Book Reviewing and Teaching

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How does one (do I) keep myself fresh and sharp for the courses he or she (I) teaches? Anyone who has been a college or university student may be able to verify that textbooks are deathly dull. And I think this is more so for the professor than the student. I try to select the shortest ones with the most pictures (many of my colleagues do not agree on this), and then assign much more interesting, argumentative or pointed sources for discussion. I would do without textbooks if I could, but students seem to need an anchor hold they can go back to, someplace to keep stable in the face of new and unfamiliar material. I find it more interesting to work through a difficult argument than to try to keep myself awake through a long dry textbook. Just keeping up by reading a selection of the literature in the field doesn’t give enough urgency to the work of keeping it fresh for us as professors or for students.

One way I have found to continue to interact with my fields of teaching in a broad way is through professional book reviewing. It doesn’t seem like much, so I will try to make it seem useful, if not grand. I don’t know why more professors don’t do it except that it is time consuming and sometimes difficult. I can usually fit in one or two a year even with administrative assignments looming. The difficulty comes in the process. One must read every word, often including all of the notes, appendices, etc. One must read with care, even if the work is badly written or dull, or completely wrongheaded. Then the review must be boiled down into two to five or six pages (400-1500 words), depending on what the editor allots, with something significant said that must withstand criticism by other scholars and perhaps the author. If it can’t withstand criticism the writer might suffer professional embarrassment. Finally the review, even if negative, must be polite or at least civil, and especially if negative, I believe, gentle.

All of this reminds me of the time it takes for students to research, write, and do so with thoughtfulness and integrity. If I keep writing myself, I hope I will be sensitive to the work I assign students, the difficulty of it, and the expectations I bring to the reading of it. In fact, I have found reviewing a good exercise, one that I learned in my graduate work where reviews were sometimes assigned every week to be copied and distributed to other students in the seminar.

Once I completed a review on a 17th-18th century alchemist which the journal never published. Seems like an odd topic? Remember that Isaac Newton was a sometimes alchemist, and some of the early alchemists contributed to the development of scientific methodology, and even capitalist practices. I think it just got lost in a regime change. Another time I was assigned a book on Mennonite history and theology, only to be notified that the editor had given it to someone else as well. But the work wasn’t wasted. Eventually both were published.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to review the first major biography of John Wycliffe written in the past half-century. I set to work on it and first grew uneasy, then dismayed at the content and movement of the text. The author, a major Oxford scholar in the history of theology, had, I thought, failed to focus on the subject usefully, left out several important factors, not addressed issues that kept arising in the story, and did not include relevant scholarship from the last couple of decades. How was I to gracefully point to the inadequacies of the work from my prestigious academic post in Fresno? To make it worse, the review was for Conference on Faith and History, the association of Evangelical historians, and their journal Fides et Historia (yes, we are pompous—”Faith and History”), and the book jacket carried glowing recommendations from all of the big names.

That project turned into a six month task, with new books purchased and borrowed through interlibrary loan, older volumes and essays reread and small topics researched so that I could substantiate everything I wrote. Wycliffe is something of a saint in the Evangelical world, but it turns out he was difficult to get along with, was sometimes a questionable theologian, and was naïve enough to be used politically. We can learn a lot even from badly done books sometimes. I wouldn’t have refreshed my own knowledge of Wycliffe with such detail had I not been reviewing, and I taught differently the next year and since then because of it. The editor published it as written, and fortunately I was not challenged on my assessment. (If you want to read something good on Wycliffe, there are still some older works I can recommend.)

More recently I have reviewed a half dozen works on medieval world history, all but one for the World History Association and its World History Bulletin. Most of these were works to be used in the classroom. A couple I found useful but not intriguing, one fascinating, and one exemplary as a work of scholarship alone. Here I had to give detailed consideration and offer professional advice on content (evidence and argument), presentation, pitfalls, and usefulness in teaching. In current jargon this is an act of “the scholarship of teaching,” that is, participating in the professional development of works for teaching through peer review.

Over the course of the last twenty years I have enjoyed (not too strong a word) reviewing works on the history of theology and spirituality, the history of science and book production, neo-platonist philosophers in Renaissance Florence, and the medieval renaissance of the 12th century, for a variety of journals and professional association that I belong to. They have to be in my area of professional training, but most importantly I accept assignments that will require me to dig into the most current thinking on topics that I teach. None of this replaces original research, but it is a good way to keep myself fresh, to engage deeply in the works I am reading, and ready to work with students in the classroom.

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