Moving the Cheese

Many years ago, when I was still working in educational outreach, I consulted with the state of Texas on a curriculum project. The project was poorly managed, and run in the most baffling manner imaginable, neither of which is relevant to the story here.

For some time, after the new product was rolled out, we would occasionally be asked to respond to questions from the field — that is, to say, the teachers who actually used the curriculum in their classroom. And some of the questions were, quite frankly, hostile.

When I commented on this to our contact, she laughed and said, “Oh, don’t take it personally. You moved the cheese, is all.” She then went on to explain that teachers have their favorite subjects–now with several years in a classroom under my belt, I understand this–and, with standards- and test-driven education, sometimes when the lessons are changed or removed from the curriculum, people get upset. Ultimately, she said, it was a bit like what happens when you’re training a mouse to run through a maze, and then you move the cheese.

Inasmuch as I recognize that comparing teachers scrambling to address ever changing standards to mice in a maze is both inappropriate and weirdly apt, the phrase “you moved the cheese” has stuck with me.

I’ve tried to keep it in mind as I have observed some of the goings on in higher academia, much of which I’ve witnessed in the format of reviews. As I advised students preparing to write their own first book reviews, a good reviewer needs to approach the text on its own terms, not on the basis of “I wouldn’t have written this.” This may be true, but you also didn’t write it. Someone else did who isn’t you, and it’s not fair to punish them for the crime of not being you.

My very first peer reviewed article (still forthcoming, a year after acceptance) was a lesson in reminding myself not to take things personally. And this was hard. My proverbial Reviewer 2 sent a three-page single-spaced critique of my article (which, confusingly, had been accepted with revisions).

The major problem, as I realized, was that in editing it for the submission I had cut the literature review out to move it earlier in the piece, and had forgotten to paste it back in. Reviewer 2 started off by pointing out that I did not engage with the literature. Fair point. Of course, I actually had, but he (for the tone makes his gender clear) didn’t know that.

Reviewer 2 then proceeded to inform me which books I should look at. It was clear that Reviewer 2 was not in my subfield and had done a very quick library catalog search, for the titles were temporally or geographically irrelevant to the topic of the article (or both).

Reviewer 2 then went on to excoriate me for the lack of Arabic sources (which I had addressed in the text), and, by way of insinuating what a lazy, sloppy researcher I must be, informed myself and the editor that “these things are all available online now.”

Having spent most of the process of writing my dissertation attempting to psychically will such online resources into existence, this was news to me (it was also incorrect). Now on a roll, Reviewer 2 then proceeded to list three issues of a journal which were online and that I had looked at as further evidence of my laxness.

By this point, of course, I was nearly breathing into a paper bag. Eventually, when I examined said online journal, I realized that I had been correct–the articles cited by Reviewer 2 did not say what he claimed they had, and were of only marginal use–mainly to address the major bugbear about not the article not having enough sources in Arabic.

Further correspondence with the editor revealed that he, also, didn’t find Reviewer 2’s comments particularly helpful (hence the acceptance with revisions). It was also clear that, despite his insistence that I had not engaged with the literature on the topic, Reviewer 2 was not in a place to provide any qualitative guidance on that front, either. Within a month, I had restored the the literature review to its rightful place, made a few other tweaks, got my final acceptance, and the article moved on to the land of the never-ending production queue.

I don’t know which block of cheese I moved to earn Reviewer 2’s ire, but I found the episode instructive, if not particularly useful. First, being courteous is always a plus. Reviewer 1 managed that, with equally deep but constructive criticism that I employed quickly and without much fuss.

It also made me more aware of what happens when the cheese gets moved.


Recently, a Twitter-friend, Sarah Pearce (NYU), published a review essay that focused on Geraldine Heng’s much-lauded The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages. I admire Pearce’s work — she is nothing if not thorough and thinks about things in a way that I can only dream of (perhaps not pleasant dreams, as I have never been one to think about how people think about things, but that’s what makes academia interesting).

