ACADEMIC HATCHET-JOBS.

I have finally gotten most of the way through the March 7 TLS (yes, I know, why do you think I don’t subscribe? it’s bad enough when I just pick up the occasional issue) and found a very interesting essay by Emily Wilson about the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. She focuses on the venom with which so many BMCR reviewers attack the books under discussion, and her suggested explanations resonate strongly (for me, at any rate) with the discussion of the sorrows of the toilers in academic vineyards that’s been taking place at Baraita (here and here, inter alia), Caveat Lector (go to her grad school category, start with “What he said” on 26 Februarii 2003, and work your way down towards the present), Wealth Bondage (here, with many forceful comments), Frogs and Ravens, and the Invisible Adjunct (passim, and thank goodness she’s back online!). Here’s the heart of it:

There are two possible explanations for the large numbers of hatchet-jobs. First, too many academic books are being published, not all of which are first-rate. The pressures of Research Assessment Exercises and Tenure Review encourage aspiring academics to churn out too many words, too fast, without enough time for real research and, even more importantly, real contemplation. This is a problem which affects all humanities departments at the moment, not just classical studies. If anything, the number of utterly pointless books published in Classics seems lower than in some other disciplines; but that may be my own prejudice. If one accepts this explanation, one may be grateful to BMCR for working so relentlessly to purge the academic body of error and to reassure the readers that most of the books they do not read are not worth reading.
But the proportion of negative reviews in BMCR seems significantly higher than in comparable publications, such as Classical Review. This suggests a second explanation: that the dismissive tone of BMCR may have as much to do with editorial policy as with the state of the classical studies. The majority of reviews seem to be written, not by big-name senior scholars, but by graduate students, junior professors and adjuncts, who hope to boost their publication records. I say “seem”, because there are no contributors’ notes and it is difficult to trace many of the names. A publication in which people of all academic ranks can find a voice may sound more egalitarian than the journals where one sees the same names over and over again. But less senior people are likely to write harsh reviews, not only because of the idealistic brutality of youth, but also because the structure of contemporary academia tempts those at the bottom to trample on their peers and to suck up to their more advanced colleagues. A junior academic or graduate student writing for BMCR can show off his or her scholarly credentials by pointing out the errors in someone else’s first book; books by well-known figures are much more likely to be treated with respect.

So… any thoughts?


Incidentally, the current issue of the TLS features a number of language-related pieces, including Susan Sontag’s “Babel Now” (“I shall argue that a proper consideration of the art of literary translation is essentially a claim for the value of literature itself”), Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s “The EU – all in the translation” (“EU officials and parliamentarians are shielded from the trials of Babel because they have bevies of translators. Anyone able to translate from Latvian into Greek or from Slovenian into Finnish is assured of a prosperous livelihood in the Brussels bureaucracy. For ordinary folk, the absence of any agreement to use one or two common languages will prove a high barrier”), and Mary Beard on Roman bilingualism (not, alas, online). Take a look before they’re taken down and replaced by the next issue.

Comments

  1. I loved the Sontag essay — I know her name and sometimes see essays by her, read them, enjoy them, but have no clear idea who she is. I had not known about St. Jerome’s writing on translation, it looks like it would be well worth reading some. A task I come back to at long intervals is attempting to read St. Jerome’s Genesis — so far I have managed to get through about 2 chapters of it.

  2. Interesting to see the different “cultures” of reviewing. Most places I’ve written reviews for rather explicitly said “If you’re not going to say something nice, you’d better well give solid examples!” and some even put it more pointedly that if you couldn’t write a review that discussed the book’s good points as well as the bad perhaps you should pass on the review (which raises another issue entirely…) I would add that the reason many reviews are written by folks in the younger cohort is that this is about the only publishing record we can establish; I very much covet the additional lines on the c.v. a review can bring. Further, since I want this to contribute to my writing portfolio, I usually link to my reviews and thus have a vested interest in writing ones that are fair (and likely to be blurbed — which happened once — or result in authors’ thanks — which has also happened). I don’t see the point of publishing reviews without the reviewers’ names and affiliations, both as a reader and writer of reviews (Or did I misunderstand what you meant about it being hard to identify reviewers? I don’t read that journal.)

  3. I subscribe to the BMCR’s slightly later sister list, and haven’t noticed a significantly greater tendency towards savagery than in paper journals. Also, I’m surprised at the idea that junior scholars would be the ones ripping into other people’s books; as a graduate student and now a junior scholar, I know that a truly nasty review (however well deserved) can earn me enemies in places where I can ill afford them. Most of the grandly malevolent reviews I can think of have been done by senior scholars.
    That said, I can immediately think of two reasons why an online review might be more vicious than its paper equivalent:
    (1) Unlike most paper journals, the BM lists review article collections, and while there are excellent collections out there, most of them feature at least one dungheap surrounding the gems.
    (2) Online reviewers have a lot more space. When I’ve had to review a basically decent book in 800 words or less, I can only mention its major successes and flaws; I don’t have room to catalogue minor problems _and_ offer enough of a summary to fulfill the purpose of a review. If I had 3000 words, I could wax a lot more eloquent, and it’s easier to list flaws than to sing praises.

  4. Wilson may be right about the tendency for junior faculty and graduate students to rip a book they’re reviewing to shreds; the two harshest reviews I’ve seen in the BMCR (Mercier on Crotty’s “The Poetics of Supplication” {which is, actually, a rather weak book) and Cribiore on Morgan’s “Literate Education…”) were obviously by graduate students defending their turf. (Ironically, the reviews clarified the weaknesses to be found in the reviewers’ dissertations as well as those found in the work under review.) Their nit-picking cruelty actually increased my interest in the book – mainly because they thought it worth dragging out the vitriol; perhaps I am in a minority. Of course, there is also the problem that some scholars simply do not understand how to review books, being too familiar with compiling the literature surveys for their dissertation to give a rational, disinterested account of what they have read. Not for them the sentiment found in Housman’s introduction to Juvenal: “What is important is not that I should correct and explain Juvenal but that Juvenal should be corrected and explained.” Housman was not known for mincing words in his criticism of other scholars, either; but his sharpness can’t be ascribed to the rigors of the tenure track.
    Nonetheless, Wilson overstates the case; most of the BMCR reviews – which one can, incidentally, sort by reviewer – have been at the very least respectful and thought-provoking, save in a very few cases of blatant stupidity or willful blindness on the part of the author (or reviewer; see, e.g. Toner’s “Rethinking Roman History”). As an assistant professor with her own first book in the works, though, Dr. Wilson is perhaps inclined to take an anxious view of the goings-on down the road at the BMCR. It is also possible she was somewhat startled by the character of American academia – which can be a rude awakening after the avuncular fellowship and the dispassionate, patronising criticism of the Oxford dons (cf. http://www.aretemagazine.com/t_article.jsp?id=28 ).

  5. Good my Eudaemonist: That is perhaps the single most informative comment this humble blogos has ever received (and not only informative but judicious; Housman can rarely have received such well-balanced treatment in the course of an aside). Furthermore, your Helena Echlin link is so compelling I am about to give it its own entry. I will now confess something that embarrasses me: I have on occasion happened on your site, and each time I have been intrigued by its obvious erudition and wit but sufficiently put off by its (to me) user-unfriendly front page that I never investigated further (I know, I know, ou phrontis Eudaimonistei). Now that I have discovered your archives, I intend to spend a good long while roaming the aisles, blowing the dust off old entries, and leafing through them; it will be just like the good old days in Sterling Memorial Library. I doff my pilos and make the appropriate libation. Khaire!

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