On doing external reviews

In the time since I got tenure myself in 2019, I’ve been asked to do a small handful of external reviews for promotion and tenure cases at other institutions, about 1-2 a year. For some reason, the prospect of writing external reviews for outside cases wasn’t something I thought much about as a possibility until I was being asked to do it. As with every other new professional endeavor, conducting these has definitely been a learning experience.

With external reviews, you’re working with relatively limited information. The nature of the information provided is also different with every institution. My own institution, I happen to know, provides the candidate’s narrative statements as well as copies of their CV and publications. We also provide the tenure guidelines at our institution and job descriptions. For my first external review, all I got were the candidate’s publications and CV. For another, I got the tenure guidelines and job description in addition to the publications and CV. I’ve never gotten copies of a candidate’s narrative statements.

Not having these narrative statements is, I think, a huge challenge. The narrative statements are an opportunity for the candidate to put their work in context and show how it all connects together. I used mine to try to show how my research interests had developed over the years and how those interests had started to feed both my teaching and service activities. A few of the external letters that I was allowed to see (because the reviewer had elected not to be anonymous) used this information to comment on things like my professional and scholarly trajectory. I like to think it was helpful.

Without this information, it’s sometimes relatively easy to guess a candidate’s chosen path and their development along that path, particularly if their publications show a focus on a specific area. When I see that, I like to look for and comment on how their focus in that area seems to have progressed and matured over time, especially if they’ve gone from co-authored publications to sole authored ones.

Other times, things are more scattered. Sometimes the scatteredness comes from the candidate taking a little time to find professional and research interests worth pursuing, which is very understandable. For other candidates, research is something they’re doing out of obligation rather than genuine interest and a lack of coherent/cohesive research agenda can be an indication of that. There’s no way to know for sure, of course. It’s not something someone would admit in their narrative statements even if they did provide them. But as an external reviewer, the narrative statements would be a lot of help here for understanding how the candidate thinks about their professional and research activities.

If I’m being really honest, I’m sometimes a little less impressed with a candidate’s work than I want to be. My peer reviewer/editor brain will turn on as I read through their work and I start to think about whether this is something I would have recommended for publication if it had come to me. Sometimes the answer, unfortunately, is no. And sometimes when I look at teaching or professional activities, my personal biases start to creep in, especially if the candidate favors instructional models that I personally feel are less than effective. I can’t help but be aware as I’m reading that some of these candidates would not pass muster during the tenure process at my own institution.

But I’m not judging them on that process. And I’m not judging them on my own biases.

The thing is, whenever librarians go up for tenure, I always assume that they have a lot going against them, especially if part of the process is for their case to be evaluated by non-library faculty. Non-library faculty tend to regard faculty status for librarians with either frank bewilderment (at the more benign end of the spectrum) or derisive hostility. How is it that someone who supposedly spends their day shelving and checking out books when they’re not reading them could be a candidate for tenure? Even relatively friendly or supportive non-library faculty don’t really understand or particularly value what librarians do. So when it comes time for the rigorous evaluation of the tenure process, it can take a lot of work to convince our non-librarian colleagues that we’ve worked hard enough and contributed enough value to be given a permanent place on the faculty.

And because librarian roles can be so different from one another, it can also be difficult to convince other librarians of the value of what we do.

So I feel like my job as an external reviewer is to locate and communicate the value of a librarian’s work based on the evidence presented to me, even if I feel like the librarian is not necessarily a star in the field. You shouldn’t have to be a star to get tenure—you just have to have worked your ass off to meet all the requirements. Which all tenure candidates have generally done since you don’t put yourself up for tenure unless you know you have a good case.

It’s not that I lie. In one external review, for example, I pointed out that the journals the candidate had published their work in didn’t seem to be the best quality or to have the biggest reach. Sometimes, the reason research is published in lower quality or less well-known journals is because the research itself is of lower quality. But in this case, the reason I pointed out the candidate’s journal choices was because I thought their writing was strong and that they had the potential to contribute to more well-known publications if they decided to continue their research in the future.

So basically as I’m doing these external reviews, I’m looking for ways to convince whoever else might be reviewing the candidate’s case that they deserve tenure, not for reasons to deny them. If ever I saw a case that was truly undeserving of tenure based on an institution’s criteria and guidelines, I would say so but generally speaking I feel like my role as an external reviewer is to speak as a supportive colleague working in the same field. I hope I’ve been successful in that and that the candidates I’ve spoken for have had good luck as they move through the stages of their review.

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