Daily Archives: December 21, 2007

Is the crisis in academic publishing also a crisis in book reviewing?

Miriam Burstein of the Valve and Little Professor has just put up a very useful post about Profession ’07’s collection of responses to the “Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,” both of which, I think,  deserve to be widely discussed.  I was a little surprised, in fact, that the Report generated so little comments, but perhaps this is all old news to people.

 Burstein noticed something that caught my eye, as well, while I was reading the Report: how the devaluation of book reviewing had led to some perverse results for academic publishing and the dissemination of scholarship generally.  Departments tend not to count such service, journals themselves are cutting down on review space, while fewer and fewer senior scholars can take time from their “official” (meaning counted) publications and research to read, let alone discuss and publicize, major critical works outside their own fields of specialization.  Here is Burstein’s take:

on the subject of book reviewing, the committee worries that “senior scholars” have largely jumped ship, leaving the decks to “graduate students or junior scholars in the field, who may not be sufficiently specialized in the subject or treatment of the book to draft anything other than a summary” (56).  Understandably, the committee worries about the effects of this shift on the tenure prospects of young faculty.  But allow me to make a very cranky and entirely anecdotal observation, based on what is no doubt insufficient experience (one year working at Modern Philology).  During my time wielding a blue pencil, I found that faculty at all ranks were capable of producing mediocre to excellent reviews.  However, the only true clunkers came from established scholars. And by “clunkers,” I mean reviews dreadful enough that I could use them as spicy anecdotes during job interviews (leaving the scholars in question anonymous, of course):  reviews loaded with grammatical errors, reviews that pimped the scholar’s own work and ignored the book purportedly under discussion, reviews that were almost entirely incoherent, reviews that appeared to have been written by freshmen.    Junior faculty have professional reasons–beyond whatever sense of obligation to the discipline they feel–to invest themselves in writing serious book reviews.  Senior faculty, not as much.  Again, it’s not that senior faculty always wrote the worst reviews, but that the worst reviews were always by senior faculty.

Burstein observes, in effect, that our usual expectations of performance are reversed when it comes to institutionally devalued work: we assume that the most honored and highly rewarded faculty do the best job when it comes to reviews, but this assumes that they will ignore the way incentives are structured in their departments, or how reputations are maintained in their fields.  A dangerous assumption, I think.

We also talked about this problem at our NEASECS panel earlier this year, when I mentioned that for all the potential problems introduced by academic blogging (logrolling, backscratching, insufficiently critical dialogue, or conversely, off-topic or overly polemical discussions inadequately vetted by non-experts), I saw many of the same problems with print reviews nowadays, with the added problem that they tended to appear years after books went out of print.  So I do think that academic bloggers can play some role in disseminating information about new academic research, if not the entire role.  But having done both, I can easily see the problems with both forms of dissemination.

 What I haven’t seen anywhere, however, is an acknowledgment that the problems with academic reviewing are only a part of a more general decline of book reviewing, as newspapers and periodicals of all kinds are folding or substantially reducing their review sections for general readers.  There have already been a series of warnings about the decline of newspaper reviews, which I regard as the disappearance of a generally unnoticed infrastructure of print culture that we have taken for granted since the eighteenth century.  These changes might very well help to contribute to the “death of the reader” that we have been hearing so much about lately.   Indeed, if we are justified in talking about something as general and epochal as “print culture,” academics are no more immune to its vagaries and historical shifts than anyone else.   (UPDATE: for Caleb Crain’s blogging follow-up to his excellent NYer piece, “Twilight of the Books” referenced above, see here).

(UPDATE #2: Hmm, this isn’t what I had in mind (h/t 3quarksdaily).



18th century blogging round-up: miscellaneity

Here’s a very unsystematic (make that, distinctly miscellaneous) selection of eighteenth-centuryish blog posts from the past few weeks.  If anything else has appeared lately that has caught your eye, let me know, and I’ll put it up and discuss it at great length, I promise.  (Note: the 18th Century Graduate Reading Group has just put up its Fantomina posts, but I’m saving my response for another day.  But go take a look)

In any case, here are some highlights:

1.  Courtesy of 3quarksdaily, the TLS review of the first volume of the new Buffon edition published by Champion and edited by Cremiere and Schmitt.  What Cobb’s review emphasizes is how much the major scientific advances of the Enlightenment owed to the mature print culture of the mid-18th century: Buffon’s L’Histoire naturelle volumes were beautifully written, systematizing, serially published works (36 volumes published over 39 years, while serving as a stylistic (and business?) model for the Encyclopedie), featuring superb engraved color illustrations, and attracting an international lay-audience eager to follow volume after volume of Buffon’s insights into the whole of “human knowledge about the natural world.”  An astounding achievement, and communicated in a manner impossible to imagine for another era. 

2.  Greg over at Slawkenbergius’ Tales has been knocking out a series of intriguing posts about science, rationalist historiography of the irrational, and modes of history and their historians (I like the appreciation of Pocock best), all united by his ongoing interest in Enlightenment historiography  Always nice to read a historian who knows his Borges, but still insists on writing about real people. 

3.  Obligatory contemporary politics connection: How many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen?  Don’t ask Mike Huckabee.  Instead, visit J.L. Bell’s always astounding Boston 1775, and get the straight poop.  (Answer: 1, the one-time president of Princeton College, John Witherspoon).

4.  And here’s Alice Boone (of Ben and Alice) describing her history of reading and rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, first in her freshmen year seminar, then in subsequent years, while attempting to develop her own view of Margaret Cavendish, and one that could stand up to Woolf’s indelible image of her in the Room.  A valuable set of reflections on teaching and canonical revision.  And don’t forget her interview with Sophie Gee, author of the Scandal of the Season.

More to come.