On the Reviewing Block

How do you decide what to read?  For nerds, academic journals provide page after page of book reviews.  I love to read and write these sorts of academic reviews.  But are they really worth the time?

Right now, for instance, I’m reviewing four books for a variety of journals.

For History of Education Quarterly, I’m writing a review of Andrew Hartman’s War for the Soul of America (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Hartman

For the journal Church History and Religious Culture, I’m reviewing Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial (Fordham University Press, 2014).rios

For Teachers College Record, I’m working on a review of Roger Geiger’s new book The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2014).geiger

Last but not least, I just agreed to write a review of Bradley J. Gundlach’s Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845-1929 (Eerdman’s, 2013), for History: Reviews of New Books.gundlach

For those outside of the academic realm, here’s how the process works: Publishers send out review copies to a variety of journals and magazines.  Book review editors hunt down an appropriate reviewer, usually through word of mouth and academic reputation.  If the first person they ask can’t or won’t write a review, the editor asks for suggestions of other possible reviewers.

I love to write reviews for academic journals.  In each case, putting together a coherent review forces me to do more than simply absorb a book’s argument.  It forces me to take a sharper look at the sources, the implications, and the book’s strengths and weaknesses.  In all of the reviews I’m currently writing, I had planned to read each book already.  Writing the review simply forbids me to read any of them lazily.

But beyond the benefits for the writer, do these reviews matter?  After all, very few people read academic journals.  These days, the long peer-review process means that reviews in academic journals sometimes come out long after the books are published.  We might be tempted to conclude that these kinds of academic book reviews are merely an exercise in higher-education navel gazing.

I think there’s more to it than that.  After all, these reviews are not intended solely for individual readers or book buyers.  This is not just a “rotten-tomatoes” kind of review, in which readers might check out what has been said before choosing one book over another.  This is not simply “like”-ing something on Facebook or scrawling out an angry smear job on Amazon.  Those things may boost or crush sales and reach, but they don’t provide readers with careful descriptions of a book’s structure.

Book reviews in academic journals are different.  The audience for these book reviews is mostly university types, the professors who are choosing books to use with their classes and their students.  No one has time to read every book that comes out, but these short reviews allow academics to remain broadly aware of new trends in their fields.  A “good” review in this context does not mean glowing praise, but rather careful description of the book’s argument and significance.  A professor can choose which books to use in his or her classes.  Professors can also recommend certain titles to graduate students for further study.

Some things that are old fashioned deserve to wither away.  Cassette tapes, large lecture hall classes, and phones with cords come to mind.  This tradition of slow and careful review, on the other hand, may have its roots in a very different technological time.  Nevertheless, it remains a vital part of academic life.


Holiday Reading List

Ho ho ho and all that. Like it or not, the holidays are upon us. For you nerds out there who, like me, view such breaks as a chance to catch up on our nerdy reading, I’ll share my plans for the next ten days.

Who's got time for presents?

Who’s got time for presents?

What are you reading these (holi)days?


I’ve got three books on my desk. One new, one old, and one in the middle. First, I’m excited to read Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial: Evangelical Scientists and a New Creationism (2014). Rios looks at the emergence of a network of creationist scientists after the 1920s. Next, I’ll be taking another whack at Virginia Brereton’s Training God’s Army: The American Bible School, 1880-1940 (1990). Over the years, I’ve read this book several times. As Brereton puts it in her introduction,

The fundamentalist movement was decidedly an educational movement and most fundamentalists were educators; education was implicit in their overriding objective, which was the evangelization of America and the world. To understand fundamentalists, then, it is absolutely necessary to examine their educational efforts.

Hear, hear! This time around, I’m reading it with an eye to my new book about evangelical higher education between 1920-1980. Last but not least, I want to spend some time with John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). This is one that I read many years ago as an undergraduate. For so long now I’ve been reading conservative writers and pundits, I feel a need to re-connect with this fundamental statement of liberal ethics.

Top of my stack...

Top of my stack…


I’ve been putting off Ted Davis’s series at the BioLogos Forum for too long. Davis is the one of the best historians out there for those of us interested in creationism and evolution. His series, “Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Evolution” ran through the summer into this past fall. I meant to read them as they came out, but as usual I fell behind. Thanks to these holidays, I’ll finally take time to read them more carefully.

There have been a couple of longish articles recently about evangelical religion and higher education that I didn’t have time to read yet. In The Atlantic, Laura Turner noted the activism at evangelical colleges about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I have high hopes that Turner does not assume that evangelical college students have never engaged in this sort of social activism before. As I’m discovering in my current research, there is a strong tradition at Christian colleges of left-leaning student activism.

Next up, an article that is doubly interesting for anyone who wants to understand evangelical higher education. Esmerelda Sanchez writes in Christianity Today about the experiences of Latina Pentecostals in higher ed. I’ve only read the teaser so far, but it looks as if Sanchez argues that as women, as Latinas, and as Pentecostals, those like her have faced special hurdles in the world of American higher education.


At the far edge of nerdy, I’m looking forward to reading a newly completed dissertation. Just completed at the University of Delaware is Kevin Currie-Knight’s From Laissez-Faire to Vouchers: An Intellectual History of Market Libertarian Thought on Education in Twentieth-Century America. Aside from the peerless Milton Gaither, historians have not taken a close enough look at the libertarian tradition in educational thought in US history. I’m hoping Currie-Knight’s work addresses some key issues of the meanings of markets in the imaginations of ed reformers. For those who don’t have access to a university library, you can always get easy access to dissertations like this at your local public library. Most public libraries have access to interlibrary-loan services, and they can often get you a pdf of any dissertation lickety-split.

That’s my plan. As usual, I won’t be likely to get to all of this in the next week. I’ll try to read all I can as I breeze through the holidays, packed full of candy canes and booze.

What are YOU reading as we say goodbye to 2014?