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Reviews for Reappointment and Promotion: Guidelines for Departmental Letters

Provided by FASC 2005

Letters of recommendation from departments and programs in cases of reappointment and promotion provide an essential component of the review process. In recent years, FASC has observed a wide discrepancy in practice in the composition of these letters, and an equally wide discrepancy in their usefulness and appropriateness to the process. We offer the following guidelines for the composition of these letters in order to encourage greater consistency in accordance with the definitions established in the Governance and the Faculty Handbook.

First, a few procedural matters:

1. At the outset of the review, members of the department or program participating in the review should be reminded that strict confidentiality must be observed in all matters pertaining to the review.

2. Similarly, at the outset of the review, the stated criteria, for either reappointment or promotion, should be announced or provided in writing to members of the department or program participating in the review. These criteria may be found in The Faculty Handbook, Section III, A-D.

The purpose of the letters: According to the Governance, the departmental letter participates in the process by providing “a full statement reporting the vote and summarizing the points of view presented” in departmental discussion, “including differences of opinion” (Governance, III, 6). The letter, in other words, records the substance of departmental consideration in all its glory, including both positive and negative comments. It is not intended to serve as a “brief” for or against the candidate, but as a record of departmental deliberation in the case.

We assume that reasonable people may disagree about the evidence they are reviewing. Mixed votes occur more frequently than not, and are not in themselves “red flags,” as long as the letter embodies in its proportions the balance of opinion. In addition, people often come into these discussions unsure how they will vote, conflicted about how they will vote, leaning one way or another, willing to be persuaded but without having made up their minds. Under that circumstance, they will bring to the table their express reservations and doubts, their questions about the quality of the teaching or the research, and their criticism of the candidate’s work. We often use departmental discussion as a way of clarifying our own thinking, or of being persuaded to another point of view. That process of clarification and persuasion should be reflected implicitly in the letter itself. An overall positive recommendation, even a unanimously positive recommendation, will accommodate judgment and some negative evaluation, even as an overall, or unanimously negative recommendation will accommodate elements of enthusiastic support.

This definition of the function of the letter has certain practical consequences for its composition. For example, it is not the chair’s responsibility to edit out all the critical remarks, but rather to shape the letter so that its rhetorical structure reflects the balance of opinion. Similarly, when departmental colleagues vet the letter, they should not be permitted to revise a sentence that expresses someone else’s opinion they happen not to agree with. Signatures affixed to the letter do not indicate agreement with every sentence in it. Rather, those signatures express their acceptance of the letter as a fair, accurate and balanced report on the substance of departmental deliberations. Finally, when chairs meet with candidates to discuss the departmental recommendation, or if chairs include a cover letter with the copy the candidate receives of the departmental recommendation, the candidate should be reminded that an overall positive recommendation can accommodate criticism.

In recording the vote, the departmental letter should invoke the precise language of the criteria for that level of review rather than relying upon supposed synonyms (e.g. excellent, very good, swell) for those terms. For example, “By a vote of 7 in favor and 3 against, the senior members recommend in favor of promotion, the majority having found evidence of high quality in the teaching and distinction in the scholarship along with a record of service commensurate with academic leadership.” Such a statement will appear explicitly in the letter, usually in the introduction or the conclusion. For departments that cast their votes by private ballot, chairs may have to word this statement more loosely, being guided by the discussion itself in their articulation of the vote. For example, “By a vote of 7 in favor and 3 against, the senior members recommend in favor of promotion, the majority having found evidence of at least high quality in the teaching and distinction in the scholarship . . .” This statement allows that among the majority, some may have found evidence of distinction in the teaching. It does not – and it need not – speak explicitly for the minority view; rather, it assumes (and safely so) that from the minority perspective, the evidence was found wanting in one and/or the other particular.

The substance of the letters: Departmental letters should provide a detailed analytical evaluation of the candidate’s portfolio as it reflects teaching, scholarship and service.

Teaching: The evaluation of teaching includes assessment of the following: The personal statement with regard to teaching; the teaching portfolio; the record of the CEQs; evidence of the candidate’s role as an advisor to majors, thesis students, field work projects, independent study; and the candidate’s contributions to the larger departmental or program curriculum.

