I’ll be spending most of today working on a “review essay” for a graduate seminar. For those not in the know, a review essay is an essay that reviews some of the current literature on a given topic. I say “some” because it has become all-but-impossible to actually read everything that’s been written about any topic. So, you make some selections from an enormous corpus (respect the rhyme), ideally choosing the best of what’s around. But identifying what’s important is tricky. How to decide? Amazon.com rating? What gets the most reviews in relevant journals? Word of mouth? Nifty looking cover? It’s all of this, of course (yes, even the cover) and one other element: what the professor thinks is important. And here’s where it gets tricky, because you know that the professor has read (or at least heard of) a lot of the material out there, but you hesitate to ask, because you don’t want to appear lazy and stupid. And so you end up guessing a little and carefully probing the prof to get some ideas on what to read. In the end, it usually works out: you read and write about most of the “important” literature, with a few “huh?” books thrown in because (a) you don’t know better or (b) that nifty cover and title belied an irrelevant book.
The silliness of the review essay reflects a more general confusion in how we as historians (and yes, I consider myself a historian-sans-Phd) decide what deserves the attention of historiography. There are all manner of mechanisms for deciding what’s important–where a person teaches, who published the book, etc.–but these mechanisms are often a mystery to beginning (okay, mid-level) graduate students. And so the Suggestion of the Day for Graduate Programs: dedicate time and energy to teaching graduate students how to identify important books. It’s as critical–if not more in the early stages of graduate school–as research and methodology, but it’s too often left to bumbling and frightened graduate students to figure out on their own.