To the Editor:
Perhaps it’s true, as the essay “Nobody Likes Writing Tenure Letters” (The Chronicle, October 23) concludes, that “academe needs to have a candid discussion about the merit and importance of soliciting external evaluation letters.” But this essay starts that conversation decidedly on the wrong foot. Here, two very senior psychology professors, Jane S. Halonen and Dana S. Dunn, complain — at a time when the adjunctification of our profession has left preciously too few even eligible for tenure — about supporting the most vulnerable people on the tenure ladder.
Writing tenure letter is work, and, generally, nobody likes work. (That’s why it’s work.) Doing your duty, fulfilling an obligation, is often not pleasurable, for, otherwise, hedonism would be our moral compass, as two psychologists surely ought to understand. But we perform our duties because it’s the right thing to do.
Their anger is misdirected. It seems to me that the authors’ grievance is with the way the profession treats service, and that is a grievance I share. Just this year, others have, in these very pages, called on academe to reconsider the way it values service; in fact, I myself have done so, as has Andrea Kaston Tange. But one thing we all should have learned in the past few years is this: You do not kick the most vulnerable when they are down. How does this article do this?
Think about it: The requirement for letter writers is not likely to disappear from the tenure process (and I don’t think it should). This essay paves the way for senior scholars to feel more comfortable declining requests for tenure letters at a time when we need more to say yes. For example, most beginning assistant professors meet other scholars eligible to write for them at conferences, yet conferences are only just now returning after the pandemic. This means we need senior scholars to be more amenable to writing for strangers, not less so.
If we want to discuss the fact that writing tenure letters is undervalued, fine. But it’s not fair to stop writing them. How might the authors have felt if people had felt this way when they were coming up for tenure?
Assistant Professor of English
City University of New York