Comments on: Assistant Proffie Andy asks questions about book reviews History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Thu, 18 Sep 2014 02:54:31 +0000 hourly 1 By: Thanksgiving roundup: greatest hits edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Mon, 22 Nov 2010 14:14:35 +0000 [...] Don sign off on this?  (H/t to Assistant Professor Andy for the funny link, and to Fratguy for the funny line.)  Isn’t it interesting to see what [...]

By: Feminist Avatar Mon, 25 Jan 2010 20:54:45 +0000 Really Famous British University Press pays you to review it’s manuscripts? How do I get that gig?

And on a related note- the other reason to review books is FREE books. In the UK, where a new monograph will set you back £50 (c.$100), getting those books you *need* to read for free is a huge financial boon (and much quicker than waiting for your library to get a copy). For this reason, if I have nurtured a few friendships with book reviewers in order to have favours to call in when a book I really wanted comes out. This has included reviewing a very ‘worthy’ [read snooze-worthy] book to get a very fab book I wanted to read! So while I agree with the advice not to review books unless you want to read them, the reason why you ‘want’ to read them might not be to do with the book itself.

By: John S. Mon, 25 Jan 2010 04:11:12 +0000 I now have my second book ms. I’ve ever been asked to review sitting on my desk; it’s from the press that published my book. In this case, I mostly accepted because of the care the peer reviewers for that press took on my book. I really just want to give as useful and thorough a review on this author’s ms. as I got on mine. Corny, perhaps, but I think that there is something of a karma element here.

(I am certainly not doing it for the money. I have no doubt that this press will pay me. But given that I have been waiting for 11 months to be paid for a manuscript review I did for a Really Famous British University Press, it’s not really like you can count on this kind of income.)

By: Dr. Crazy Mon, 25 Jan 2010 04:02:39 +0000 RE: WRITING book reviews: I see this as a sort of hybrid of service and scholarship, and I’ve done very few book reviews, primarily bec. with my 4/4 load it makes more sense to spend my time writing conference papers or articles or chapters than to review the work of others, but reviews do get one’s name out there, and if you write a review that others find useful, that does get one’s name out there positively. The only reviews I’ve ever written of others’ works have been by request, either from editors (people I didn’t know) or friends (sometimes friends who are editors, sometimes from friends who wanted their books reviewed). This isn’t something I’d recommend to another asst. prof. as a way to manage his/her career, but it’s what I did, and it was fine, in my context.

RE: reviewing articles for journals in terms of peer review, I’m on the editorial board of a small journal for a society of which I am a member, and that was pretty much because I volunteered. Otherwise, I’ve been asked to review for journals to which I’ve submitted or to review for other journals that (I imagine) other people have recommended me for. In other words (at least in my experience in English) I think a lot of this is about networking, and that journals choose people to review essays who they know either because they’ve seen them submit (a), because they’ve read their work (b) or because somebody recommended the person to them (c). I don’t think there’s some secret formula: I think a lot of it is just about being out there and available and clearly a productive person in the field who will do the work and on time.

Re: reviewing, whether for publication or for peer review, I see it as an important part of professional engagement, but I also think that if all one is doing is reviewing the work of others while sacrificing one’s own work, that’s not a good thing. What matters most pre-tenure is one’s own original contribution to the field, and reviewing – whether in published form or in peer-reviewed form – doesn’t really assist in that. Don’t sacrifice your own scholarship to comment on the scholarship of other people.

But in terms of content of book reviews, I think that what Historiann writes is really excellent advice. I’d only add the following: 1) whatever you think of the book, write what you think people who haven’t actually read the book but might read it need to know about it, i.e., engage with the book itself and not what you had wished the book might have been, because readers of the review don’t care what you wish you would have read, or of what you would rather have read, but rather they care about what they will read if they actually read the book, and 2) understand that people who write books aren’t only writing for a specialized audience, in that publishers (even university presses and commercial academic publishers) assume that a book will reach a wider audience than that of specialists in the field, which means that will be useful in undergrad and grad classrooms, as well as to professionals who are interested in the broader concepts addressed in the book, even if they aren’t invested in the very specific subject of it. In other words, what you might think is just “needless” rehashing of old stuff, given your expertise, might actually be necessary background for people who are either new to specific content area or who position themselves outside the specific content area. While you, as a reviewer, may be familiar with all of the debates in 18th c. nosepicking (cf. Sisyphus), all of the potential readers of this book probably won’t be, and that broader audience is of interest to the publisher. That is why the author gave that overview of the debates, not just to irritate you.

By: Historiann Mon, 25 Jan 2010 03:46:59 +0000 p.s. Susan is right–there are code words you can use that will let people know your emotional temperature about a book. “Important,” “valuable,” “original,” and using the word “striking” or “strikingly” as positive adjectives, are much better than “solid” or “useful.” (Not that the latter adjectives are anything to be ashamed of if they’re applied to one’s own book.)

But, I will say that because of the space limitations (I think, anyway), most JAH or AHR reviews are pretty flat, straightforward what’s-inside kind of reviews. I thought the one in the JAH for my book was pretty tepid, but then I looked up the reviews of other books I admire to see what the JAH said about them, and by comparison, mine seemed like a total rave! (So, that’s another thing to keep in mind with respect to the “house style” expected or demanded by certain journals.)