Pearce knew going into this that she was fighting an uphill battle. Heng is a medievalist; medieval studies has been plagued with problems relating to race, racialism, and racism, with no less than the likes of Milo FakeGreekAlopoulos “weighing in” on the matter (because if our middle ages weren’t lily white, then what do we have? I guess?).

The review essay is quite detailed, and it’s worth reading — I was fortunate to be able to read it in draft form. Some of the language is, admittedly, a little harsher than I might adopt on my own, but I’m also both conflict-averse and don’t have a permanent job.

Pearce’s argument boils down to this: Heng’s work is a notable first attempt at trying to rethink race and race-stand-ins in a medieval context, but when it came to the way she represents Jews in her book, she does not successfully decolonize her own approach — in short, medieval studies is a field that peers out at the rest of the world from English Christendom, and the book’s framing of English Jews is, in Pearce’s opinion, unable to escape this Christian-centered framework.

To continue with my analogy: Pearce recognizes that Heng has correctly identified the need to move the cheese, but argues that the framework Heng proposes wasn’t entirely successful.

When Pearce put the essay out on Twitter, reaction was fairly swift and rather polarized, as one might expect. Heng, herself, is a bit of a polarizing figure. A number of other colleagues have described her as wonderfully supportive, especially of junior colleagues. A number of other colleagues have also described her as difficult to work with and impervious to criticism.

The Invention of Race arrived at a critical moment in the field, and was able to provide a focus for much of the conversation; Pearce argues that the book’s timing and lauded effort shouldn’t overshadow critical review of certain structural arguments in the book.

At no point does Heng’s ethnicity or gender enter the context of the review (nor should it have done). The review is meticulous about engaging with the text. However, much of the early criticism–I shan’t name names–revolved around the idea that Pearce was arguing for the silencing or erasure of a colleague of color (Heng is from Singapore).

One particularly adamant critic suggested that Pearce was only able to publish such a lengthy review because she is white, and went on–whether this was deliberate or thrown out in the heat of the moment, I cannot say–to imply, if not state outright, that white scholars should not be allowed to critique scholars of color. Fortunately, most of the critical commentary was less hostile than this, but the conversation was lengthy and lively.

The question of race–ironic, given that it was brought up regarding a review of a book about race–is, obviously touchy. What struck me about the adamant tone of this particular critic is the degree with which they self-identified with Heng’s work, and needed the way that Heng had moved the cheese to be perfect.

And it is the need for perfection–and the absolute unwillingness to consider the possibility that there might be imperfection or further adjustments necessary–that I found perplexing. Because, of course, once again, the issue isn’t about what’s on the page, it’s about emotional reactions to challenging those ideas.


This whole episode resonated with me because so many of the foundational works–the cheese movers, if you will–in my field have been problematic. Books need not be perfect in order to be important. Sometimes the most important books are flawed–sometimes even on purpose–in order to generate conversations about opening new lines of scholarship or taking a different approach to a long standing core narrative.

Edward Said’s Orientalism, for example, was almost universally panned when it was first published (and not just by people named in it). Said, a professor of Comparative Literature, took on nearly every subfield in the humanities and social sciences, and was roundly scolded for not having stayed in his lane. The book, quite frankly, also isn’t that readable: I’ve pretty much made it through the introduction and I paraphrase the argument for students because I can’t bear to assign a text I’m fairly certain no one will read.

Still, some people absolutely adore the book, and the message contained within. At a plenary session at the 1998 Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) annual conference, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, Said–after slyly pointing out that he’d had MESA in mind when he wrote the book (cue laughter from “woke” audience)–sheepishly admitted that he had intended the book to be a conversation starter, and had been a bit surprised that so many people adopted it as a functional paradigm for the field.

