[Milton-L] soliciting of reviews

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Sun Dec 14 17:59:16 EST 2008

I didn't mean to imply, Jim, that scholarly reviewers should be held to the
same standard as Plato's philosopher king -- unripe until 60 -- just that
they ought to be themselves published scholars in a relevant field.  This is
not elitism, Jameela, or if it is it's good elitism, the same kind that's
behind reviewing in the first place or behind the principles of selection
exercised by publishers of articles and books.  The process of peer review
does not actually involve "peers," exactly.  As a junior scholar, my first
book proposal was reviewed not by other junior scholars, without books, but
by "senior" (i.e., "credentialled" not "aged") ones, and surely none of us
would have it otherwise.  The same goes for articles submitted to journals,
and also for reviews for promotion and tenure.  It seems silly to suggest
that there is something wrong about have experts review those who are just
getting into a field.  Of course, sometimes this process doesn't work as
well as it ought to, perhaps because of the limitations of a few of those
experts, but as you say, the process probably works as well as it can, given
the inevitable involvement of fallible humans.

Shifting gears somewhat, I think that behind your concern lies another
"problem" with scholarly reviews, that we're of mixed minds about what
they're actually for.  Sometimes they seem almost an extension of
publisher's PR machines; they serve to advertise books and provide somewhat
detailed blurbs and summaries that will help readers who haven't the time to
read everything and want to know which books they should really read and
which they should just know about.  On the other hand, reviews can also
serve as the means by which research is evaluated by the scholarly
community, or at least the means by which such evaluations are
disseminated.  But furthermore, especially for junior scholars, reviews are
also inevitably part of the process by which we are evaluation, not just by
our peers but by our employers.  This is not something to take lightly.  A
damning review could not only establish a poor scholarly reputation, it
could result in, or at least contribute to, a denial of tenure.  When I was
in my last year of graduate school, a senior scholar at a grad student
professional development sessions advised us strongly against reviewing.
You can make enemies, he said, that could do you real harm later in life,
and all for a line on your cv that won't matter much anyway (do promotion
and tenure committees really care about reviews? not mine).  Since then,
I've heard many stories from all sorts of colleagues about enemies they made
in just this way.  I don't think reviews should be where grad students cut
their scholarly teeth.  It doesn't do them much good, it could do them real
harm, and it doesn't do the rest of us much good to have our scholarship
reviewed by our students.


On Sun, Dec 14, 2008 at 4:16 PM, Watt, James <jwatt at butler.edu> wrote:

> Exactly So, Jameela!!
> But don't worry, the old ones in the nature of things will first forget to
> pull up the ladder, then forget that there IS a ladder.  That's when you'll
> see them raining down from the tree tops like so many rotten (or as they say
> in Jazz circles, moldy) figs.
> Jim Watt
> ________________________________________
> From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [
> milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Jameela Lares [
> Jameela.Lares at usm.edu]
> Sent: Sunday, December 14, 2008 4:04 AM
> To: John Milton Discussion List
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] soliciting of reviews
>  On Friday 12/12/2008, Hannibal Hamlin wrote:
> "This raises, alas, yet another question -- who should be doing the
> reviewing.  Many young scholars, even graduate students, are eager to
> review, since this is a relatively easy way of getting publications.  But
> this can easily make enemies and damage career prospects.  There is also a
> problem of authority.  I confess I get irritated when I read reviews in TLS
> or other major journals that are written by graduate students, even when the
> arguments seem sound.  Since a review is partly a guide to books that one
> hasn't read, one wants to be able to trust the reviewer.  This is not to
> deny the argument that we all have ideological bias -- not a very
> interesting one, I think -- but rather to assert the need for credentials
> and the desire of the reader for a reviewer that can be trusted."
> Sorry to have not replied sooner, but I am troubled by this comment, as it
> seems both unworkable and unnecessarily elitist to insist that only
> established scholars write reviews.  How otherwise can junior scholars get
> established or, for that matter, how can a field of inquiry continue to
> attract new members?  Surely not by having those above them pull up the
> ladder and close the club.  Plus we all know senior scholars who can't be
> bothered to write reviews any more, and I hope we all know some upcoming
> scholars who are dazzling. Part of all our woe that death brought into the
> world is  that we all will only have a short time to be really established
> in academe.
> It seems to me that the system we've got--of overworked editors
> comissioning reviewers as best they can--is as workable as it's going to
> get.
> Jameela Lares
> Professor of English
> The U. of So. Mississippi
> 118 College Drive, #5037
> Hattiesburg, MS 39406-0001
> 601 266-6214 ofc
> 601 266-5757 fax
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Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
Burkhardt Fellow,
The Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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