The Nature and Function of the Religious Studies Book Review (Part 3 of 3): Pedagogical Value and Closing Comments

By Philip L. Tite

Continuing from Part 1 (the structure of the book review) and Part 2 (functions of the book review) of this essay, this final entry offers a discussion of the pedagogical usefulness of the book review along with some closing comments on getting started as a book reviewer and on the book note. To reiterate once again, this essay is offered as a resource for instructors and scholars to use in their own work or teaching. Feel free to modify and use this essay for classroom or personal use (though please note the original source). And please use the comments section to add to or expand upon what has been written.

Pedagogical Value of the Book Review

I opened this blog with a reference to my teaching. In the past, I’ve used the book review as an assignment and, given the opportunity, I will again. There are various reasons why assigning a book review to students is worthwhile.

1. The review is less intimidating than the research paper, so it can serve as a stepping stone to larger, more complex assignments. Furthermore, students develop the critical skills needed to effectively utilize secondary sources in research.

2. I’ve used the review as a means to introduce students to a theoretical or methodological approach that will be used or adapted for another research paper. For example, I had my students read and evaluate Vernon Robbins’s The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society, and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1996) in preparation for an application of socio-rhetorical criticism to early Christian apocryphal texts. Of course, we spent an entire class session discussing the book after the reviews were submitted. The review forces the student to struggle with an approach more than a simple reading assignment, even with discussion, would allow.

3. The review allows students to flex their analytical muscles, specifically by intersecting both descriptive and analytical aspects of the book review. In this sense, we prepare our students to walk through the necessary stages of critical analysis. They must first establish a clear understanding of whatever they are studying, to build a data set that is accurately redescribed, in this case an author’s position on a particular topic or issue. Moving beyond simply establishing data, the student learns that he or she must also bring heuristic analytical questions to bear upon that data. This is the stage of explanation or theorization. Lastly, a student may also be able to contextualize the work within the broader field of study, thereby entering into that third stage of scholarly critique or reflexivity of which the book review, quintessentially, is a vital component.

4. Ideally, students should be developing critical skills that are applicable to non-academic contexts, such as reading online content, news articles, listening to speeches and arguments in public life, etc. The review, like the research paper, should be a stepping stone in preparing students to critically engage such discourses – i.e., fully appreciating or understanding the positions being advocated while looking beyond those positions in order to contextualize and evaluate them.

5. A classroom exercise could be to have students not only write book reviews, but also to read them. Specifically, when having students work through a particular book (e.g., a textbook or a book assigned to generate discussion), having them also read reviews of that book will offer students a wider range of perspectives or opinions (evaluating not only the book but the book’s reception in scholarship). I believe that an important part of our teaching is to model – both in our teaching and in our course structure – the ability to compare different viewpoints.

6. Finally, writing reviews in a classroom context – especially for graduate students – serves as an exercise to develop skills necessary for an academic career. For those few who go on for graduate work, and for the even fewer who enter the discipline as active researchers or teachers,  the training offered should expose students to what scholars tend to do in their careers.  We read voraciously, we teach others, we engage in various types of research, we apply for research funding, we present papers at conferences, we publish books and articles – and we publish reviews of colleagues’ work (and, in turn, read their reviews of our work). The ideal doctoral program should offer training in all these areas.

Getting Started as a Book Reviewer

So how does a young scholar, perhaps a doctoral candidate, get in on the whole book review thing? How do we get editors to send free books to us? How do we get another line on the CV?

When I first decided to write reviews, I crafted a letter introducing myself to book review editors. (Most journals will list their editors and postal address in the front matter of the journal, though today most journals will have a website with all this information.) The letter indicated where I was (e.g., a graduate student in such-and-such a department at such-and-such a university) and my area of expertise, research interests, or at least areas for which I would be competent as a reviewer. (Another item that could be mentioned in such a letter is the range of languages in which you are comfortable reading books.) I shot the letter off to book review editors and waited to see what would happened. Some editors got back to me with a very kind note saying they would keep me on their list of potential reviewers (and then I never heard from them again), while others never responded. A few actually sent me books or an invitation to have a book sent to me. Thus began the publishing phase of my academic career.

I would suggest making a list of journals that you would like to approach. Hit the specialized journals in your specific area, but don’t forget the more general journals (who may be in need of someone who can handle your area of study). Craft a brief, professional letter that introduces you to the editor and then tweak it as needed for each journal. Shoot off the letter (email works these days) and see what happens.

Don’t be offended if editors ignore you. That happens. And do realize that some journals have a policy of not using graduate students as reviewers. There are people out there who believe that only those who have a PhD degree and have published books should review books. There is some merit to that position.

Once you’ve received a book for review, try to stick within the guidelines supplied: keep to the assigned word count and due date. Remember, if you make a good impression, then the editor may send you another book. Also, read published reviews (not of the assigned book, but just book reviews generally) in order to pick up on how reviews are written. My comments in Part 1 can help, but nothing beats reading the type of thing you are trying to write (this is true with all types of writing) – learn to emulate as you develop your own distinct writing style. Pick up on what works and what doesn’t work in the reviews you are reading. We can learn as much from what is problematic as we can from something outstanding (i.e., ask yourself, How would I write this more effectively?).

The Book Note – A Brief Side Comment

Not all reviews are created equal. There are standard reviews that run about 1000 to 2000 words or so, while some journals (especially online ones) are open to longer reviews (sometimes these simply become “review essays” when they are hitting 7000 to 10,000 words). Then there are shorter reviews or book notes that are only a few hundred words long.

Regardless of the space offered a reviewer, no review can reproduce a book of 150 to 400 pages, nor should it even try. In a longer review, there is room for deeper discussion and engagement. As someone who has published books, I generally prefer reading the longer type of review of my books. As a reviewer, it’s more fun to write longer reviews. But not all journals offer that level of freedom, in fact most don’t – journals have space limitations and readers have attention spans that need to be considered.

The book note, such as we find in Religious Studies Review and, to evoke my own area of study, the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, primarily offers only enough space to summarize the book with perhaps a brief comment of evaluation. The temptation is to simply write a book abstract. This temptation, in my opinion, should be avoided (unless that’s all the journal asks for). The book note should strive to encompass all the elements listed above for the review – introduction to the book and its author, accurate description of the book, a balanced critique, and a quick wrap up. Detailed presentation and analysis will be ejected for sure, while the emphasis will lean toward the descriptive side. But the book note should be more than a simple abstract. Try to work in a brief evaluation of some sort – and avoid the temptation to simply “dismiss” or “praise” the book in lieu of analysis.

***

The above comments reflect my own perspective on the book review as a disciplinary tool both within the classroom and within the broader corridors of the academy. In re-reading this essay, I noticed that most of what I have to say is applicable to other disciplines within the humanities. Like other disciplines, almost every academic journal in our field has a book review section (a few, like Harvard Theological Review, simply have a “books received” list). There are several journals exclusively dedicated to publishing reviews (e.g., Religious Studies Review, Review of Biblical Literature, and formerly Critical Review of Books in Religion), and reviews are now beginning to form an important part of the religious studies blog culture. Furthermore, nearly everyone entering the discipline will, at some point in her or his career, prepare a book review for publication.

Thus, the review continues to be an important part of our work. It continues to be a venue for us to communicate with each other, debating issues while attempting to shape the field to fit our own particular vision of what religious studies should be as an academic discipline. The observations and suggestions offered in this blog hopefully will be helpful in the continued use of the book review within the academic study of religion.

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