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January 14, 2011

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Anon

Unfortunately, negative review letters are so rare that they are viewed as some sort of oddity rather than a genuine and well-deserved criticism. As a result, review letters are often largely fictional: There is often a huge gap between what the letter says and what the letter's author will actually tell you off the record.

Joe

Ditto. My wife (humanities academic) just went through her third year review, and in the 3 years she's been at her school, they've gone from requiring outside letters, to permitting them, to disallowing them for that process. The reason she was told was that they end up being worthless, and it's a hassle to coordinate with the reviewers.

Jacqueline Lipton

That's interesting. For schools that don't use external review letters, do you ever have trouble with situations where no one else in the relevant department/faculty is an expert in the candidate's area so you arguably can't get any kind of expert critique of the candidate's work?

Mary Dudziak

On the question of who the audience for the letter is -- I always think of one audience as the central administration, which will include decision-makers outside the candidate's field. For that reason, I do two things: I describe the work, before analyzing and critiquing it (since folks in the Provost's office will read the letters but not the candidate's work), and I say something about the literature that the work is contributing to.

Some universities require 10 letters for senior promotions and appointments, which strikes me as excessive, but it does mean that you might be more likely to get some variance in the responses.

Jacqueline Lipton

So, Mary, would you take a different approach to writing a letter for a stand-alone law school where you presumably wouldn't have to worry too much about explaining the scholarship to central administration?

Interestingly, our university used to require about 10 letters for senior promotions and recently dropped it to 6. I don't know if that's good or bad. It's certainly easier to get the letters (but often still a challenge), but you do lose the likelihood that you'll get more of a range of views in the letters.

Joe

Yes -- and especially in her field (foreign lit), where the department is made up of people who do several languages. They're still required in the tenure process, just disallowed in the thrid year review.

(I think for that particular animal, they just want to see some quantity of publication. They'll worry about how good later.)

David J. Garrow

Two recent requests I've received have come in the form of (1) "please evaluate the work of X and compare her work to that of A, B, C, & D" and (2) "please evaluate the work of X and compare him to other comparable scholars." Interestingly, both requests expressly indicated that critical comments were entirely welcome (as a comparative format would seem to encourage), but those formats also involve a considerable amount of work, with the resulting letters being 5 full pages.

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