Assistant Proffie Andy asks questions about book reviews

Howdy, friends!  Sorry to have gone silent for the past few days–last week was the first week back to classes, and then I spent yesterday in bed all day long suffering from “nervous exhaustion.”  (Well, I slept a lot, and tested negative for everything else, so what would you call it?)  Poor Dr. Mister is on call this weekend, so in between his usual clinic hours and hospital duties, he stopped by to check on me every couple of hours.  (House calls sure are handy–they help make up for his busy schedule and inability to go on sabbatical with me. . . almost!)  Fortunately for him, I was a pretty easy patient because I was usually asleep.  I take pride in being a low-maintenance patient.

Anyhoo:  today’s letter from the mailbag comes from a young historian who has questions about book reviews and the role they might play in his budding career:

I am in the middle of my first year as a new assistant professor.  I am writing to ask you a few questions about writing book reviews.  I have read the instructions posted on the leading journals in my field–submit your vita or fill out our form and so forth.  Here are my unanswered questions: 1) Including a careful reading (or two?) of the book, approximately how much time does a book review take you to compose?  2) How many book reviews do most assistant professors complete in a year? 3) What is the process of saying no to a book review, or would this decision shut the door forever with the journal I turn down? 4) To what extent do academic-political considerations factor into your reviews?  That is, is there a risk in writing an especially negative review early in my career–even if the book warrants it?

Ever yours,

Assistant Professor Andy

Dear Andy,

You seem to take book reviews awfully seriously–not that that’s a bad thing.  It’s always good to hear from an Assistant Professor who is thinking about the big picture, and about how everything he writes is part of a strategy for building a national or international reputation.  Book reviews are a very important service to the profession, so you should think about how they will reflect on you as a professional.  I’ll answer your questions in order from the perspective of a fellow historian.  (Commenters from other disciplines should feel free to add on or offer different, discipline-specific advice.) Continue reading

Letters of recommendation for job applicants: how important are they?

Go read this post at Female Science Professor.  She writes:

Years ago, a friend of mine had a highly unsuccessful interview for a faculty position. According to the legend, the department chair, who had had the same adviser as the candidate, was upset that their mutual adviser had written in the reference letter that the candidate was the best graduate student he had ever advised. This was humiliating for the not-best professor and he did not support hiring the candidate.

Perhaps I am naive, but I don’t believe that the wounded ego of one professor would be enough to sink someone’s chances at a job if there weren’t other reasons for other faculty to not prefer this particular candidate. The reasons might be good ones or bad ones, but I think there must have been other reasons. I also think in this case that it was true that the candidate was indeed the best graduate student of that adviser; the years since the fateful interview have demonstrated this well.

It’s likely that the adviser sent the same letter to every institution to which the candidate applied and did not modify it out of consideration for his former student who was on the faculty at one of these places. Should the adviser have worded the letter in a different way for that particular institution? Or was he was correct to state his frank opinion, which was surely accurate and not a case in which every one of his students was the best?

We’re thick in the middle of hiring season–and by “we,” I mean not my department, but maybe some of you lucky duckies work in departments that have money to spend on recruiting a new colleague.  Some of you are or were recently on search committees, and have had the opportunity to read hundreds of letters from graduate advisors and colleagues recommending people for a job in your departments.  I think Female Science Professor is right–but I suspect that that fateful letter of recommendation for her friend might also have been a product of laziness and hyperbole, rather than an honest evaluation of the job candidate in question.  Continue reading

Sex, politics, and double standards

How may I serve you, master?

James Carroll says that the political culture of Massachusetts is “misogynist,” and his account is pretty convincing.  He offers a brief rundown of the past 24 years of prominent statewide women candidates and places Martha Coakley’s loss last night in the special election firmly in the Bay State’s tradition of snubbing and/or drubbing women pols.  He’s right:  by comparison, most of the white men who have held the job in over the past 20 years have been either flaky (Paul Celucci), or opportunistic (Mitt Romney), or both (Bill Weld).  And yet, it’s never held against them, or (perhaps more importantly) against the next man to run for office.  This all sounds terribly familiar to me.  Women have been the last two Lieutenant Governors here in Colorado, but neither of them was ever mentioned as a possible successor to the men they served.  U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is Colorado’s longest serving and highest-profile politician nationally, but none of the political gossips here ever mentioned her running for Governor in 2006, or for the open Senate seat in 2008, or for Governor in 2010, nor was her name seriously mentioned as a worthy replacement for Senator Ken Salazar when he stepped down last year to become Secretary of the Interior.

