In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here.
by Nickolas Roubekas
Thesis #12: Many doctoral students do not realize that finding authors willing to write book notes, book reviews, etc., is sometimes difficult for journal editors. As a first step in professionalizing themselves, graduate students should become aware of the journals in their field and write to their book review editors, suggesting that the journal allow them to write and submit a review (especially for books that they are already reading for their courses or research, thereby minimizing on work additional to their class and dissertation research). Besides providing experience in writing and a much needed line on one’s c.v., one never knows who will read the review or what other opportunities might follow upon it.
Most scholars tend to see book reviewing as a burdensome, tedious, and frankly pointless undertaking that diverts them from more important and creative projects. Add teaching workloads, administration work, grant applications, and personal obligations and one realizes that dedicating precious time to review a new book is, to say the least, unattractive. A line on one’s cv or the enticement of a free book are often not enough to persuade scholars to review a new publication.
PhD students or young scholars entering the job market do not face the same problems but they do deal with an even more stressful issue, namely, the dim and admittedly deterring possibilities of employability. When one needs to spend countless hours filling in applications, writing postdoctoral project proposals while at the same time finalizing a PhD thesis or working on individual chapters followed by back-and-forth email exchanges with her/his supervisor, why should s/he spend time in reviewing a book? Is merely a free book or a line in one’s cv enough to persuade young scholars to engage into such a time-consuming project?
I think that there are three important reasons why doctoral students and young scholars should consider book reviews as a step in professionalizing themselves, but certainly not merely the first one. I strongly believe that book reviewing is an academic exercise that is often neglected or even scorned among academics for several reasons. First, most journals simply ask for a mere presentation of the book under review without requiring (or, worse, some times, denying to accept) a critical approach by the reviewer. Second, some reviewers tend to request and evaluate books written by either ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’, with a specific agenda in mind, which in turn produces biased reviews that add little to the academic ongoing discussions and debates. Third, book review editors often assign books without considering the reviewer’s field, expertise, and ability to submit something substantial. Fourth, the book reviews section in academic journals is often seen by scholars as a promotional one replacing publishers’ catalogues. Fifth, editors tend to accept almost all submitted reviews. This, of course, reflects the difficulty they have in finding reviewers to begin with and, as one can imagine, the high acceptance rate is sometimes against the scholarly nature of the book reviews section and its service to the field.
So, why bother? Here are three reasons why I think PhD students and young scholars should consider book reviews beyond the given demand for reviewers, a free book, and a line on their cv’s:
- Academic reading of a book and reviewing a book serve different purposes. In the former, one goes through a particular text in search of important data or information for justifying theories, approaches, and conclusions promoted in a research output (be it a PhD thesis, a journal article, a research proposal, etc.). In the latter, however, the stakes are higher. Reviewers are – ideally – required not only to present the structure and basic ideas of the book under review, but also to: identify problems; point out future developments that the reviewed book possibly promotes; parallel the text in question with previously published works and underline the scope and the location of the work in the wider academic setting; critically assess the methods and theories promoted and justify their potentiality within the specific field it belongs to.
- Writing book reviews will help you do better in job interviews. This admittedly bizarre statement needs further reflection. It is almost sure that during an interview for an academic job no one will ask you something along the lines of “What do you think of Bruce Lincoln’s approach to myth?” If your PhD thesis was on myth, you are most likely aware of Lincoln’s approach to the topic. But, in all honesty, no one cares about it. It is too specialized, narrowed, and people who decide whether you will get the job or not will want to see something beyond your ability to defend anew your PhD thesis. It is more likely to be asked something like “What do you think a department of Religious Studies should offer to students?” Such a question virtually requires a broader and academically coherent answer. Your ability to know, apply, and evaluate Lincoln’s definition of myth granted you a PhD (or will soon do so). Your critical approach to Lincoln’s work on myth and its placement in the field of Religious Studies with the simultaneous evaluation of how the discipline should or could function based on Lincoln’s suggestions (which is the result of a different reading of his work usually required when you review a book) will allow you to go beyond your PhD thesis and, hopefully, impress your interviewers.
- Writing book reviews will make you a better academic author. When reviewing a book keep in mind that you are working on a text that managed to survive going through various stages before being published. From the book proposal stage and the various anonymous reviews to series editors and copy editors and their suggestions, what you are working on is – most of the time – a polished and well-presented text. A careful and thorough reading of a book under review will give you a very good idea of what is the standard in academic writing regarding structure, style, referencing, and argumentation. If you are working on your thesis, this is an invaluable source; if you are working on a book proposal, you have at hand an example of what you should be aiming at. Given that for most – if not all – young scholars their PhD thesis will constitute the topic of their first book proposal, having worked on book reviews gives them an advantage in presenting a project that is coherent, well thought-out, and has all the academic elements that will convince a publisher to offer a contract.
Nickolas Roubekas is Teaching Fellow in the Department of Divinity & Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, U.K. He received his PhD from the Aristotle University, Greece, and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of South Africa as a member of the ongoing research project ‘Redescribing Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, coordinated by Gerhard van den Heever. He is currently working on a monograph on euhemerism as a theory of religion (forthcoming, Routledge) and an edited volume on theory and ancient religions (forthcoming, Equinox). Since 2012 he has been the book reviews editor of Religion & Theology, published by Brill. https://aberdeen.academia.edu/NickolasRoubekas