Rediscovering the Book Review

Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, May 2008

The Problem

It seems that there is a strange hiatus, stretching from sometime around the sixth grade through the next 10 or 12 years to the first year of graduate school or–God forbid–the first months of the tenure track. In those years, so productive in other ways for the budding historian, a crucial element of the profession is often overlooked, considered too juvenile by some and above their station by others. This discarded element is the book review. In high schools in both the United Kingdom and the United States, the book review played no part in the school curriculum I followed, and was regarded by teachers and pupils alike as a pedagogical exercise for middle schoolers learning the finer arts of critical reading. As a history major at two different liberal arts colleges in upstate New York, I had a slightly different experience. On occasion, longer responses would be required to a certain book–I remember a particularly stirring assignment on W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk–but a succinct statement of thesis, contents, and criticism was rarely if ever required. The assessment of books, it seemed, was something best left to children or grown-ups. Those caught in between had no business tackling such a task.

It came as something of shock, then, as a first-year graduate student to be plunged into a directed readings tutorial with the late and great John W. "Jack" Cell of Duke University. To my horror, I was expected to read seven or eight books every two weeks, and to provide a 500-word review on each and a two- to three-page précis to boot. Jack's immortal words when questioned about the (im)possibility of such an endeavor have stuck with me to this day: "Everyone who's got a PhD has done it–somehow it just gets done." This, of course, was followed by the encouraging reminder that whatever was completed during the first few months of graduate school would be wrong anyway, so why worry? Jack, it turned out, had never spoken a truer word. Whether in one-on-one tutorials or larger seminars, the book review turned out to be a staple of graduate education. Thesis, thesis, thesis. Pros. Cons. Strengths. Weaknesses. Significance to the field. Wider implications. It has been drilled into all of us like the Code of the U.S. Marine Corps is into a recruit. Yet those we teach, especially the undergraduates who wish to follow in our shoes, are not trained in this important skill. Surely as such a vital part of graduate education and a key component of our professional life, the book review ought to also be introduced to the undergraduate engaged for the first time in serious historical study. Indeed, even for those undergraduates who do not plan to pursue further graduate education, the book review carries great scholarly value. Where else, if not in our classrooms, will our students be required to take a great amount of information in a short amount of time, analyze it, discover its ethos and significance, and accurately communicate its message in just a few pages? That is a skill of the utmost importance regardless of chosen profession, and it is one that as teachers we are duty-bound to convey.

The Experiment

I taught my first class as a freshly ABD'd graduate student, not in my own field but in that of one of my doctoral committee members who was on leave. It was a course I had TA'd for twice before and now I was sharing the reigns with another–it would be a team-taught course. My colleague and I, both taking our first crack at teaching, chose tradition over innovation. There would be two books assigned, both textbooks of a sort, with additional readings placed on reserve. There would be a midterm and a final exam, the first in-class, the latter take-home, and two papers. The blue book exam went as these things always do. Scribbled handwriting, hurried thoughts, and the regurgitation of information crammed just minutes before the exam and lost soon afterward. The take-home final was only marginally better–typewritten parroting replaced the unreadable scrawl. The "facts" of history had been demonstrated–the names, dates, and places had been learned, if only temporarily–but for me the examinations represented above all else failure. The aim of education had not been achieved. There was no indication that critical thinking had been attempted, no signs of independent analysis, or the progression of knowledge. The course was not completely lost, though. A ray of light was offered by the two papers assigned, each five to seven pages long. Here, finally, was the deliberation I had been looking for. As final grades were submitted, I vowed that never again would a blue book defile the desks of my classrooms.

