4 thoughts on “Do you have suggestions for making readers’ reports humane and helpful?

  1. Talia Schaffer Post author

    One problem with reader’s reports is that reviewers tend to assume that the writer of the article is a grad student or junior person. This is reasonable, because probably 80-90% of submissions do seem to be from this group, given that a) they need the publications for the job market and b) senior people’s work gets solicited directly so that they very rarely end up sending something in blindly to get it reviewed. So when a reviewer encounters a somewhat odd article, the impulse is to say ‘well, this person just doesn’t know how to write an article, let me help by recommending the right readings and informing the author how an article ought to be structured.’ It’s not necessarily an attempt at gatekeeping or refusing a new generation’s creative or radical interventions, but a well-meaning pedagogical intervention. While such ‘teaching moments’ can be necessary and useful, however, they can also block innovative work. Can and should we learn to suspend our ‘help the grad students’ impulse? Is the pedagogical imperative the right way to read these submissions?

  2. Talia Schaffer Post author

    Roger Maioli has given me permission to post this excellent comment:

    Yesterday a friend of mine who is a great scholar and a wonderful human being shared a painful experience she’s had with a review of her book. The reviewer was a young man still in the early stages of his career, and his attitude was not only unprofessional but sexist and insulting. Fortunately her book has been very well received by the field in general. But the episode convinced me that I should include training at review writing into my graduate seminars in the future. Here are some of things I would like to convey to future and current students:

    – As a reviewer, keep in mind that a book is not like a mass-manufactured product. Books are written by individuals over the course of several years, and they are always written under difficult conditions. In the best-case scenario, they are written by extremely busy professionals who wish they had had more time and leisure to make the book perfect. Often enough they are written under situations of greater stress, by parents reconciling work and parenting, by people struggling with illness, by members of minorities who do not have the same support structures you may have. Such work does not deserve to be reviled.

    – Be critical (it’s part of your job), but remember that to be rigorous is not the same thing as to be scathing.

    – Criticism is not the only job of a reviewer. You are also providing a service to readers who want to know what the book is about, and your review should offer an accessible and respectful account of the book’s central argument. All too often negative reviews skip that part to focus solely on what the reviewer regards as issues. Such reviews are not only uncharitable; they do little for their readers.

    – Reviews have consequences. Remember that they go into tenure files and may impact the author’s chances at promotion.

    – Do not magnify small problems. The fact that the book gets a date or an attribution wrong may be of little relevance for the argument. Such faults may be worth pointing out, but do so with graciousness. In my book I misidentified a reverend called William Jones as the linguist William Jones (no one ever pointed that out, so here it is). But I also remember working very hard to make sure I got everything right. Mistakes happen, because we are human. You will make them too.

    – More importantly, honor the parts of the book you really see value in. Every book contains a lot of good in it, and every hard-working author deserves that acknowledgment. This does not involve omission: it’s also your job to criticize, but your critique will seem more cogent both for the author and for your readers if you show appreciation for the book’s merits.

    – We all have books we don’t like. If you really have nothing good to say about a book, maybe you are not the right person to review it. Tell the editor that you are overbooked, or that after looking into the book you realized you lack the expertise. Academia is a small world and you will eventually encounter the authors you’ve reviewed. Meet as friends not enemies.

    – Ian Watt once wrote that, in the case of reviewers, “the boiling point of malediction is inversely proportional to the age and professional status of the reviewer,” because “the last acquired of Minerva’s arts is charity.” Ian Watt was right.


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