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Writing Academic Reviews

Writing Academic Reviews 14
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Published Date:02-07-2017
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A C A D E M I C S K I L L S C E N T R E ( A S C ) A C A D E M I C S K I L L S C E N T R E ( A S C ) Writing Academic Reviews • P e t e r b o r o u g h O s h a w a© 1996 The Trent University Academic Skills Centre revised and reprinted 2010 P ermissions Johnson: “A 100-channel Pyscho: Jim Carrey’s Mayhem Gets a Disturbing Edge,” Maclean's magazine (June 24, 1996). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. “Unveiling a Parallel: a Romance,” Science Fiction Hollinger: Studies 21 (July, 1994). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Neufeld: Review of Politics without Principle, in Canadian Journal of Political Science, V.27 (1994). Reprinted by permission of the author. Paehlke: Review of Beyond Interdependence and Global Environmental Politics, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (May, 1993). Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications, Inc. Thanks to Karen Taylor, Maged El Komos, Paul Gamache, Dana Capell and Mary Ann Armstrong for their suggestions. ISBN 978-1-894674-05-7 For information on this or any of our services, contact the Academic Skills Centre, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario K9J 7B8 Phone (705) 748-1720 Fax (705) 748-1830 e-mail: Is A Review? Reviews come in various shapes and sizes and are written about many different things: books, films, television programs, musical performances, even restaurants. In one way, however, reviews are similar: their purpose. They all aim to describe and evaluate what is being reviewed. Usually, reviews support these evaluations with an analysis or interpretation of the reviewed item, and they also show how a particular performance, film, or book etc. fits into the broader category of like performances, films or books. In other words, a review will frequently say what kind of contribution a movie or painting, for example, makes to cinema or to art or to society in general. A short lfi m review from Maclean’s follows. Read it looking for where and how its author describes, evaluates, and positions this film and its star. To help you, words that suggest a judgement or evaluation have been underlined and words that seem to place this film in the wider world and show its significance are in bold. A 100-Channel Psycho: Jim Carrey’s Mayhem Gets a Disturbing Edge The Cable Guy Directed by Ben Stiller It looks like a prime example of Hollywood hubris. Produced by the team that made Waterworld, this is the movie for which Canadian superstar Jim Carrey became the first actor to receive a 20-million (U.S.) paycheque. But to his credit, Carrey responds to the pressure by going further out on a limb than ever before. After the crowd- pleasing antics of Dumb and Dumber and his Ace Ventura movies, The Cable Guy marks an adventurous departure. Sure, in the title role he plays another in-your-face, over-the-top, wild and crazy guy. But for once, he is not a lovable goof. 1He is a rather unsavory psychotic. And the movie itself is not pure farce: It is satire, with a disturbing edge. Serving as Carrey’s straight man, the terminally boyish Matthew Broderick plays Steven, who has just broken up with his girlfriend and moved into a new apartment. Nervously, he offers the cable installer a bribe for free pay channels. And that begins a nightmarish co-dependency. The pathologically lonely Cable Guy has no friends, just preferred customers. He wants Steven to be his best friend immediately — and soon becomes the buddy from hell. Carrey performs the whole movie with a deadpan lisp. Although it is more a speech impediment than an affectation, it injects a weirdly gay subtext into the Cable Guy’s needy craving that is never explicitly addressed. But then, Carrey’s whole style is a kind of outrageous camp. And he indulges his genius for manic caricature in a number of set pieces, including a medieval times jousting tournament, some sadistic basketball playing — and a priceless karaoke version of the Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, which Carrey sings with a banshee vibrato that sounds like Grace Slick on acid. Sulphuric acid. Unlike Carrey’s previous vehicles, however, the movie has some ideas. The Cable Guy is an orphan of the television age, a neglected child who has grown up with the idiot box as his foster parent. And for him, like America itself, the scanning lines between TV and reality have become insanely blurred. The movie also alludes to the sinister implications of the information superhighway: the deal with the Cable Guy is just a fibre-optic upgrade of the classic Faustian pact with the devil. Filming against a landscape of constant channel-surf, Ben Stiller — who made Reality Bites and starred in the recent hit Flirting with Disaster — directs with a playful wit. Carrey’s jugular- 2grabbing style sometimes seems at odds with Stiller’s sly direction, and the haywire plot patches in and out of Hollywood formula. Still, this is the first Jim Carrey comedy for grown-ups. In fact, without a single toilet joke, The Cable Guy may disappoint fans of Dumb and Dumber. It shows Carrey acting smart and smarter — as if a Woody Allen is peeking out from behind the Jerry Lewis mask, eager to nail the neuroses of his generation. At university, you will most likely be asked to write reviews of films, books, or articles and to model these reviews on ones published in scholarly journals. Even among these reviews, however, there is a great deal of variety. There is the short book review, sometimes called a capsule review, which is usually less than five hundred words long and which focuses mainly on giving