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Ask Dr. Editor

How to write persuasively in promotion and tenure documents

Be sure your application shows the significance of your work while focusing on your most compelling accomplishments.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | JUL 24 2020

Question

I’m submitting my CV and dossier at the end of the month, and I’m no good at trying to sell myself. How can I make myself look good to the tenure and promotion committee without just using the words “excellent” and “novel” over and over?

– Rehabilitation Sciences

Dr. Editor’s response:

Hollow adjectives making claims about the quality of your research won’t help you to make a strong case during promotion and tenure review. There’s good reason to be skeptical of the empty rhetoric of “excellence,” which pushes “journals and societies […] to publish the sexiest findings by the most famous authors” (Vazire, 2018), to the detriment of good scholarly work: “the desire to demonstrate the rhetorical quality of ‘excellence’ encourages researchers to submit fraudulent, erroneous, and irreproducible papers, at the same time as it works to prevent the publication of reproduction studies that can identify such work” (Moore et al., 2017).

The language of “excellence” thus seems detrimental to good scholarship — and reviewers aren’t looking for the repetition of this or other merely descriptive terms: “We had so many superlatives that, sometimes, it’s hard to know how to interpret them”; “The more terms of praise I see in a letter, the less attention I pay to it” (Lamont 2009: 163, 164).

So if echoing the language used in your institution’s tenure and promotion evaluation criteria doesn’t seem to help a dossier be reviewed well, how should you write about your achievements in this unusual genre?

1. Shift from selling yourself to showing significance

In her 2009 study of peer review, How Professors Think, Michèle Lamont show that “significance” is the criterion most often mentioned by peer reviewers of grant applications in the humanities and social sciences (167). Says Dr. Lamont,

Scholarly significance is determined on the basis of whether a project is likely to produce generalizable results and/or speak to broad theoretical questions or processes, as opposed to addressing narrowly defined or highly abstract topics. A project with social or political significance is believed to give voice to subordinate groups or produce socially useful knowledge.

So, if you were in the humanities and social sciences, as Dr. Lamont’s reviewers are, you might answer questions like:

  • when you go to conferences, what panel topics excite you the most?
  • what broader socio-cultural concerns connect to your research?
  • why should someone who doesn’t care about your niche sub-field still care about your work?

Of course, dear letter-writer, you’re not in the humanities — you’re in the health sciences — but the questions you can answer are of the same sort:

  • how would patient care be improved if your research were implemented in practice?
  • how does your work remove barriers, or support facilitators, of care for vulnerable populations?
  • why should someone who doesn’t care about your niche sub-field still care about your work?

At the heart of your documents should be the answers to these questions. You do “excellent” work since you know how important it is that your topic be addressed. You do the work you do not because you want to be outstanding, not just for the sake of mere novelty, but because the status quo isn’t working for the populations you care about. Describe — qualitatively and quantitatively — why the work you do matters.

Then, show that you are making a difference in your important area by marshalling evidence of your accomplishments and established reputation among your peers.

With this reframing of the core of your P&T documents, let’s now turn to look at some of the peer-reviewed literature on marketing to see what other strategies you can apply to demonstrate the value of your contributions to research, teaching and service.

2. Focus on your most compelling evidence

In consumer behaviour research, Weaver, Garcia & Schwarz (2012) have shown that, when performing an evaluation, reviewers tend to look at all the information that is presented and perceive its average. So, when being compensated for a delayed flight — with, say, a meal and a hotel voucher — the additional inclusion of a low-value gift card would diminish the recipient’s impression of their airline. You’d think that receiving a hotel voucher, a meal, and a gift card would be thought of better than only a hotel and meal — but you’d be mistaken. The low value of the card would take away from the higher value of other items included in the compensation package. In the context of your P&T documents, each item in the package doesn’t have an additive effect when an impression of the whole is being formed; rather, the reviewer looks across the total, and mildly good components detract from the perceived value of highly good components.

This paradoxical effect isn’t limited to the world of business and marketing. In their study of financial auditors, Lambert and Peytcheva (2019) showed that practicing auditors — experienced evaluators with expertise in their field — likewise made judgments that demonstrated they were averaging across bundles of information, such that “strong evidence appear[s] less persuasive when it is bundled with weaker evidence” (291).

The nature of tenure and promotion documents are inherently “bundled” — your CV must list all your accomplishments, both major and minor — but, in your dossier, the psychological literature suggests you should focus on your most persuasive, most important achievements.

In practice, you may achieve this focus in a few different ways:

  • Creating thematic clusters of interconnected fields that span across your teaching, research, and service, providing evidence of accomplishments within each cluster;
  • Tracing a narrative or trajectory of iterative development across the span of your career; or,
  • Aligning your work with the mission of your institution, showing how your contributions advance key strategic priorities of your university (see Burnham et al., 2010).

Finally: we can’t talk about systems for evaluation in academia without also talking about race and gender.

As Frances Henry et al argue in The Equity Myth (2017), despite decades of diversity policies and initiatives, the academy has failed to diversify its ranks:

In part, this is because of structural barriers and discriminatory practices that have functioned to exclude and stall. It is also, however, a result of the inadequately examined preference for sameness that leads to practices of replication. […] The complex dynamics of subtle biases also make visible how much harder women and racial minorities have to work in order to thrive and succeed in the academy (296).

COVID-19 seems to be further stacking the deck in favour of the “predictable winners in a rigged game” (Stack, 2018). It is incumbent upon those in positions of power in our institutions to track and publish relevant data, to document these systemic biases, and to “address them in all areas of our work” (Grogan, 2019).

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @lertitia.
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