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Not the tidiest, huh?

Not the tidiest, huh?

Because let’s face it: for those of us lower down the academic ladder, reviewing books is scary.

There are pros and cons. Of course there is the free book. That said, I have reviewed a book for which I’d already forked out a considerable amount of money, because the review request just came too late for me. But I said yes anyway. Why? Well, it is actually satisfying to give back to the academic community. I don’t intend that to sound trite. And yes, putting your name alongside your review gets your name known.

And the cons? It’s hard work. A wholly positive review is rarely good, or even justified. There is (almost) always room for improvement in (virtually) every book. Therefore, in agreeing to write a review, you also agree to make fair criticisms. There is a difference between a fair criticism and an enraged response. While differences in opinion are reasonably easy to justify, it can be very difficult to respectfully state why you simply did not enjoy a piece of writing. We all know that not every reader will enjoy every writing style. We all know that the writing style should not mask the message of the text, even for a reader who does not enjoy it. But sometimes, the writing style can be so against what I find pleasurable to read that the message of the text is lost. How much that is to do with a text being poorly written or with me being a poor reader is difficult to judge, and even harder to write about. Finally, you cannot write a review without reading the book thoroughly, every word. That means that you can’t just skip a boring paragraph. You can’t decide that one essay out of collection is so bad by the third page that you need to give up and move on to the next. No, you have to stick it out. And, if you’re going to be a purist (which I am), you need to read it in order. So no reading the most relevant or interesting sections first (because, when I do that, I don’t always read the rest). Start to finish, just as nature – or the editor, or author – intended. For this reason, I would be unwilling to review a book that I did not already intend to read cover to cover.

The books I have reviewed I have done so for a similar reason that I review conferences, or live-tweet conferences: it helps distill my thoughts. My book reviews have three versions on my hard drive. The first is my raw thoughts, a record of what I thought in the moment, before knowing what comes next. Then there is the first review, which is more than a first draft. In that, I make a first distillation of the raw thoughts, yet still allow some emotion through, because that is what gives the review a personal voice, honesty. Yet that first review is not suitable for publication. No, the first review is for sharing with close colleagues, those who might actually want to know your untempered thoughts on the book, yet who deserve the structure of a polished review (i.e. without the drivel of the raw-thoughts version). These same colleagues, if willing, are very helpful for the second review, the review for publication. They can help tone down severe criticism or effusive praise, and, if they have also read the book, can offer viewpoints which may or may not be incorporated into the final published version, but which are nevertheless interesting and useful to know about. (Here I would like to thank Peter Davies and Anna Zayaruznaya who have both filled this role at various points.) The second review, then, is for the journal. It is metered in both criticism and praise, it covers all the major chapters in the book within the word limit (no mean feat), it situates the book in relation to past, present and future scholarship, and it should be understandable to readers outside of the field.

The structure of the review will vary as to its destination. If you have been asked to review for a publication which is dedicated to book reviews, that review will be longer, more detailed, and more thorough than a review for a publication in which reviews are the mint sauce to the meaty scholarly articles. Additionally, if the book you have been asked to review is entitled Intricacies of Baroque Parasol Craftmanship your piece will be different if it is for Historical Umbrella Quarterly than it would be for Perspectives on History. (Yes, I made up those names.) Indeed, when I read a book for review, I actually read it with the future review audience in mind, and their invisible presence shapes the review in all of its various stages, from raw thoughts to polished version.

Finally, I try not to forget the virtue of silence. My grandmother always used to say ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Following that to the letter might make for a very short book review. Putting it in a more scholarly perspective, the ‘feedback sandwich’ was drilled into me both in teacher training and in research training: whatever may need to be said in the middle, buffer it with two slices of good, positive bread. Here, dwell on the contribution the book makes for future scholarship – generating debate is a good thing, after all, even if that debate might be against the book (in the reviewer’s opinion). However piquant or pleasing your sandwich filling, the bread can cleanse the palate.

Two final nods. First, Pat Thomson’s blog post on writing a book review is a must-read: patter, 22 July 2011. Secondly, Elizabeth Eva Leach, professor of music at Oxford and winner of the 2013 Dent medal, recently tweeted (6 Aug 2013): ‘Really wish I were more often sent MSS before publication. I’d far rather be helpful than moan in post-publication reviews. #academiclife’ (@eeleach). Both of these got me thinking. One for being such a great tool (thanks Pat), the other about the (relative) finality of publication, and of the pre-publication process. Lengthy and stringent as it is, it is not infallible.

Reviewing a book is an opportunity to closely read a text, and to interact with it in a way not otherwise possible. It is not a competition; it is an engagement, a critique, a discourse (with all that entails). There is some room for creativity, and personality too. But you don’t have to accept every request. It is my opinion (and practice) that a few, well-thought-out reviews are better than a greater number with potentially lower quality thought and judgment, though I admit that there are doubtless many who are better – and faster – at reviewing books than I am. So feel the fear and have a go – and don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

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Great news – the following has now been published: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350-1550: Packaging, Presentation and Consumption edited by Emma Cayley and Susan Powell, Liverpool University Press, 2013.

