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On the Merits of Graduate Students as Book Reviewers

Students writing reviews can be a career-enhancing teaching tool

by Barbara Katz Rothman, City University of New York-Graduate Center

I’m teaching a doctoral level course I have titled “Writing for Publication,” and as I publish in this article the very material covered in the course, I feel like an embodiment of M.C. Escher’s drawing of the hands drawing themselves. The circularity of publishing writing about publishing writing is dizzying. But as I put together the pieces of this class, I think that precisely what I tell my students applies here: we write to share, to convince, to please, and to encourage. Working on this class, I’ve had ideas I’d like to convince others to try. It might just please some of you who do similar work to read how I’m doing it. And I might—if I could write appealingly enough—encourage some of you to do similar work with your students.

We began the writing class with book reviews. I had to think about not only how we do them, but also why; what is the point of doing book reviews? I approached book review editors in the journals and asked them to provide books for my graduate students to review. In the past, I have casually passed books on to students for review, or directed a review editor to a particular student for a particular book, or introduced a book review editor to a student, but I’ve never done this in such a calculated way. I had to think about these things I’ve done so casually that I am now doing so deliberatively. Here are the results of my deliberations.

Book reviews are very often the first publication for a young scholar. A graduate student in the social sciences and humanities can be a published reviewer of a book long before they have written a significant work of their own, long before they have published anything in the discipline, and long, long before they have written a book of their own.

Why is that? Is it a good thing? How can we make it a good thing?

The first question to ask is “Good for whom?” Good for the student, the journal that publishes the review, the author of the book being reviewed?

The answer can be all three, if we handle this properly.

I will consider the students first. There are certain barriers in life, certain break-through experiences. Seeing your name in print in professional journals is certainly one of those. It legitimizes one’s work like nothing else. Whatever that first publication is, the very fact of its publication matters to students. It is a start on the path of professional development, a start to becoming scholars “in their own ‘write’,” as it were, moving beyond the role of student.

Book reviews are also quite practical publications for students. There was a time in my life when it actually was worth it to do a review simply because the journal gave me a free copy of the book. I only volunteered to review books I was going to read anyway, so the hours of careful reading didn’t “cost” me any extra. And the time spent writing the review of an expensive scholarly book probably still came out to be better than minimum wage. But then, I write fast.

Packaging Value

More seriously, the actual product of my writing, the review itself, was something that I could often adapt to other uses. I could scavenge my book reviews for pieces to use in the literature review of a paper or—far more valuably—in a dissertation chapter. It’s a wonderful thing to include previously published bits, even snippets, in one’s dissertation. A dissertation is itself the turning point between student and independent, acknowledged scholar. However comfortable, warm, friendly, supportive the dissertation committee may be—and we know they are not always that—the relationship still oozes power dynamics. To be able to submit work to the committee work that has already passed the peer review standards of the profession, shifts—if only in the student’s own head—the power dynamics. And where, after all, do those power dynamics need shifting more than in the student’s head?

An argument, a critique, put forth in the literature review of a dissertation is one thing; the same argument put forth in a published review is something else. It’s the difference between stating, “I think this book is taking the wrong tack on this problem,” and being able to state: “According to a review in the Journal of Serious Work in Sociology, this book is taking the wrong tack on this problem.” Graduate students are accustomed to combing the published literature to find someone else to cite to say what they themselves want to say. The first time you can cite yourself—ahhhhhh.

Valuing the Package

So that’s why book reviews are good things for graduate students to do. Now let me offer the perspective of an author of books. I’ve been lucky. I’ve never had a review that made me cry. Maybe my standards are low, but I feel blessed by that. But I have had reviews that annoyed me. Generalizing a bit here, it seems that the annoying ones were often by scholars who were, in some sense, competitors. They had done books on similar subjects and were—consciously or not, intentionally or not—comparing my work to their own and finding mine wanting.

Graduate students may bring greater neutrality to the work of reviewing. And greater respect. First, they can appreciate the fact that you finished and published a book, an impressive feat in their eyes. So maybe they agree with you and maybe not, maybe they like what you did and maybe not, but it seems they are more likely to be fair, respectful, and open to the author’s ideas.

They are also—and this matters a lot—current. Unlike some of my colleagues who shall remain nameless, the students are not always telling you about some wonderful so much better work in this area that was done “back tin the day.” You know, before all these new, strange theories and postmodern stuff and all. Graduate students have read the classics recently, and are reading the current material. In each discipline, they are the people who are probably the most well-read at any given moment, and so may be in the best position to see a new book in context.

Getting Good Value

Finally, I will consider the perspective of book review editors:

Sometimes a book is deemed “important,” a “significant book,” even before it has been widely reviewed and read. Most often, in academia as in the rest of the world, that is because the author is a known quantity. The new John Grisham has its equivalent in each discipline. Those books will not be given to graduate students to review. Senior scholars will be doing those reviews, and doing them fairly quickly (by academic standards).

But for most academic books, the concern is primarily getting reviews, any reviews, and getting them in a timely manner. For publishers and booksellers, a book is over, old news, long before academic reviews start to come in. Graduate students—for all of their piled-up incompletes, for all the overwhelming burdens they face—tend to move at a faster clip on projects like a book review. It is, after all, one of their first publications, and they are not about to let it slip to the back of the desk.

Book review editors and the journals need balance. If the journal, or the book review section, becomes only a student outlet, it may not be taken seriously enough. But used appropriately, with perhaps a bit of mentoring from senior colleagues, graduate students are ideal book reviewers.

The author can be reached at BKatzRothman@gc.cuny.edu.