1. The CEQs. In their assessment of the CEQs, letters need not provide elaborate charts or graphs that reorganize the evidence; they also need not summarize the evidence or otherwise rehearse “the numbers.” The CEQs, as we all know, are subject to interpretation, and FASC appreciates careful, deliberative interpretation of this evidence from the departmental or program perspective. In particular, FASC finds useful analysis that:

a. assesses growth and improvement (or the lack thereof) as the CEQs are viewed over time.

b. identifies patterns the department observes in the CEQs – for example, consistent performance on particular questions, or differences registered in the CEQs across different levels of instruction;

c. isolates questions other than the “summary” questions that are particularly important to teaching methods in your discipline or that seem to reflect the candidate’s own pedagogical goals;

d. provides information from the departmental perspective to contextualize the CEQs. This is information that FASC isn’t like to have, and information that can reliably come only from the departmental perspective. For example, the candidate may be teaching courses the department recognizes as presenting particular pedagogical challenges – a required course in the departmental curriculum, a course that historically attracts a wide variety of students with different levels of skill, a course that manages particularly difficult material or whose purposes are not always clear to the students. Strong CEQs registered against such challenges may be particularly noteworthy, and weaker CEQs may under such circumstances be more understandable.

2. The teaching portfolio: The teaching portfolio should receive the same kind of analytical attention the department gives to the CEQs. Candidates usually take great care in the production of their teaching portfolios, and thorough and thoughtful response to their efforts is appropriate. The teaching portfolios provides an opportunity for the department to assess the candidate’s pedagogical goals as they reflect methodologies of the discipline; as they are defined differently for different levels of instruction; as they are expressed practically in the course materials themselves; as they express pedagogical innovation; as they suggest the candidate’s growth and development as a teacher. Again, the department or program is in a unique position to assess these issues as they are reflected in the teaching portfolio.

3. Anecdotal evidence, or evidence not available to all members of the department or program through the public record, may, under some circumstances, legitimately find its way into departmental evaluation of teaching. Some departments, for example, offer formal or informal opportunities for team teaching in which a candidate’s pedagogical skills may be directly observed. Similarly, some departments organize regular discussions of pedagogical matters in workshops or small groups. “Hearsay” evidence – anecdotal evidence arising at two or three removes – carries little authority; but anecdotal evidence arising from direct observation, as those observations support or extend evidence available in the teaching record, may be brought forward to enhance or clarify the assessment of teaching.

Scholarship: Departmental evaluation of scholarship or artistic activity is particularly important to FASC. Although the members of FASC study and evaluate all of the published and unpublished material the candidate submits, we are also guided by the assessments provided by the candidate’s senior colleagues, who are experts in the candidate’s field. To provide this expert assessment, a simple list of the candidate’s publications is not sufficient. A summary of the content of the candidate’s publications is not sufficient (although some summary sometimes helps, particularly in highly technical fields). Again, we’re looking for detailed, analytical and evaluative consideration of the scholarship, considering such issues as:

  1. The quality of the research
  2. The clarity and force of the writing
  3. The validity of the writer’s conclusions
  4. The application of specific methodologies
  5. The development of theoretical modes of thought within the argument
  6. The contributions the candidate’s work makes to larger considerations in the field
  7. The clarity and coherence of the research agenda
  8. The significance of any shifts, transitions, or redefinitions in the candidate’s scholarship
  9. Evidence of intellectual growth and development in the candidate’s work, of sustained focus on scholarship leading to timely publication
  10. Prospects for the candidate’s future as a scholar.

Finally, certain matters should be excluded from departmental letters:

  1. Direct or indirect comparison with other candidates
  2. Assessments volunteered by the departmental secretary, by students, by alumnae/i, by colleagues in other departments, or by anyone else not charged with the responsibility of conducting the review
  3. Comments assessing the candidate’s personal character
  4. Comments on the arrangements a candidate has made for his or her personal life
  5. Statements that violate the confidentiality of the process by naming or otherwise indicating individual participants in the discussion.