangements in co-authorship in the field, how to judge the practitioner-oriented impact of scholarship (e.g., in education finance, how the use of scholarship in lawsuits should be considered important impacts), and the extent to which the scholar’s work is independent of her/his advisor.
  3. Definitely comment on the specific pieces you were sent in the packet, as part of putting the scholar’s work in context. Some of the least useful letters I have seen have entirely ignored what was in the packet. Don’t be as detailed in the same way you would with a journal manuscript review—but do explain x your assessment of the contributions, and use the pieces as examples of the outlets as well.
  4. If asked to comment on the quality of journals/outlets, assume that the scholar, department chair, or committee has to crunch numbers and focus instead on the general audience and reception of the journal—e.g., not just that a journal is the primary research outlet for an important learned society, but that it continues to have an important impact in the field, is broadly read, etc.
  5. How to handle weaknesses in scholarship: be descriptive first and then put in context/evaluative language. E.g., “Dr. Dorn’s quantitative work generally uses bivariate correlations decades after social-science history has become accustomed to multivariate analyses. Most of his original research is archival, where his original discoveries about postwar special education history have become his most important contribution.”

Additional note: Instructions to reviewers vary all over the map – at ASU, we ask reviewers to judge scholarship against our standards, which we send to reviewers. Sometimes, instructions ask you to evaluate how a scholar would rank against our colleagues, or against the universe. And sometimes there are no instructions at all – that’s another time to pick up the phone and ask for more information.

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