readers who have not read the reviewed book a general sense of its content and value. The full-fledged scholarly review is longer. Its purpose is to summarize, analyze, evaluate, and place within a field of scholarship whatever is being reviewed. Often, the audience of the scholarly review has read the book or seen the film. Even if this is not the case, the audience will probably have some background in the discipline and some knowledge of the subject. Consequently, the scholarly review is less a précis or summary and more a critical evaluation or commentary. In fact, this type of review is sometimes called a critique, a critical analysis or a crtitical review. Whatever it is called, the scholarly review tells an educated audience of the significance of a text or film within the context of a discipline, e fi ld of study, or particular subject or course. Looking at the reviews published in various magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals will give you a good idea of the differing audiences and forms of the review. It is particularly important, however, to examine reviews written for scholarly journals in your discipline, as this will show you what a review looks like and should do in each field. Ask a librarian to help you look for review journals in your discipline or for reviews of a specific book. 3You can n fi d current book reviews using the same library tools that you use to n fi d any other type of academic source. You can browse through current copies of journals in your discipline, either in print or online, and look at recent reviews. You can also use library indexes, such as Web of Knowledge or Ebsco, to search for book reviews on a particular topic. Using the advanced search option, choose “book review” as your preferred document type to limit your search to only reviews. Why Do Professors Assign Reviews? Professors assign reviews, in part, because they recognize the important role reviews play in scholarship. Look in almost any academic journal and you will find reviews. In fact, if you look at lists of faculty publications, you will see that many of the items listed are reviews. Reviews give scholars the opportunity to respond to one another’s research, ideas, interpretations — to one another’s scholarship. Reviews are a staple of academic writing, the means by which scholars comment on each other’s work and enter into conversation with each other. Tip: If you want an up-to-date, insider’s view of a particular subject or discipline, read the reviews published in current scholarly journals devoted to that subject or discipline. To become a participant in your field you need to know how to write reviews, one of the reasons professors get you to practise writing them. Professors also assign reviews so students will develop some important skills. One such skill is critical reading. To review a book or article effectively, you need to become a careful and insightful reader. Critical reading skills, then, are necessary for students and scholars 4alike; both need to comprehend and respond to scholarly discourse taking place in print. Writing reviews also helps develop analytical and interpretive skills. What message did the film or book convey? How did the director or author convey that message? Through what scenes, language, arguments, camera angles? Reviewers must be able to analyze, or break apart, a text or film, so as to see how its parts create a whole, and they must also be able to convey a particular vision of that whole and of its parts. Another key academic skill is evaluation, and reviews necessitate evaluation. Is this film an accurate depiction of life in Nigeria according to what I know about this subject from my course on development and social change in Africa? Is the argument in that book complete? Correct? Convincing? What about the method used in this experiment? Is it appropriate? Valid? Is the research sample size large enough to support the conclusions? Evaluation is a complex process and will be investigated in the section entitled “Towards a Book Review” on page 9. Professors also assign reviews to encourage each student to relate the ideas of others to the themes of a subject, course, or discipline, and to his or her own thinking. The good review connects. In what way does this book contribute to scholarship? How does that film broaden my understanding of socialization? Which of the attitudes to technology that we studied in class does this short story illuminate? When a review is a university assignment, the reviewer not only connects with the text or the film, but also shows how it connects to what is being studied in class. So when you are asked to write a review at university, you are being asked to do the following: • describe or summarize something 5 • analyze and interpret it • evaluate it • relate it to scholarship or to the themes of a course or subject. What A Review Is Not A review is not a research paper Some students, instead of writing about a book or a film when they are asked to write a review, write a research paper on the subject of the book or film. Don’t be among them If you are supposed to review the book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam by Robert McNamara, your subject is this book, not the Vietnam War. A review is not a summary Yes, it is important to summarize the contents and significance of whatever you review. But at university, the review is more than a description or summary. The review is an evaluation, a critical analysis, a commentary. A review is not a book Don’t make the mistake of re-telling the book or film in your own words. You don’t have the time or space, and this approach doesn’t allow you to express your interpretation or evaluation. Remember, in an academic setting, your audience could very well have read the book or seen the film, so what is wanted is not a detailed description but the communication of your own critical analysis and judgement. 