Indeed, some of his critics who were in the room that evening (most of whom split off to form a second association shortly thereafter) delivered thunderous denunciations from the floor, until Homi Bhabha clapped back … it really was a once in a lifetime event for so many reasons. It even inspired me to try to re-read Orientalism, which I quickly gave up on, because the book really is one dense puppy.

Similarly, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism was also hugely influential in the field of early Islamic studies, even if most of the people who wrote negative reviews took it seriously. In this case, it was kind of a shoddy book on purpose, intended to demonstrate that the narrative of Islam’s origins could be substantially altered if one applied the same level of source criticism to the narrative that, as Crone stated in the introduction to Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam are applied to nearly every other historical subfield. The book was resoundly trashed by the same scholars across whose bow it was intended to fire, most of whom excoriated the two young upstarts for daring to suggest that the cheese even needed moving, let alone how to move it.

Four decades later, however, the challenge has been taken up. Very few people read Hagarism anymore — I tried once and gave up on page 3 — it achieved its purpose in throwing down the gauntlet to scholars in a field that wasn’t moving in the right direction. The reason people don’t read it anymore is that it’s been supplanted by actual scholarship that proves, disproves, and leaves open to question parts of the traditional narrative, which was the intent all along.


Some of you may remember that I originally posted this, and then it vanished for a bit. In this section, I discussed the controversy that has since become known as Selimgate, which now has its own Wikipedia entry. I have withdrawn my comments, under duress, after having been contacted by one of the parties involved. I will refrain from further editorial comment.

And I emphasize that this goes against every single instinct I have, because this is a story that I am itching to tell. But given that other colleagues have been thrown under the bus by their institutions for exercising their rights of free speech and observation, I must bear in mind that I don’t even currently have an institution that could do so. I must protect myself … and believe me, that is the only reason I am doing so.

I will simply quote the venerable Natalie Zemon Davis here:

Reviewing always rests on assumptions about community, about what persons we define as engaged in a common task, about what books should be included in our historical exchange and with what standing, and about shared criteria or evaluation.

For quarrels to hold a community together and innovate, much depends on the frame and the language.this means recognizing and embracing the diversity of stances within the membership, …  so that we can talk as allies in the common task of Donna Haraway’s engaged criticism.

I wish I had a clearer way to wrap up this lengthy piece, one that I haven’t said before, over and over, but ultimately, I find myself back in the same place that I, and others, have been time and again. Academia is rife with pettiness and drama. Scholars hoard their research for fear of it being stolen–I, myself, have been very resistant to sharing any of my pre-press work with people I don’t know. This is the world in which we live and work, and, yes, some times I do wonder why.

At the same time, however, our fields have methodologies and established means of “doing” scholarship for a reason: these are the criteria upon which our work is judged; more to the point they are the criteria upon which we expect our work to be judged. When we stray outside of these — that is, to say, when we pile on the cheese movers and refuse to legitimate their efforts by focusing on everything but the product presented for review — we ultimately wind up making ourselves look foolish and petty.

There are too many foes out there waiting in the wings to discredit, de-legitimate, and defund. The last thing we need is to be doing it to each other.

Minding Your Manners

This installment in the Grad School Survival Guide is brought to you by the letters P and Q (and if you’re old enough to get that joke…)

It’s actually inspired by two things that happened recently: first, a friend asked me to look over a draft dissertation proposal; and, second, I got a nastygram (which had nothing to do with that post that I’m tired of talking about now).

Both of them have to do with how we treat each other in academia. I know I’m not the only person to bring this up, but I’m going to say what I have to say about it anyway.

Don’t Bash the Historiography

When I was early in my dissertation writing process, my advisor and I were having a meeting by Skype, and he made an observation that resonated with me. I don’t know why this was some sort of Transmitted From Yoda Secret that needed to be broadcast from On High; in fact, ever since he pointed it out it’s become something I’ve noticed a lot.

