Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Should graduate students write book reviews?

The question here is whether scholarly journals should solicit and publish book reviews written by graduate students. Some journals have a firm and clear policy of NOT publishing reviews by students; others leave it open to the discretion of the book review editor. When I was a book review editor for Latin American Antiquity, I did publish some reviews by students. What are the pluses and minuses of this practice?

Why graduate students may make good reviewers of books:
  • Students are young and energetic and can sometimes present a fresh perspective.
  • Sometimes a student is a very good choice (in terms of research specialty, knowledge of the field, etc.).
  • It is good practice and training for the students.

Why graduate students may NOT make good reviewers:
  • Power differentials. This is the big reason, and it is the basis for those journal policies that do not allow student reviewers. Here are some possibilities:
  1. The book is bad, or has some negative aspects. If a student gives an honest review with some negative statements, the author (or the author's pals or colleagues) may get mad at the student, having potential negative professional consequences. I once wrote a review that called a book the best book of its kind yet published. I also pointed out a few relatively minor problems. The book's author nabbed me at the next SAA meeting and berated me for writing a negative review. Cranky authors are a real problem in academia (except for me, of course; I would NEVER be cranky about my work.... ha ha ha). This is MY research, how DARE you criticize it! OK, so perhaps the student will decide to glide over a book's deficiencies and concentrate on the good parts. This could produce a perfectly adequate and acceptable book review, but in my mind this would be a distortion and thus a bad review. Reviewers should not avoid the negative parts of a book.
  2. The book is very good. If the student writes a positive review, others might interpret the evaluation more to the distortion mentioned above. Thus a positive review might be discounted because of the perception that a student was being careful and avoiding critique or controversy.
  • Timidity (arising from power differentials, or from general shyness or inexperience).  To me, this is another reason that students sometimes write bland vanilla reviews. Avoid controversy, don't get authors pissed off, try to be smart but not controversial. A few years ago one journal published a bunch of reviews written by students as part of a class project. The reviews were generally competent, but they were boring and bland. It wasn't clear whether the blandness was from the content of the books, or to student timidity in writing the review.
  • Lack of broader contextual knowledge. Students have less experience, and in their early publications tend to be worried that they get the details correct. They are less likely to do a good job in discussing the professional or intellectual context of the book, an important function of book reviews.

In my view, book review editors should feel free to solicit reviews from advanced graduate students, so long as they take the above considerations in mind. Does the student understand the issues and potential problems? Does their adviser agree that this is a good thing to do? And, of course, is the student competent to write the review.

What should a student do who is interested in writing book reviews?
  • Tell you adviser and other professionals you know of your interest. They may hear of an opportunity, or they may be able to pass on an invitation they received to review a book.
  • Email the book review editors of relevant journals and tell them you are interested. Give them a BRIEF statement of your areas of interest and expertise, and offer to send your CV if they wish.
  • Publish some papers in journals so your name gets known in the wider arena of scholarship.

For other posts on book reviews, check the topics index at the right, bottom.

1 comment:

Colleen said...

Good post! I have a book review of Ruins of Modernity in press for Visual Studies and several of the points you bring up were relevant. In a way the book was also an imperfect fit, as most of the authors were based in the humanities and I felt unsatisfied by the basis of their explanations. Most of the chapters (it is an edited volume) felt really light-weight and most of them didn't really engage with the materiality of the ruins they discussed.

But...the review is good, for the most part. I did go out on a small limb and criticized an author for ignoring Nadia El Abu Haj's work on Israel, archaeology and nationalism...we'll see how that works out for me.

I like reviewing books, but I probably wouldn't go for anything beyond edited volumes at this point.