6A review is not a book report A book report does give a fairly detailed description of the contents of a book. It may also provide background information about the book: who wrote it, when it was published, or how popular it was, for example. Although a book review also provides description and background information, it does more. A review analyzes, interprets, and evaluates. A review is not an off-the-cuff, unfair personal response Of course writing a review involves communicating your personal view of something. General, flip statements that don’t express your understanding of what you have read or seen are next to useless, however. “I thought the book was interesting.” “The movie was boring.” These comments are not sufficient. Why was the book interesting? Did it reveal some new data? Was the director trying to produce a boring movie to realistically depict life in the 1950s? Also, a reviewer, to be effective, must be fair and accurate. So work hard to see clearly what is actually in front of you when your first reaction to the tone, argument, or subject of what you are reviewing is extremely negative or positive. A review is not a string of quotations Although quotations from a text or from the dialogue of a film may be useful, they do not explain your thinking or judgements. So use quotations sparingly. By the way, quotations from other reviews are not a good idea: you are supposed to be writing the review, not compiling other reviewers’ opinions. 7Towards A Book Review Okay,” I hear you saying, “so now I know what a review is and what it isn’t, BUT I STILL DON’T KNOW HOW TO WRITE ONE” That’s what this section considers. We are going to focus on writing a book review here because this is the sort of review students are most typically asked to produce at university. As with writing anything, there is more than one way to proceed. You will, however, have to do certain things: • read the book critically; • make notes about the book and about your responses to it; • find what you want to write about, in the main, by examining and summarizing or categorizing your notes; • write a coherent, well-organized review developing your main points. Let’s take this one step at a time. Reading critically Being critical does not mean criticizing. It means asking questions and formulating answers. So critical reading is not reading with a “bad attitude.” Critical readers do not reject a text or take a negative approach to it; they inquire about a text, an author, themselves, and the context surrounding all three. The following diagram will help you understand the elements involved in critical reading. 8 What subject? TEXT (Book) arguments? themes? AUTHOR READER (Self) What is his/her What are my purpose? responses? position? attitudes? background? experiences? CONTEXT What relevant scholarship is there? What issues or themes of my course are considered? What does the author ignore/leave out? Does this text contribute to scholarship? This triangle of text, reader, and author interacting within a certain context frames the questions a good critical reader asks. These questions will help you, the reviewer, understand a book on its own terms (analyze it); bring your own knowledge to bear on a book (respond to it); critique the text considering validity, truth, and slant (evaluate it); and place the text in context (compare it to other texts). Seeing the text It is extremely important to work toward seeing a clear and accurate picture of a book. One approach to accurate seeing is to try to suspend your judgement for a while, focusing instead on describing or outlining a text. A student once described this as listening to the author’s voice rather than to her own. Here are some questions that will help you analyze a text of non-fiction or fiction: 91. What is the book about? What is its subject? What of the book’s content do you think you should describe in this review? 2. What is the thesis, main theme, or main point? 3. What major claims or conclusions does the author make? What issues does the book illuminate? What attitude to life does it present? 4. What is the structure of the book? What comes first, second, third? How does the author build her/his argument or plot? 5. What sources does the author consult? What evidence is used to support claims? Which sorts of sources predominate? Do these sources in any way “predetermine” certain conclusions? In a novel, what kind of language, descriptions, or sections of plot alert you to the themes and significance of the book? 6. Is there any claim for which the evidence presented is insufficient or slight? Do any conclusions rest on evidence that may be atypical? Which sections of the novel ring true? Which don’t? Why? 7. How is the argument developed? How do the claims relate? How does the novel proceed? What does the conclusion reveal when compared with the beginning? Two strategies are useful for seeing the text. One is pre-reading, and the other is making a reverse outline. Pre-reading Pre-reading helps a reader to see a book as a whole. Too often, readers skip the acknowledgments, preface, and table of contents of a book, starting reading at chapter one or the introduction. By doing this, they miss all sorts of information about the book’s purpose and direction: 10What’s going to happen in the third chapter, or in the conclusion? They won’t know until they get there. Just thinking carefully about a book’s title and the title of its chapters can give you lots of information. Pre-reading steps 1. Read the title. 2. Read the introduction and the preface (if reading a book) or the introductory paragraph(s) (if reading an article). 3. Examine carefully the table of contents and the index of a book; read the section headings of an article. 