What he said was this: “You’re at that point we all find ourselves at while writing: the documentation isn’t giving you what you want, and you’re trying to figure out how to move forward. One of the things people do when they’re in that situation is that they start beating up the historiography; don’t do that. It tells everyone you’re not that confident in your own argument.”

There it is.

[Oh, for the record, if you find yourself in that situation, sit back, look at the documentation, and see what it’s telling you. Make it tell you where to go rather than trying to tell it where you want it to go. This may involve taking some time away from it.]

But since this conversation … I see it a lot. Cover letters. Proposals. Abstracts.

“I am the first…”

“I am the only…”

“Other scholars have failed to notice…”

“The scholarship has ignored…”

They’re all variants of the same thing: I did something no one else did.

Congratulations! That’s what academia is all about.

However, scholars of the new generation (every new generation) tend toward the enthusiastic, and want to trumpet their accomplishment, and they run afoul of the classic mistake of announcing that everyone has done it wrong, and that they have done it right.

Critiquing someone else’s scholarship for failing to come to the conclusions you have reached, or for not identifying an issue at the same level of importance that you’ve ascribed it, basically comes down to this: you’re criticizing them for not being you. They’re not you. They’re them.

Put yourself into the conversation

You can’t ignore the existing historiography, or wave it all away by wishing it had been done differently. This goes back to the issue of intellectual genealogy that I discussed in my post about reading and taking notes for qualifying examinations.

Let me use myself as an example here.

The history of the 20th century Eastern Mediterranean tends to use the nation-state as its unit of analysis. In some cases, it uses nations that didn’t yet exist as the unit of analysis–for example, you can find histories of Israel that cover the first half of the 20th century even though it only existed for the last 18 months of the first half of the 20th century.

The reason that these histories are written this way is that scholars began grappling with the national histories that were constructed from the 1920s onward, and wanted to evaluate them (the most famous example of this is the “New Historians” movement in Israel, but each country in the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt all the way around to Turkey has their own such intellectual genealogy).

So, it’s easy for me to come in three intellectual generations later and say, “but no one has done the transnational”–that is to say, work that crosses borders to look at movements, connections, and cross-currents–but the fact is that I can do the transnational now because of what those who came before me have already done.

Their work makes mine possible, because they’ve gotten the national histories to the point where we can say, “Okay, we understand what’s going on inside these nations, now let’s look outside them.”

So, as you develop a prospectus, or a cover letter, or an abstract, pay attention to how the historiographical trends have developed, and the big questions that have been asked and sought to answer. Your intervention–your work–is part of this lineage whether you want it to be or not. You’ll get much further by explaining how what you’re doing is going to add further to the conversation than by suggesting that everyone else has been having the wrong conversation.

As I was warned during my oral qualifiers… after I did exactly that… “Don’t go after them. They know more than you.”

Or as I put it more crudely: make them want to read more. Not to read you aloud at the departmental holiday party to peals of laughter.

It works both ways

Moving on to the second half of this, I got a nastygram on my academia.edu profile from a retired Ivy League professor who read a historiographical essay I wrote years ago and apparently didn’t like the way I mentioned him in a footnote (I guess?). I’m not going to name him.

The message was probably supposed to be some sort of Maggie Smith-in-Downton Abbey-type burn but it really just confused me and I had to show it to several people before we collectively decided I was being chided.

The gist of the chide, near as I can tell, is that he felt that I, a scholar who hadn’t published as many books or had as many years of experience as he did, and therefore had no right to something something I don’t even know what. I will never entirely understand the impetus of a retired scholar to spend his free time trolling the internet looking for papers that mention himself and send nasty messages to people if he doesn’t like them.

So, in all fairness, I will acknowledge that my suggestion that the new generation should not be dismissive of the previous extends in both directions. I have seen too much of this. I once had a LinkedIn troll who — regardless of what this week’s episode of my podcast was about — had written about it years before and needed me to know. I finally blocked him.

