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Book Smart: The Role of Editorial Assistants at the American Historical Review

Adrienne Chudzinski, October 2016

Growing up across the street from the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, whose antique gates once guarded the White House, I knew that history could not be reduced simply to names, dates, and rote memorization. As my interest in the discipline increased, so too did my desire to explore the full richness of the past by pursuing a career in the historical profession. While earning my bachelor's and master's degrees, I completed three curatorial internships, processed a 19th-century manuscript collection, and served as a graduate assistant in two undergraduate courses. Nevertheless, when I applied to PhD programs, I had only a basic understanding of scholarly publishing. Consequently, I was intrigued when my letter of acceptance into Indiana University's doctoral program was accompanied by an invitation to serve as an editorial assistant (EA) at the American Historical Review (AHR).

The primary duty of EAs at the AHR is to assist with the book review process. The seven EAs who work at the journal are each responsible for managing several specific regions or time periods that correspond with their research and teaching interests. As supervisor of the EAs, the book review editor sorts incoming titles by geographic, thematic, and chronological field and assigns them to EAs accordingly. Along with the editor of the AHR, the book review editor works closely with EAs to assess each title and determine whether it meets the journal's parameters for review. The AHR receives more than 3,000 books each year; they are evaluated for the significance of their subject, scope, archival research, originality, and audience. Though it is impossible to review each of these books, the AHR gives serious consideration to recently published titles that make original arguments based on substantial primary evidence, as well as to scholarship that might interest and serve a broad range of historians.

The book review process enables EAs to identify emerging trends and developments in the historical discipline.

After books are chosen for review, EAs search the AHR's database of nearly 60,000 scholars to compile a list of four to six potential reviewers for each title. To ensure that the book review process remains as fair and impartial as possible, EAs carefully create lists that exclude individuals who are listed in the author's acknowledgments or who may be closely associated with the book's publication (for instance, as a manuscript reviewer). To maintain balance, scholars who are engaged in a different task for the journal or who have submitted a review in recent months are also excluded.

The AHR relies on a group of field-specific faculty consultants, including IU professors and members of the journal's board of editors, to assist EAs in identifying potential reviewers. Consultants meet or correspond with EAs several times each semester to assess, revise, and approve each list before the journal solicits reviewers. It is not unusual for an EA to move through several names on a list before finding a scholar who is willing to review a book. In a world where teaching responsibilities and personal research interests compete with other professional obligations, many scholars explain that they cannot accept additional commitments like book reviews. Just as frequently, potential reviewers disclose that they have already agreed to review the book for a different journal, making them ineligible to review that particular title for the AHR. Once scholars accept a review commission, they receive a physical copy of the book and have three months to complete the 800- to 1,000-word assessment. Prior to publication, EAs fact-check and format each book review to match the AHR's style guidelines, and they read each one aloud with a partner to catch grammatical errors and problems with syntax that are too easily overlooked during silent proofreading.

As graduate students, EAs benefit from the mentorship of the AHR's impressive editorial staff and faculty consultants, who initiate and encourage conversations about each step of the book review process. Further, the AHR's editorial team welcomes questions about components of the journal that EAs are less involved with, such as the development of roundtables and forums, or the selection of articles for publication. These discussions represent an opportunity for EAs to take part in a larger conversation about what constitutes historical scholarship—how factors such as scope, content, audience, method, sources, and position within the scholarly discourse all weigh into the selection process for review and publication. The book review process enables EAs to identify emerging trends and developments in the discipline. I have devised a mental catalog of historians—including their institutional affiliation, recent publications, and research interests—in several distinct fields. This has supplemented my graduate coursework, certainly, but it has also equipped me with knowledge that might otherwise take decades of reading, researching, and networking to develop.

Finally, by interacting with historians at various stages of their careers, I have learned important lessons that seldom make it into the graduate curriculum: lessons about the effort, energy, and patience required to shape an article from initial submission to final draft; about the work required to turn a dissertation into a publishable monograph; and about how to write an informative, effective (and critical, if warranted) book review for an audience of professional historians.

Adrienne Chudzinski is a PhD candidate at Indiana University and recently completed her fourth and final year as an editorial assistant at the American Historical Review.


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