4. If there are illustrations, tables, charts, or graphs, look at them and read their captions. 5. Skim through the work looking for the main ideas. In books, you may quickly read the introductory and summary paragraphs of each chapter; in articles, quickly read topic sentences of each paragraph, which are most frequently at a paragraph’s beginning. Pay particular attention to chapters and paragraphs that have a summarizing or transitional function. 6. Read the concluding chapter of a book or the final paragraph(s) of an article. After pre-reading, pause for a moment’s thoughtful review of what you have discovered. It is often useful to jot down an outline of the main subjects and arguments presented in the text and of your first thoughts concerning both. The reverse outline A reverse outline helps a reader analyze the content and argument of a work of non-fiction. What you do is read each section of a text 11carefully (chapter or section of a chapter when outlining a book and paragraph when outlining an article) and write down two things: its main point or idea and its function in the text. A simpler way of putting this is that you write down what each section says and what it does. To see examples of reverse outlines, consult pages 21 to 37. Exercise: Select a review from a journal in your discipline, and do a reverse outline of it. What does this tell you about a review’s structure? Thinking about the author Of course, you can often tell a lot about an author by examining a text closely. Sometimes, however, it helps to do a little extra research. Try to find out what else the author has written, if anything, by looking up his or her name in indexes, major libraries’ catalogues or by Googling the name. (If you don’t know what these things are, consult a librarian.) There are even references, such as Contemporary Authors or The Dictionary of Literary Biography, which publish biographical articles on writers. Here are some questions about the author that would be useful to keep in mind when you are reading a text critically: 1. Who is the author? 2. What does the author do? What has she/he done? What experiences of the author’s might inu fl ence the writing of this book? 3. What else has the author written? 4. What is the author’s main purpose or goal for the text? Why did he/she write it? What does she/he want it to achieve? 5. Does the author indicate what contribution she/he thinks the text makes to scholarship or literature? What does the author say about his/her point of view or method of approaching the subject? In other words, what position does the author claim? 12Thinking about yourself Because you are doing the interpreting and evaluating of a text, it is important to examine your own perspective, assumptions, and knowledge in relation to the text. One way to do this is by writing a position statement that outlines your view of the subject of the book or article you are reviewing. What do you know, believe, or assume about this subject? What in your life might influence your approach to this text? Often, however, students find it hard either to pinpoint their thinking on a subject or to respond to a text. “Who am I,” one asked, “to judge the work of a published expert in the field?” Well, as a student in a discipline, you are certainly acquainted with a body of scholarship, even though you may not be an expert. So here are some prompts that might help you generate a personal response to a book: I agree that ... because ... I disagree that ... because ... What puzzles me is ... I don’t understand ... This reminds me of ... I wonder ... I’m surprised by ... What if ...? Another way to examine your thoughts in relation to a text is to note down what pops into your mind when you are r fi st reading it. Which parts made you go to sleep? When did you pay attention? When did you feel depressed, hopeful, angry, enthusiastic? Why? Basically, note how you experienced the book, and then analyze the reasons for this experience. Here are some questions a reviewer might do well to consider: 1. What do I know about the subject of this book? 2. What beliefs, experiences, and assumptions of mine would influence the way I perceive this text? How? 3. What did I feel when I read this book? Why? 4. How did I experience the style or tone of the author? How would I characterize each? 135. What questions would I ask this author if I could? 6. For me, what are the three or more best things about this book? The three or more worst things? Why? Considering context Surrounding a text is a context. That context may include a widely acclaimed piece of scholarship to which this book responds. It may include a particular personal motive for writing: I need to document this injustice, ingratiate myself with this leading expert. Or perhaps the context is simply contemporary society or today’s headlines. Whatever the case, a reviewer needs to examine a text’s context to arrive at a fair understanding and evaluation of its contents and importance. Here are some useful questions: 1. What are the connections between this text and others on similar subjects? How does it relate to my course? To scholarship? To my discipline? 2. What is the scholarly or social significance of this book? What contribution does it make to our understanding? 3. What, of relevance, is missing from the book? Certain kinds of evidence or methods of analysis/development? A particular theoretical approach? The experiences of certain groups? 