How Much Is Too Much?

Sarah Hobbs, "Untitled (Perfectionist)" (2002)Though I often attempt to dispense advice from this blog, I now have a question of my own. How much is too much?

There’s one request that I never turn down: when I am asked to write a letter on behalf of someone going up for tenure and/or promotion, I always say “yes.”  I don’t care how busy I am.  This sort of request is simply too important to decline.

However, I’ve just received the fourth request for such a letter, due in September.  I’ve already said “yes” to three (one for promotion to full, two for tenure) that are due this fall.  On top of that, this will be the busiest fall semester I’ve ever had.  Three different invited talks in three different countries (one of which is the U.S.), two conferences (one in Maryland, one in Puerto Rico).  I’m hoping for some publicity surrounding the publication of the Crockett Johnson-Ruth Krauss bio. and (a couple of months later) The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1.  Having just edited my first full manuscript for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture Series, I discovered Monday that three more full manuscripts await my attention.  I’ve also started another book project, for which I’m working on a proposal & have a planned research trip (also this fall).  And, obviously, there will be teaching, committees, and many things I can’t right now recall — things that will announce their due dates unexpectedly, and too promptly.

So. It’s easier to turn down (for example) invitations to contribute to books, or to join this or that committee.  After all, rarely is anyone’s job is at stake there.  But is it ever OK to say “no” to a tenure-and-promotion request?  My general sense is “no,” & that I should just do it.  As I wrestle with my guilt and sense of obligation, I think about the other people have written such letters on my behalf & who continue to write for me.  And … I conclude that I should keep “paying it forward.”

Shouldn’t I?  What would you do?

Source of artwork, above: Sarah Hobbs’s “Untitled (Perfectionist)”   I found the photo on Mocoloco.  You can view more of Sarah Hobbs’s work on and on her own website, where there’s a better print of the above.  Her Tumblr page is worth a look, also.


  1. Reply

    I think you have to turn them down sometimes to save your own sanity. You’re not doing the candidate any favors by doing something halfway, or by resenting the work, and you’re not doing your class or your institution any favors by shortchanging them to do it. As someone whose served on our college-wide tenure & promotion committee twice, I can tell you that people do turn down the request and we don’t hold it against the candidate. Or the down-turner, if that’s a word. It’s just a fact of life: sometimes we have to say “no” to some things in order to say “yes” to others, even if all are equally worthy.

  2. Reply

    Libby: Really? After writing this, I’d come to the conclusion — reluctantly — that I oughta add no. 4 to the list. One reason is that some universities do hold it against the candidate if a potential letter-writer declines to write. I think such a judgment is crazy, myself, but… very few people (a) have any say in who their employer is going to be or (b) know that said employer might hold a “no” against them.

  3. Reply

    Hey Phil, . . . I need a letter :)
    Just kidding. Faced with your pile of work, I would just as soon see if the publisher can find another editor for some of those monographs piling up. But the difficulty in saying no when all of those activities bring you joy or satisfaction is a real thing. Good luck balancing it all.

  4. Reply

    Phil, I can only speak to my own experience. I’ve never held it against a candidate. Honestly, when I stop and think about it, I can’t remember a case I’ve reviewed in which all of the folks initially asked to write actually did so–the department chairs here all ask more people than they need, because they know they won’t get all of them to do it. And I’ve reviewed over 3 dozen cases in the four years I’ve served.

    Your mileage may vary. But that’s how it is here.

  5. Reply

    Hi, again, Libby. And hi, Jennifer.

    Thanks, both, for your perspective. I wrote back & said that I was already doing three & so preferred not to, but if they really needed me to, then I would. They do need me, and I so I’ve agreed to do it. (Sigh.)

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