Over the next few semesters, my courses were more successful, with four or five historical monographs replacing the textbooks and four five- to seven-page papers replacing the examinations. The papers were well written, the arguments sound, and there was something present that had been absent that first semester. That something was improvement from one assignment to the next, as prose became smoother and arguments tighter. Learning was taking place, of skills as well as facts, and in the process both professor and student were having fun. Yet something was still lacking. All of those who teach have experienced it. The classroom discussion in which no discussion takes place. The minutes of silence. The avoided eye contact and blank expressions. The papers were full of quotes and the assigned texts were readily referenced, but as the weeks went by and semester rolled into semester, it was clear that the index was perhaps the most heavily thumbed part of the book. Writing was taking place. Reading was not.

It was at this stage of my pedagogical progression that I began to flirt with the idea of introducing the book review to my classroom. The objections from colleagues were numerous. Students would never devote enough attention to the readings to produce a decent review. Book reviews did not require critical thinking, merely summation. Students would plagiarize and could do so easier on a book review than a paper or exam. It would be a tedious task for the teacher to read and grade a class of reviews on the same book. On and on came the warnings and misgivings. I began to doubt my own judgment. I shelved the idea for a semester. But something within would not let it go and after four semesters of teaching I decided to take the plunge. Blue book examinations had already been dispensed with. Now, so too were the five- to seven-page papers. Instead, my students would read five historical monographs. They would complete a two-page book review on each, due at the end of each three-week section of the course. A term paper would then be required to teach the student the necessary skills of research and writing, the length of which would vary depending on the level of the course, from 8–10 pages to 15–20 pages. The format was set. My mind was made up. The only question now was, Would it work?

The Book Review Rediscovered

It has been three years since I assigned my first book review to an undergraduate. It has become a staple of my syllabus, used in each of the places I have taught–Duke University, North Carolina State University, and presently the University of Arkansas. Having adopted the practice, having seen the results, I will never go back, and would encourage my colleagues in the profession to give it a go. So what are the benefits? First and foremost, the students read, and when that finally happens, it utterly alters the classroom dynamics. Students become enthusiastic to answer because they can. Discussion is productive because everyone has undergone the same preparation. The "silly" questions–those easily answered by assigned readings–are replaced by more probing ones. Learning can take place. Beyond the more pragmatic benefits of having done the reading, the students learn a valuable skill. It is with a sense of real satisfaction each semester that I see from one review to the next an increased ability to summarize an argument and discover the author's thesis. To my mind, the historical practice has two defining elements: independent research and historiography. In our undergraduate classrooms, we often emphasize the former yet ignore the latter. In my experience, the two must go hand-in-hand, for only then can a fuller picture of the past be discovered.

But what of the misgivings my colleagues voiced? My book reviews all follow a set format, both to avoid plagiarism and to ensure that critical thinking does indeed take place. Each are divided into four paragraphs. In the first paragraph, the student must identify the thesis of the book. Why is the author writing? What is the message he/she is attempting to convey? Why does it matter? The second paragraph contains a summary of the book. What do its chapters contain? How is it organized? What historical evidence does the author use to support his/her argument? If the first paragraph made sure that the student had identified the argument and "got it," the second paragraph is the inducement to read each chapter, not just the introduction and conclusion. It is with the third and fourth paragraphs, however, that the book review really becomes interesting. In the third paragraph, the student must analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Where is the author's argument compelling? Where does it fall short? What is particularly persuasive? What is missing? Finally, in the fourth paragraph, the student is required to place the book into the context of the course. How does the book fit with the lectures and discussions? What does it add to our understanding of the historical topic at hand? How does it compare to the other books we have read? Following these guidelines, and addressing the challenges of these four paragraphs, it is remarkable to discover how diverse a pile of reviews on the same book can be. The grading, far from being a chore, becomes a window into the minds of the students. It is a window I have found to be surprisingly encouraging, one filled with insight and intelligence. As historians, we expect of ourselves and our colleagues the skills required in the book review. Is it not time to expect such things of our students also?

Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon is assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas. His most recent book, Turning Points of the Irish Revolution: The British Government, Intelligence, and the Cost of Indifference, 1912–1921, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2007.