4. What other perspectives or conclusions are possible? Taking notes You are right. We have already talked about taking notes. The reverse outline is a useful way to note the subject matter and argument or plot of a book. And writing down what you are thinking and feeling when 14you read (by using some of the prompts already provided) is an excellent method of noting your responses to a text. So much for describing the process of creating a review one step at a time Another notetaking method is helpful in the production of a review: the double-entry notebook. The double-entry notebook In its simplest form, the double-entry notebook separates a page into two columns. In one column, you make observations about the text; you take notes that will help you analyze and describe it. In the other, you note your responses to the text. This notetaking method has two advantages. It forces you to make both sorts of notes — notes about the text and notes about your reaction to the text — and it helps you to distinguish between the two. A diagram of the sort of information that a reviewer might include in a double-entry notebook follows. On page 17 is an example of a portion of a double-entry notebook which notes a reader’s observations about and responses to the review of The Cable Guy printed on pages 1-3 of this booklet. Observations Responses Reader’s notes on the text Reader’s notes on response to text Information based on reader’s knowledge of thesis the world, claims the topic, evidence the discipline method associations/connections based on research sample discourse conventions, e.g., focus logic or validity of argument plot “truth” of premises themes sufficiency of cause/evidence ideas resonance of fiction 15Note that this diagram shows only the sort of information that could go in each column; here, there is no connection between these two columns, as there would be in a true double-entry notebook. Whatever method of notetaking you choose, do take notes, even if these are scribbles in the margin. If you don’t, you might rely too heavily on the words, argument, or order of what you are reviewing when you come to write your review. Organizing notes The temptation is to let the original order of your notes, which usually follows the order of the text or film, dictate the structure of your review. This sometimes works because, of course, fiction, non-fiction, and films have a certain coherence and a beginning, middle, and end. Consequently, your review might also happen upon a coherent order. Double-entry notebook: B.D. Johnson’s review of The Cable Guy Seems to claim that Carrey’s Is the reviewer implying character is: isolated from that technology isolates human affection and helps confuse “orphaned” people about what “neglected” is real? But I wouldn’t count on it. It’s best to take control of your review by deciding what to emphasize and what to put where. You want to describe and analyze certain aspects of what you are reviewing; what is important to you might not be important to the author or lfi mmaker. Besides, you are writing this commentary; you are not reproducing what you are reviewing. Another related danger lies in answering the questions you developed or were given (in this book or by your professor) in the order in which you thought of them or they happened to be listed. These questions 16are designed to help you generate a critical analysis, an understanding and evaluation of the item to be reviewed; most often, they shouldn’t determine the order of points in your review. So organizing your notes is a really important part of becoming an author of a review. How do you do this? Well, first examine them, and develop rough categories from this examination. You may have two categories of notes, initially: observation notes and response notes. But within these two categories you will be able to discover many more. To determine these categories, compare notes. Which are about a similar theme? Which are strikingly different? You may decide, for example, to divide your response notes into two major categories: positive and negative. After doing this, look at all the notes in these two categories, and try to characterize or describe your responses: what, in the main, did you like or not like? You go through this process of organizing and categorizing to see what you really want to write about. Your observation notes should yield a general idea of what you think of the nature and place of the work, and your response notes should let you see how you react to it and also give you specific points of criticism. Once you know what you mainly want to say, you order your review to introduce, develop, and support that main thing. Structural Guidelines Although, as said previously, the best order is the order that allows you to express your ideas logically and coherently, there are some general structural guidelines that you might want to follow when writing a review, especially if you are not familiar with this form of writing. But remember, these are guidelines, not a rigid formula. And you will find, as you read more and more reviews, that many of them do not follow the structure outlined here. 17I. Introduction Do exactly what you would do if you were standing in front of an audience: introduce what you will review, the author, and the points you intend to make about this work. • give relevant bibliographic information; • give the reader a clear idea of the nature, scope, and significance of the work; • indicate your evaluation of the work in a clear 1-2 sentence thesis statement. Provide background information to help your readers understand the importance of the work or the reasons for your appraisal. Some examples follow: • explain why the issue examined is of current interest; • tell what scholarship says about this subject; • describe the author’s perspective, methodology, purpose; • give information concerning the circumstances under which the book or film was created. Tip: Try to get your reader’s attention in the introduction by using what journalists call a hook, an interesting and relevant quotation, story, example, statistic, or statement. II. Summary Summarize the contents very briefly: 18