Our Letter-Writing Culture
Revisiting Recommendation and Assessment
Some time ago, I received a familiar message from the department chair of Distinguished University: “Our department is considering the appointment of Budding Starr to the rank of Associate Professor with tenure. We would very much appreciate it if you could take the time to write a letter evaluating their scholarly contributions.” I deeply admired Professor Starr’s scholarship, but I had never been asked to write for them previously. It would be a lot of work to evaluate their first book, manuscript in progress, and several multimedia projects. Nevertheless, I eagerly agreed to assess their dossier. I spent a week working through their materials and writing my letter, turning the four-page, single-spaced document around on a quick deadline.
The following fall, Professor Starr was not working at Distinguished University. I failed to realize that Distinguished University’s appointment preceded negotiations for hire. Professor Starr turned down Distinguished University’s offer and stayed at their old job. Consequently, I spent a week crafting a letter that might have improved Starr’s salary but otherwise served no useful professional purpose.
Our profession is dependent on the goodwill of others, but letter writing is time-consuming and frustrating. I learned a lesson when I wrote this particular letter: never agree to write a tenure letter for someone who already has tenure at another institution unless you have a preexisting letter for them. I have had other similar misadventures, like the two times department chairs asked me to resend letters because they lost my originals, or the time a dean informed me that my letter had “inadvertently” been shared with the candidate. The message that all of this carelessness and waste of people’s time conveys is that letters of assessment really don’t matter all that much.
The year I wrote the letter for Professor Starr, I produced nearly three dozen others for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. The majority asked me to tailor multiple versions to fit varying requirements. Services like Interfolio helped alleviate some of this burden (though at some expense to the applicant—no small consideration), but I wrote over a hundred letters that year. The situation with Distinguished University was the last straw. I was devoting far too much time and energy to letters that seemed superfluous or unnecessary. I needed some boundaries.
I was devoting far too much time and energy to letters.
There are two genres of academic letters, each with its own sets of problems—the letter of recommendation and the assessment letter, usually for tenure and promotion. Letters of recommendation for fellowships and jobs are the most straightforward. We also recommend undergraduates for graduate and professional schools. Those are generally the easiest for me, but early in my career, I had a difficult time saying no even to students I barely knew. I wrote for students whose only class with me was a 200-person survey graded by a TA. I did so because I was once an undergrad making similar requests. I now urge those students to approach professors with whom they took smaller seminars who can write more knowledgeably about their strengths.
Recommendation letters for colleagues or graduate students are more time-consuming. We write these out of friendship, mentorship, and professional obligation. At their best, these letters amplify contributions to research and teaching, providing insights not readily apparent to hiring committees. However, explaining the innovative nuances of one’s research or teaching is the candidate’s primary job, and the strongest candidate files render recommendation letters redundant. Conversely, there are applications where recommendation letters make a better case than the candidates’ own materials. In either case, there isn’t a strong basis for taking letters seriously, and both waste the referees’ time.
Some might argue that recommendation letters provide insights into potential flaws. Hiring committees can scour letters looking for coded language that signals mediocrity without considering that the writer might simply be a mediocre referee. Moreover, universities and departments measure the success of their graduate programs by student job outcomes. For many referees, the personal and institutional incentives to support students in their careers rightly trumps any concerns for their own reputation.
We must cease with these laborious cat-and-mouse games. Let’s treat letters of recommendation like our British colleagues traditionally do: two or three short paragraphs verifying our relationship to the candidate, endorsing their research and teaching broadly, and recommending them for the position. Rather than viewing the letters as valuable tools in the assessment of candidates, we should see them primarily as a box to tick for human resources. I confess that I don’t have the courage to change our letter-writing culture alone. The AHA already encourages hiring committees to require letters from candidates only after initial screening. For now, my obligation to colleagues overrides my frustration, but I keep asking myself: If a historian’s body of work speaks for itself, what more can I add?
Unlike letters of recommendation, assessment letters for tenure and promotion are critical diagnostic tools for evaluating a scholar’s contributions to the field and the discipline. Assessment does not imply a recommendation. Assessment demands that we compare, contrast, and critique. A good assessment letter engages a colleague’s research deeply, illuminating novel contributions, while asking tough questions and even disagreeing. Constructive critique is a sign of the utmost intellectual respect. An assessment letter absent of critical insights is little more than hagiography. Nevertheless, many assessment letters fall into this category. Referees shy away from honest critique, even if only by way of the historiography. Why?
First, reading through a candidate’s materials and crafting a careful evaluation is labor intensive, taking me around a week. Yet I am asked to write a half dozen such assessments per year. I made a conscious decision years ago to limit myself to two assessments per year; I would rather write two letters well than six haphazardly. I suspect some faculty believe it is their duty to write whenever asked. Given the unevenness in the quality of these critical letters, perhaps it is time we adopted new strategies of assessment.
Second, there has been a cultural shift in how we read critique. Letter writers don’t want to be complicit in drumming anyone out of the discipline. This has almost always been true, even in the most obvious cases where tenure should not be granted. But today there is less room for contingency or shades of gray in our assessments. This renders both reading and writing letters of assessment much more difficult. If a referee provides a strong critique of another scholar’s work, is the candidate’s scholarship unacceptable, even if the referee balances critique with praise and ultimately recommends tenure? Assessment letters should be read in their fullness and for what the referees actually conclude about tenureability, but the confusion over engaged critique versus the takedown muddles the process.
The category of assessment letter that I most dislike is the letter for promotion to full professor, which raises another set of systemic problems. Many universities treat these as tenure letters on steroids, requiring that the referee review the candidate’s entire career. A few years ago, a university requested that I write a letter for promotion to full for a candidate for whom I had written a letter of recommendation when they took the job, an assessment letter for tenure, and a recommendation letter for an internal university award. If breadth of scholarly assessment and objectivity are valued, why request recommendation and assessment letters from the same scholar four times over?
The demands on tenured people of color and women are often higher than the demands on whites and men.
I have mostly stopped writing letters for promotion to full professor. By the time candidates go up for promotion, most departments already have made an internal decision about the outcome based on their own criteria, which is exactly as it should be. These criteria vary across the discipline. The research, teaching, and service demands on associate professors at public universities are different from the demands for those at select private universities. The demands on tenured people of color and women with regard to committee work and mentoring are often higher than the demands on whites and men. Acknowledging these differences, among others, is crucial in determining who should be promoted. It is not one-size-fits-all.
My department and many others do not require letters of assessment for promotion to full. The completion of the second monograph is still the clearest path, but we consider a range of other types of publications, service, and public outreach. Research still takes precedence, but that research can be disseminated through the wider set of outlets that often open after tenure. We generally look for a tipping point in the research progress, an indication that the second monograph or its equivalent is clearly forthcoming and will make a significant contribution to the field.
Other historians have discussed the labor of writing letters—including in helpful Perspectives articles from Guido Ruggiero in 2007 and Council member Suzanne Marchand in 2018. But I don’t think we have ever been as fatigued by both recommendation letters and letters of assessment at all levels. I know they won’t go away, but I sense that people are beginning to push back. If we all push together, perhaps we can create a uniform set of reasonable expectations for referees and readers alike.
James H. Sweet is president of the AHA.
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