By: Historiann Mon, 25 Jan 2010 03:38:50 +0000 Thanks for your further thoughts on all of these questions. And thanks especially for History Maven’s insights into how editorial boards function.

As to BC’s questions: I’d have to say that neither book reviews nor having reviewed manuscripts really count for much, other than as a kind of proof that you’ve established a national reputation as an expert in such-and-such. They’re perhaps necessary, but not sufficient, for making a case for tenure. So, if you’re in a department that requires a book or X number of articles (or a book AND X number of articles) for tenure, then neither book nor manuscript reviews will compensate for any quantitative research insufficiency. (At least not in what I’ve seen so far in my admittedly limited number of years on a t & p committee.)

Book and ms. reviews are good to show people that you’re moving forward, making contacts in the field, etc. while you’re on the way to finishing a book in years when you don’t publish an article or book chapter. But, they’re what a former colleague of mine called “salad” (along with encyclopedia articles, for example)–good to show on your C.V. but not quite a main course, if you follow the somewhat tortured metaphor.

The gold standard remains published peer-reviewed scholarship. Participating in the review process is good for making contacts, reading new scholarship, and keeping you abreast of your field/s–all worthy endeavours–but that and about $3.00 will buy you a whole-milk medium latte at a decent coffee shop. (And, I say this with no joy as someone who reviewed 3 book manuscripts for uni presses in the last year. But at least they pay cash, as opposed to journals, which rely on totally volunteer labor!)

By: HistoryMaven Mon, 25 Jan 2010 02:48:45 +0000 Historiann, do you need some therapeutic cookies sent?

There are book reviews, and then there are book review essays. The Journal of American History or the American Historical Review require short and pithy reviews; these tend to toward the programmatic: thesis, argument, possible problems, new findings, contribution. Book reviewing is the work of the good professional citizen.

But there are also journals that publish lengthy review essays of one or more works, and if one is interested in introducing one’s voice/perspectives to the profession (including journal and university press editors who are always looking for authors and manuscript reviewers), then this may be a task more useful to a tenure-track type. My first reviews were lengthy essays in two journals in my interdisciplinary field–the first I regret for tone (the typical rookie mistake).

Having worked in the editorial office of a scholarly journal, served as an interim editor, and having membership currently on two editorial boards, I may be able to shed some light on how board selections are made. No doubt friends are enlisted, although I have no firsthand knowledge of this practice. Some editorial boards have fixed terms; others do not. Some editorial boards mandate that members cannot refuse to read manuscripts sent to them; all board members are told to expect a certain number of manuscripts in their mailboxes.

Journals published by scholarly societies tend to follow more stringent rules: editors have to be approved, for example, by the society’s officers and executive council. Editors nominate board members, and those members must be approved as well. In my three decades’ experience with scholarly journal editing I’ve found that editors deliberate mightily about who to ask to become a board member. They take into account what sector of the discipline requires representation, what subfields may be emerging, geographical representation, and strive for diversity of the board’s membership. In addition, board members are expected to represent the journal, encourage authors, volunteer to serve as a guest editor for a special issue, and deliberate editorial policy. The scholarly works (and thus reputations) of the names on the masthead add to the journal’s prestige.

Scholarly journals do keep lists of potential peer and book reviewers, but the opportunity to review manuscripts depends, of course, on just what comes over the proverbial transom. I review about 10-12 manuscripts a year; the broader interdisciplinary field in which I work means that peer review usually consists of a generalist reader and a specialist. More often than not I’m the generalist. But when it comes to my research field, well, there ain’t too many of us, so the opportunities to serve as peer reviewers are few and far between.

By: BC Mon, 25 Jan 2010 02:16:17 +0000 @PhysioProf–actually we do the equivalent of lit review, too–sometimes in the form of review essays (which count a bit more for tenure), sometimes in the form of full-length historiographical articles. Having known scientists in graduate school, my historian friends and I were always a little horrified at how little often scientists reflected on the past academic developments of their own disciplines. But then again, I guess if they did that, they’d be historians.

I do have a question for the group, though–I realize that published book reviews have little weight for tenure and promotion–but what about serving as a peer reviewer for journal articles or for book presses? In fact, which weighs more–the fact that one has written a published book review for, say, JAH, or the fact that one has been asked to review full-length articles for them?

By: Comrade PhysioProf Mon, 25 Jan 2010 01:47:03 +0000 Thanks for the clarification, Historiann. It sounds, then, like book reviews in the humanities are similar to literature review articles in the natural sciences. They are nice opportunities to mark your scent on an area, and they do demonstrate that one is an active participant in a particular area of inquiry, but they are given infinitesimal weight by hiring, promotion, and tenure committees.

By: Susan Mon, 25 Jan 2010 01:31:16 +0000 I sort of disagree with Indyanny here. I think as a reviewer I owe it to the journal’s readers to let them know more than that the book exists. There is a code that is used, I think — even in the AHR’s 750 word framework — to indicate the quality of a book — words like “important” or “valuable” tell people to pay attention, while “worthy” or “useful” can mean “boring” or “read this if this is exactly what you’re interested in, but otherwise…” My role as a reviewer is also different for junior and senior people. I’m much gentler on first books.