Why even bother writing scholarly reviews?
|May 1, 2012|
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Is the time spent reviewing other people’s books more important than writing your own stuff, making your own contributions?
One of my graduate-student friends has published a number of book reviews, the assignments often passed along by his adviser and other professors. They tell him it’s good for him to write reviews. I think what would be good for him is to finish his dissertation. Or work on his own journal articles. Even if you’re a starving graduate student, there’s no such thing as a free book: The commitment to write a review is much greater than just the time you spend reading the book. Any review you dash off is going to be consigned to mediocrity.
Universities have changed very little in the hundreds of years they’ve been around, and professors have changed perhaps even less. The historians Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman have started an important and overdue conversation about the future of graduate education—a conversation that continued at the recent convention of the Modern Language Association and has also been taking place at campuses throughout the country. As the two historians pointed out, many scholars are simply doing what they’ve always done, training their students to be mini-me versions of themselves. At best, the rest of the world laughs. At worst, well, others have done a good job of laying out the consequences of continuing business as usual in higher education.
You can call me anti-intellectual, or anti-academic, write me off as a grouchy philistine who suffers post-traumatic-stress disorder from reading too many revised dissertations.
But the truth is: I’m weary of the piles of mediocre, post-hole-filling projects. I’m ready to say goodbye to a large percentage of monographs, and ready to be done with reviews of them. I’m hoping for big changes in higher education and scholarship.
If the current climate in publishing and academe requires that scholars be ambitious and accessible, that they write clearly (if not simply) for more than the 15 people in a sub-sub-subfield, then professors will have an opportunity to become engaged in American cultural, social, and political life in meaningful ways. The monograph and book-review sausage factories are not, I think, the best use of our collective cerebral resources. It’s better to write one good article than to review 20 books, and even better to write one good book.
Make any cento you want! But try to make it as good as you want it to be. You don’t really want Seidel’s freedom. His poems are licensed by privilege, prestige and money — lots of all three. His deliberate transgressions look like power — to poets, any use of power looks like freedom. But I just read all Seidel’s work, straight through, and I think he’s wearing golden handcuffs.
Pale Youths in Love
I remember when I was a pre-teen and they moved into a loft across the street from me in Tribeca, where I lived. And an older neighbor friend told me they were living in her building, on the top floor. I saw him at my corner deli, and on the street smoking, but never her. At night, I sometimes looked up at their windows and saw their lights on. He was not very impressive in person. Cute, but no big deal.
What is Work?
Without a written record, we cannot know with certainty how the earliest humans thought about work, but the importance of sharing food and other resources means that prehistoric work embodied at least an element of serving the needs of a community rather than just those of an individual and his or her immediate family.
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While straitened budgets and shrinking resources present difficulties for all of us within the university system, some of the most vulnerable people affected are graduate students. Occupying a liminal space as apprentices within the profession, students enrolled in master’s and doctoral programs often find themselves facing a situation in which opportunities for professional development have become occasions for exploitation.