From Round to Square (and back)

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Friday, August 3, 2012


One year ago on Round and Square (3 August 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: Code Cracking
[a] Branched knowledge RF
One of the things I do as a card-carrying academic is write reviews. In the narrowest sense, no one has to write reviews for anything. Let's just say that reviewing is not terribly well "compensated" in the academic biz, and this is not only with regard to monetary forms of remuneration. That border on insignificance, and even revered journals such as History and Theory or the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies give the reviewer a dozen or so copies ("offprints") of the review and, as we say back home, "call it good." In other words, the professor who reviews a book in the academic journal you are reading is doing it for something other than the accumulation of material wealth. Trust me.

So why is s/he doing it? It must be for the academic rewards—slowly making the steady steps required during the long climb to tenure and other forms of advancement in the academy, right? Nope. Not even close. You see, all but the tiniest of colleges (and there are fewer of them every year), without concern for faculty publication, give anything other than a brief nod to the book reviews on a scholar's Curriculum Vitae. "Worse," there is the hardly insignificant perception in departments, academic review committees, and administrations throughout higher education that reviews are a waste of time. Yes, a waste of a researcher's precious moments, which would be spent more usefully on "important" things such as article and monograph writing.

[b] Two-by-two RF
But, I hear you cry, what about all those monographs sprouting up all over the place—the fruition of "good" choices made by productive researchers who presumably avoided reviewing too many books so that they could conserve their productive energies in anticipation of a greater goal? Who, (I hear you cry again) is going to review their books? Well, they are...sort of.

Let me explain.

You see, the revulsion expressed in academia toward reviews and reviewing is a particular kind of academic hot air. There is a great deal of that in academia, as many readers of Round and Square have surely noticed. Global warming hit America's universities and colleges long before the first aerosol cans and fossil fuel emissions started their ozone layer burrowing flatulence. For example, it was fashionable in graduate school for my fellow students to express disdain for "reviewing." We would sit in the Swift Hall coffee shop on weekday afternoons and waste hours and hours talking about how our professors were busy with "more important things." 

All the while, our professors were writing reviews...and doing "more important things.

That is the key. The reality in academia is that productive people do a lot of things. All of my professors "reviewed" back in the day, and most everyone I know in the fields of history, anthropology, Asian studies, and beyond reviews. This is not—do not misread me—because it is actually better thought of than we were led to believe. No, what I stated above is still pretty much the way we talk about it, all over academia.

We do it anyway.

[c] Give-receive RF
I'll wrap things up here by giving a brief explanation of why this is so, as well as what I think just might be a solution to the whole problem. First, despite the way we talk, we are really a lot better at this whole "community" thing in academia than we admit. If I don't review the book on Chinese musicality in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), written by the chief academician of the North Dakota Academy of Asian Music, well, then, who is going to review mine? You give and you receive. Academic journals are filled with reviews written in the spare time of people who say that reviews are meaningless. Something interesting is going on, in other words. Communal support is part of it, but there is more.

Yes, the other part of it, if you ask me—and if you are still reading this, you are sort of asking (for it)—is that we like to be busy. Oh, sure, we complain about it all of the time, and it does seem a little odd that a whole bunch of us would spend a fair amount of time doing something that truly is not well-compensated in any form. Yet we do, and some of us even like it. I think that the hidden "other side" of the answer is that we like to be busy and learn a little something more. For example, I like to review books about topics that I might not otherwise think about in any kind of rigorous way. I have reviewed books on Machiavelli studies in Korea, Southeast Asian maritime trade, and even footnotes in early-modern Europe. Every one of those books has taught me something that I probably would not have caught in the net of my normal reading and (this is important) has worked its way into the way I teach my courses. At the least, they amount to little tidbits that pepper the frequent "asides" in my courses. More often they amount to real engagements with different ways of approaching the study of history and society. Good stuff.

[d] Dominant genre? RF
Let me conclude by speaking of the kind of review every academic wants to write. Very few get to do so, and I—among many—would do anything to have the opportunity. This is the highest rung on the ladder of reviewing, and the compensation (in monetary and "cultural capital" terms) is enormous. Yes, we would all love to review for the New York Review of Books. It is the Sorbonne of reviewing, the Grand Ol' Opry of book analysis, the one-percenters club of literary aplomb. One of my colleagues, who knew Gary Wills when he was a professor at Northwestern many decades ago, told it this way. Wills said to him that, while he like teaching well enough, writing two reviews for the New York Review of Books pretty much equaled his yearly salary at Northwestern. So he decided to become a full-time writer.

Some of us grow giddy at even the thought.

Almost none of us review "that way." More of us should. What I mean is that the NYR has it right. They publish beautifully written 4,000-word reviews on one or more books (often a cluster on a subject), and those of us who subscribe to it are often fans of the reviewer, not the book reviewed. This is just as true of the few other great review publications out there—The Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and so forth. If you are an experienced reader of any of these publicaitons, you know what I mean. If you have been in any of my classes during the last five years (and forevermore), you will (have) read an entire issue of the New York Review of Books. By the time you finish(ed), you know more about writing a great essay than you could ever learn by churning out five pages of thesis-statement and commentary. Why don't we do more of this in academia? Why don't we make the review something for which the writing...and the writer...really matters? Tenure committees could then at least look on it as a kind of essay that deserves some merit in the silly world of promotion. We would all be better for it.

Welcome to the "Reviews" topic on Round and Square. Here, we will try some of these very ideas. I won't get any credit for it (not that I'm looking), but I will use the space to explore a few things within and beyond academia. Some will be drafts of material that will eventually be published (not the same thing published, but a first-run), while others will be done just because I want to...or can't help myself. Through it all, I will be using the very small soapbox of Round and Square to tell academic journals (and academia as a whole) that they are being complete morons when it comes to the potential of reviewing—wasting everyone's time by treating them as meaningless but still having almost everyone write them and read them. There has to be a better way. We'll play around with a few essays into that territory here.
[e] Mix-match RF

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