Review of Reviews: Should Grad Students Review Books?

July, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’m of two minds regarding grad students writing book reviews for publication. On the one hand, they give you regular and consistent publication credits, access to the newest monographs in multiple fields, and of course free books. They are never as valuable as peer-reviewed articles, but they do keep your CV active and up to date. On the other hand, unless the books are directly related to your field of study, reviews divert your attention away from completing your own research and writing. As a grad student, however, there can be few opportunities to publish, particularly in major journals. Book reviews offer an opportunity to get your name out there.

But how can you be considered for review opportunities? And how do you get the most out of them?

My best luck has come simply through word of mouth. Friends, colleagues, and sometimes even scholars I don’t know have recommended me for particular titles. Journals also have book review editors whom you can contact to express your interest and describe your specialization. I’ve never contacted journal editors, but I have recently submitted my details to H-Net lists, which offer the opportunity for a larger online profile as their reviews are published quickly and archived on the internet. I’m certain, however, that most of my review opportunities came out of scholarly conferences, where other scholars have come into contact with my work. Build you profile in the profession, and opportunities of all sorts will begin to flow toward you.

I’ve written 4 book reviews in journals ranging from the Journal of British Studies to Urban History, have two forthcoming in even more divergent journals, and have just committed to writing a review essay of three books for another journal. Each has been a completely different experience.

Those that overlapped with my own field of research were the easiest to write. I was most familiar with the literature they drew upon, the sources they used as the bases for their arguments, and felt more than capable of identifying strengths and pointing out weaknesses. These reviews sharpened my own scholarly skills and allowed me to contribute to the profession in a public and meaningful way.

But I’ve also reviewed books outside of my specialization and only peripheral to my own knowledge base. Similar to concerns expressed by medievalist blogger Squadratomagico, I have  encountered books that may have been good enough, but were also unoriginal and unexciting. These types of reviews were definitely harder, sometimes to the point of debilitation. I sometimes had to reposition myself as an educated non-specialist to comment on how understandable, useful, interesting, and applicable such books were. It was challenging to offer something useful to readers as a non-specialist commenting on a field in which I did not participate.  Though I knew little, I learned a lot.

Of course, at the same time I was writing my own dissertation, and it necessarily suffered somewhat from these moments of anxiety, distraction, and lapses in confidence. Worst of all perhaps, writing reviews allowed me to procrastinate while still feeling productive. I was getting work done after all (wasn’t I?), just not on my dissertation. In the end, I completed my dissertation, but lost weeks of work time to the stress of reviewing books.

I was only a grad student then, so publications of any sort were valuable. The Tenured Radical, however, offers some sage advice about focus and priorities once we’re on the job market:

Whether it is submitting an article, finishing revisions on an article that has come back with reader’s reports, writing a book proposal and sending your manuscript out, whatever. You need to show that you are moving forward in your career. … the further out you are from graduate school, the higher expectations are about your scholarly trajectory. Do not agree to write any: book reviews, encyclopedia entries, or anything else that fills up a curriculum vita with entries that have nothing to do with original scholarship.

On the whole, however, I would have to conclude that in grad school the benefits of reviews outweigh the challenges as long as you can manage your time, prioritize more beneficial work, and complete more important tasks.

If you choose to take them on, the lesson I’ve learned is to budget time for reviews. Make reviewing a specific task, like completing a chapter by a certain date, rather than an imprecise activity that can grow to consume whatever time you allow it. Reviews can be a dangerous opportunity to procrastinate, but used effectively, they can also stimulate your thinking, offer new insights in your own work, and increase your professional profile and publications credits.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
29 July 2010.

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