Just published this piece with undergraduate researchers from the research lab. It is a book review of Anthony Miccoli’s recent 2010 book “Posthuman Suffering and the Technological Embrace,” which is available here and here.
While the topic is fairly esoteric to most — the author of the book admits as much, by the way — this post is about the value of writing book reviews with students, specifically, undergraduate students. One of the main goals of this blog is to find valuable ways to harness undergraduate research experiences, and writing book reviews with students is a good way to do it, especially if you value “information literacy” (as much as our friends, like Jeff Knapp). Book review humor too?
So, why is writing book reviews a valuable form of undergraduate research?
1. Non-trivial activity and learning about what it means to “put your name” on something:
Probably the most important facet of writing alongside undergraduate researchers is that they consider writing publishable work to be a non-trivial activity. It provides the professor with an opportunity, as well, to really show a student what it means to put your name on a document that will be published. I find myself repeating to students, “if I’m going to put my name on this, then it must be written with a high level of quality.” In fact, some students think it is preposterous how much I might struggle over finding just the right word … just one word … the perfect word. But, moments later, you see that they are really getting it; they are taking control of their learning and starting not to write, but to command the English language. I think about Wes Culp as one of the first students that I remember working closely enough with on really writing — he mentions it, years later, in a recent magazine article too.
2. You can make it part of an upper division course to blend teaching responsibilities with undergraduate research and publishing:
Take, for example, a straight-forward and exceptionally brief review — 400 words, to be exact — of Christotainment written with Marcus Correll and Justin Didyoung. We were already studying non-religion, and through a chance encounter with a past editor of Sociological Viewpoints, the journal of our local Pennsylvania Sociological Society, we were asked to write a brief review of the then-new book, which is here. In this case, both students were looking for an independent study opportunity so we spent the semester writing many drafts of this book review and learning, in the process about book reviews, by making them … many of them, that is, many drafts of them. In the end, the students were held, they reported to me, to the highest standard of writing as compared to any of their previous classes. “It would be reviewed,” I told them, “and after that, it is out of our hands, so this had better be good.” They had to consider their audience; a lesson that was frequently repeated (many, many times). I repeated this process with Mark Singer (on Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided) and Nicholas Tsentas (on Irwin’s Lifers), which are also reviews for Sociological Viewpoints.
3. Opportunity for graduate-school-bound students to publish academic work:
Now at Kent State working under the famous Dr. Serpe on issues related to identity theory, Brooke Long and Fritz Yarrison are two students who understood the academic game and the important role of self-promotion. They came to me asking to review a book. After having recently published a piece in International Sociology, I casually asked the editor if there were any titles that they’d like to have reviewed. In the end, we ended up reviewing a great and massive book about national development partnerships, although, because the three of us were otherwise busy with our own classes, research, and so on, we ended-up writing the review on a handful of Saturday mornings, most notably during a blizzard while working at a Wegman’s grocery store coffee shop. The review was, in there view, another step towards graduate school, but also becoming a professional. Again, the standard of writing was held as absolute on my part, but I also think the students got a taste for what it really means to read a book academically (beyond what is expected in the classroom). In the future, I plan to have students participate a bit more in the solicitation process; it seems that editors are always looking for people to review books … so perhaps it won’t be that difficult. Also, I’d be remiss not to mention that sometimes editors, having read your previous work, come to you specifically to write alongside your students. That was the case with the book review mentioned above; the just-published piece with student co-authors — the book review of Anthony Miccoli’s recent 2010 book “Posthuman Suffering and the Technological Embrace,” which is available here and here. A couple more are on their way too. One about video games and another about oil pipelines.
4. Not just writing, but “information literacy” skills can be developed along the way:
You can also teach students quite a lot about book reviews by asking them to contribute to highly-unorthodox reviews, which are specifically designed to foster student information literacy. This is an idea that has only come slowly to me after nearly a half-decade working closely with a faculty reference librarian, Jeff Knapp. We recently discussed this at a colloquium talk too, and the response was palpable. The basic idea is this: you don’t just write a book review with a student, you use writing the book review as a way to teach the students something about how book reviews fit into academic life and academic literature. Seems simple, but after working with a librarian for a few years, I realize how complex it is. One way we started to do this is by writing book reviews that cite every other book review about the same book under our review. This requires the student to see how book reviews fit into the literature and after a good deal of discussion they grasp the role of book reviews. Also, after some discussion about the profession, students also get a good idea about how book reviews work for academics too; that some people write them, some people don’t, and that a professional obligation associated with being an expert is to review published materials for the broader profession. This was was the case with Alex Kinney (just accepted to Arizona University) in our review of a text for Spontaneous Generations. We worked with the editor at SG to determine whether or not a fairly innovative book review could be written, We reviewed all other reviews of the same book and wrote a review that covered what the other reviews seems to have missed, according to our reading of them. Kinney was responsible for reading the book, of course, but he was also asked to do the background research on the other reviews. The result was a great project, and one we’ve since tried to recreate with lab student Josh Branch and new blogger Nicholas Pyeatt, a review that has already gotten a bit of attention. The same is true of almost any review we now write with students.
5. Low rejection rate and extended window of time for book reviews:
For students, the exceptionally low rejection rate for book reviews and the typically extended window of time that is available for reviews to be completed provides a terrific context for students to publish their first academic work. The payoff for students is relatively high and the liabilities are few, if any. Perhaps, and this is something that has come-up in discussions of this with other professionals, is that the student gets a “false understanding” of how publishing works. “They get a guaranteed publication, which is not,” the critics of this approach contend, “what the broader world of publication looks like.” That very well might be the case; the student gets an inflated sense of their ability because they cannot be rejected and rejection is part of what makes an academic an academic (we’ve all suffered rejections of our work and perseverance is part of the academic game). My response: if you tell them how book reviews fit into the publication game, you reduce that possibility. Still, I concede: no matter how much you tell a student about the role of book reviews, perhaps a few will be unable to to hear it. On the flip-side, however, you train a student that in the professional world you have some obligations to review work — that book reviews, as limited as they are in readership and despite their low-status as a publication, provide a valuable function to the broader academic world and that a student could contribute to that if properly trained and mentored … I’m fine with that message too. I have seen no negative consequences thus far.
6. Given the relatively low pay-off to faculty for writing book reviews, writing them with a student boosts their value to the faculty member:
Hammering-out book review after book review is not a viable path toward tenure or promotion at nearly any college or university. However, completing a few high quality book reviews with student co-authors can increase the utility of those book reviews because you have now blended student mentoring (which is a service to the institution), teaching (because the students must learn so much to accomplish this task), research (because, while minimum, book reviews are a signal that you are an active scholar), and a service to the profession (given that book reviews are something of a shared burden to academics in many fields). Thus, getting students involved is way to muster a bit more value out of the experience.
7. It is fun:
I might be alone in this, but writing book reviews is fun. You are freed to write in a slightly different style, if you’re accustomed to writing, for example, research reports. You can tie-in, if you so choose, all manner of citations to other academic work as well as relevant material from the public sector. At any rate, I like it.
So, this is why you might write book reviews with your students.