Look, isn’t it pretty? Seriously though, there are some great articles. Mine is on the order of the lays in manuscript Paris, BnF fr 9221 (Machaut E), and it’s in very good company. Can’t wait for the hard copy to be in my hands.

Exeter book

I’ve been edited a few times, and this was certainly one of the most painless. The editors were helpful, courteous, efficient, and above all their work improved my article. (Sadly, that is not always the case; so it is doubly appreciated here.)

And of course, if you want to buy the book, you can get it here.

Today is an important day for me. It marks the end of my postdoc’s six-month ‘probation’ period at the University of Agder, Norway. In other words, it is now quite difficult for my employer to get rid of me before the end of my contract. It is also harder for me to leave them until that date. Until today, either of the parties named on the contract – that is, me or them – could break the contract without giving reasons and with (more-or-less) immediate effect. As of today, much more stringent rules apply.

Berry mars

Les Très riches heures du duc de Berry – mars. Used with creative commons lisence. View here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Très_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_mars.jpg

Let’s look at the positives first, for there are many, though I will name only a few here. First of all, it is a vote of confidence in me, and in the project. Secondly, it gives me a chance to really knuckle down and plan for the rest of my postdoc term, without the nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I might have to terminate after six months. (More on those plans in another post soon.) Thirdly, it puts me in a stronger bargaining position. I don’t feel I have a lot that I need to bargain for with my university, for they are very supportive, but it means that, should I wish to do so, I have a firmer ground on which to stand.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that I am on a limited-duration contract. This project is for two years, then that’s it. I can either apply for external funding to continue the project for one year (another short-term contract), I can look for another job, or I can return to running my own business (skatemaxwell.net). All three options have their ups and downs. My business was successful, and I have had to turn away (pass on) quite a bit of work since starting my postdoc. There is a lot of talk about alternative academic (‘altac’) careers at the moment, and I am one who moved from one such career back into academia. (Again, more on that in another post.) The applying for money for another short-term contract would have the advantage of maintaining the status quo, and giving me time to finish up anything that I don’t get done before January 2015, but it does mean (yet) another limited-time contract, and thus continues the uncertainty (or perhaps prolongs the agony, if we want to add a little melodrama).

Of course, the permanent academic post is the holy grail. Particularly one which is in the same country (yes, you read that right) as my partner and co-parent. Right now I have an 1800km commute, each way. I do it fortnightly. Two flights each way. It costs around 20% of my take-home salary for the flights alone, and even more when accommodation and other travel costs are taken into account. I’m happy with this for now. For the first time we are working for employers in the same country (believe me, this commute is far better than my international commute was, and to be paid in the same currency and taxed by the same system is a big improvement). I am a full-time researcher and part of an exciting project at a supportive institution, and, crucially, I can work from home one week in two. But were I to take on a position, anywhere, with a teaching component, working from home such a large amount of the time would be much more difficult, indeed, almost certainly untenable.

I live in Norway. Here, the academic hiring process is quite different from many other countries (see my post for The Professor Is In here, and the response from Jill Walker Rettberg, a professor at the University of Bergen, here). It is far from unusual for the Norwegian hiring process, with its independent committees and large applications, to take over a year. This puts me in a tricky position. On the one hand, from timing alone, I should be looking for post-postdoc jobs now. On the other hand, after only six months, my postdoc hasn’t (yet) produced the publication fruits I will need to display in the applications for jobs on the next stage of the ladder. Those fruits are ripening – I’ve been to conferences, I’ve started working on articles, I have a clear plan of outputs – but they are not yet at a stage where I can bundle them up and say ‘here you are, that’s what I did during my postdoc’. Of course they’re not, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Yet the hiring process takes a year… Yes, it’s a difficult circle.

It’s a circle that is somewhat different from that faced by many which I consider to be my peers on the early career research ladder. One very timely blog post from someone at the other end of the postdoc contract appeared just this week: Katie Wheat is contemplating her next move with six months left to run on her postdoc – Katie’s countdown. The fortnightly ECR chats on twitter regularly discuss life after the short-term contract, and feature participants who have already leapt over that precipice. Blogs such as Leaving Academia and Thesis Whisperer give a no-nonsense view of Life As It Is. I know both from sources such as these, and from my own experiences in other countries, that Scandinavia is a very good place to live and work as an academic. But that does not mean it is easy. However, I didn’t sign up for easy.

My postdoc ‘Multimodal Machaut’ is now six months in, and secure for the next eighteen, which will fly by. In that time I have to justify my institution’s faith in me, my own faith in my project, and decide what to do next and put it into action, all while maintaining that balance between work and family which is so perilous. The probation period may be over, but so too is the honeymoon. Now, back to work – for somewhere a clock is ticking (I could do most anything…).