Aside from the failure of political parties (and in Massachusetss, voters) to advance women pols, there is plenty of depressing evidence of the double-standards by which women are judged.  (Surprise!)  As Echidne pointed out the day before the special election in Massachusetts, “Scott Brown can have naked pictures from his past and it doesn’t cause much of a stir at all but a woman politician? Probably the end of her career.”  Continue reading

I do not think that question means what you think it means

From a story at Politico claiming that the White House “plans a combative response” in the event that Scott Brown (R) beats Martha Coakley (D) today to succeed Ted Kennedy as the next Senator from Massachusetts:
Press secretary Robert Gibbs said a key theme of 2010 will be asking voters “whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they’re on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they’re on the side of protecting insurance companies or whether they’re on the people’s side.”

Unless the White House has been relocated, isn’t the Obama administration among “the people” we “have in Washington?”  Continue reading

From the Department of False Analogies: reforming professional training in the humanities?

Did anyone else hear this interview with Louis Menand on All Things Considered last night?  On the one hand, he gave some important context for understanding that the academic job crisis in the humanities is nothing new–like Historiann, he sees it as directly linked to the halt of the massive institutional expansion of higher education after the 1950s and 1960s.  But then he beats (once again!) on the dead horse of the years-to-degree for most humanities Ph.D.s, and says something astonishingly stupid:

[Prof. MENAND:]  The other piece of it, which is even more amazing to me, is that the time it takes to get the PhD has been increasing steadily since the 1970s so that the median time to get a PhD in a humanities discipline, like philosophy, English, art history, is nine years. Half of people who get PhDs…

[Host Robert] SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MENAND: …in those fields take more than nine years to get the degree.

Now, if you think that you can get a law degree and argue a case before the Supreme Court in three years, get a medical degree and cut somebody open in four years, why should it take nine years to teach poetry to college freshmen? Continue reading

MLK holiday weekend special: Jennifer Baszile's "The Black Girl Next Door"

One of my Winter Break reading pleasures was Jennifer Baszile’s The Black Girl Next Door, a memoir of growing up in Palos Verdes, California in the 1970s and 1980s as the youngest daughter of the only black family in her neighborhood, and one of only a handful of African American children and teenagers in her schools.  This title piqued my interest for a few reasons:  first, I should say that I met Baszile through a good friend and had friendly conversations with her when she was at Princeton in the 1990s, although I doubt she would remember me.  She was training as an early Americanist there, another point of common interest, and wrote a fine dissertation on colonial Florida using French, Spanish, and English-langage sources.  Finally, she’s just a year younger than me, so I was interested in a memoir by someone in my generation who wasn’t the son or daughter of a famous writer or other celebrity–someone who got a book contract because she had an interesting story to tell, and she tells it well, with evocative details and striking originality.

Baszile’s experience introduces us to a rich and important subject, the first generation of African American children to be raised in integrated schools and neighborhoods.  Her book is especially poignant as she develops and explores the breach that separates her sister and her from her mother and father, who had grown up in segregation in Detroit and Louisiana, respectively, and who strove to live the American integrated dream for their daughters’ sakes.  But there are troubling silences when, for example, racist graffiti was sprayed on the street in front of their house and a cherub on a fountain in their yard is painted black.  Young Jennifer wants to talk to her father about this and to ask questions, but knows somehow that questions won’t be welcome, just as she knows somehow that putting on a wig and glasses and performing a pantomime as her “country granny” for white neighbor children one afternoon won’t be applauded by her parents the way it was by her white friends. Continue reading

Saturday Valley of the Dolls blogging

"Deborah," Alex Prager, 2009

Over at The Daily Beast, Rachel Wolff informs us of two exhibitions of photographs by L.A.-based artist Alex Prager opening in both New York and L.A. this winter.  Check it out–and be sure to click through the gallery of Prager’s “living dolls.”  There are samples from two series by Prager–“Weekend” and “The Big Valley.”  (I thought the photos in “The Big Valley” were more interesting.)  Wolff writes:

In many ways, Prager’s women—draped in faux fur, coolly smoking cigarettes—are metaphors for Los Angeles itself, which the artist has called “a strange picture of perfection… with a sense of unease under the surface of all this beauty and promise.” It’s an easy metaphor (and one we’ve seen before) but there is a certain allure to Prager’s images. They recall the roleplay and self-imposed artifice of Cindy Sherman’s film stills; they offer a user-friendly antidote to the sort of palpable grit embraced by other female artists living and working on the West Coast (Katy Grannan and the duo Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn among them); they’re pretty, private, and self-referential—the sort of thing you’d want to hang in a bedroom instead of over the couch—but nonetheless macabre, especially given the recent demise of pretty young things Brittany Murphy and Casey Johnson.

Wolff calls the images “living dolls,” not because they’re perfect–far from it, in most cases.  Continue reading