It’s Not Worthless

Yes, I tweeted the above, this morning, in response to a tweet about “an older prof” who supposedly said to someone that writing book reviews is “professionally worthless.”

What I find so frustrating is the contempt that many scholars (older or younger) seem to have for the day-to-day machinery of the field — from reviewing essay submissions to journals, reviewing book submissions to publishers, reviewing tenure & promotion applications, reviewing books, and editing journals to advising students, supervising graduate work, and even serving in administrative positions. And, yes, I think contempt is the right word, at least judging by the way many talk about such activities and how we value them (in things like tenure and promotion standards) — or how we joke about them and make a show either dodging those bullets or falling on those spears.

But — and here’s the real newsflash — we don’t have an academic field without all of these.

It’s almost as if those who value peer review publication alone — something I too value, to be sure — just naturally think that there’s an underclass of bureaucrats, toiling away in some basement somewhere, who exist merely to put other people’s gems into publication.

Second newsflash: there isn’t.

(Third newsflash: it’s not like those people demeaning these activities are publishing three times as much as everyone else. Frankly, I’m not sure what they do with all their spare time. Think deep thoughts, no doubt.)

Exercising controls on the field come about from that list of self-governance techniques, developed over hundreds of years in our profession, all mentioned above — you know, the peer part of peer review. Simply put, if writing book reviews is professionally worthless them it strikes me that we inhabit a worthless profession coz now it’s just all what they used to call vanity publications.

(That the institution of peer review is easily manipulated should be pretty obvious too, by the way — we can talk about that final newsflash later…)

So, regardless your career stage, please agree to review books. (I wrote two this past summer, for UK publications.)  Please agree to review submissions for journals and presses. (I did one just the other day for Bloomsbury.) Please tackle editing a journal or agree to be a book review editor. (Yup, been there, done that.) And please agree to review tenure and promotion dossiers. (I’ve got one on my desk right now, in fact. that’s due in a few weeks, and, this past summer, I contacted about 25 people in order to get 10 of them to agree to write for two such cases happening in our own Department.) Of course these are hardly the only requirements on your time, whether professionally or personally, so, sure, feel free to say no — but, please, not always. For each time you get an article into print and whenever you post on social media about that glossy book cover that you’ve just had published you can’t forget that there’s a bunch of people behind the scenes making that all of possible, people who are all doing their own writing and teaching and living.

Thanks to them our C.V.s grow and the field advances. So please, pitch in where and when you can.

It’s not worthless.

Not at all.

1 thought on “It’s Not Worthless

  1. I agree completely. The kind of work outlined above is scholarly at its core. It takes a knowledgeable scholar to be able to make these kinds of evaluations. Intelligence, awareness of the dynamics – of all kinds – in the field, and an overarching commitment to fairness and open debate make it possible for our common enterprise to be healthy and to flourish.

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