But it’s also true that I see little encouragement by senior scholars of the next generation. Many of the conferences I attend have rooms full of Emerti who offer the dreaded “comment not a question” that seems basically intended to make sure everyone in the room knows they’re still alive.

This is not to say that it doesn’t happen. A few years ago, Suraiya Faroqhi, a distinguished scholar of Ottoman history whom I will name, came to a conference on Ottoman history here at Texas and made a point of offering very constructive–and kind–feedback to all of the graduate students and untenured panelists. It was so rare that I tell people about it. Suraiya Faroqhi did that. What a class act.

After all, folks, someday we’re going to be that generation … and it would be nice if people said they were conversing with us … and we should remember to converse back.

Writing Your First Book Review

pile of books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I wasn’t actually intending to write about this as part of the Grad School Survival Guide, but I sat in on a seminar yesterday to discuss a colleague’s new book and the idea came up. I hope the students don’t mind me using our conversation as a jumping off point (I won’t name them, at any rate), and for borrowing a couple of ideas that were circulated.

The issue that came up toward the end of the discussion is that these students, most in their first or second year, were feeling a bit intimidated about writing critical book reviews because they didn’t feel like they had enough grounding in the subject matter, and also they were afraid of offending senior colleagues in the same field.

I’m not going to dismiss these concerns, because they’re certainly understandable, and, when I offered my own advice to them I admitted point blank that I knew exactly where they were coming from.

Writing a book review for a seminar, a graduate student journal, or pretty much anything else is, first and foremost, going to require a lot of the skills I covered in my post on how to read for graduate school. However, as a graduate student it is also one of the easiest ways to start racking up publications credits early in your career.

The standard format of a book review in the humanities (and be sure to check the standards for your discipline, as well as the specific requirements of any venue through which you plan to publish) is that it should be between 1,000 and 1,200 words; that it begins with a paragraph describing the book, goes through chapter by chapter in subsequent paragraphs, and then wraps up with one or two concluding paragraphs.

What the students I met with yesterday were struggling with–and, again, I am familiar with this struggle because we all struggle with it–is how to transform this basic format from a summary into an actual review.

Critique vs. Criticism

One of the classic tactics that early graduate students often adopt to overcome this hurdle is to bludgeon the book to death with over the top criticism that questions the legitimacy of the author’s birth, educational credentials, choice of car, and worthiness as a human being consuming oxygen and food resources that, the review implies, could be better spent on, say, perpetrators of genocide serving out life sentences at The Hague.

The problem with this approach is that much of the substantive criticism of the book tends to revolve around the reviewer’s assertion that they wouldn’t have written a book on this topic the way that the author did. In short: the reviewer isn’t reviewing the book for what it is, they’re criticizing the text based on what they think it should be.

First and foremost, this is both unfair and somewhat unprofessional, and speaks much worse about the reviewer than it does about the material under review. Don’t be this person.

Also, resist personal attacks. At no point should an author’s credentials come into play unless the author is completely unqualified to write the book they’ve written–and even then … an academic book has made it through the proposal stage, blind peer review, and editing, so someone out there who knows this field has decided the book has some merit. If the book didn’t go through peer review, that changes the calculus, but still — personal attacks on the author are petty and weaken your argument. Stick to the text.

This is where the difference between critique and criticism comes in to place. Critique should be somewhat constructive (the author did this well, but their argument could have been strengthened with field work or more archival sources). Criticism, on the other hand, tends to be much more dismissive of the idea that the text has any merit (this book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on). Even if you happen to be of the opinion that the book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, you’ll get much further and be taken much more seriously by engaging with the argument presented, taking it on its own terms, and outlining the issues with it.

Where To Begin

I referenced the How to Read Post above for a reason: in that post, I offered some suggestions for thinking critically about a text, and one of the easiest places to begin is to locate that section late in the introduction of the book where the author lays out their argument and their plan for the book, and evaluate how well they did.

For example, in yesterday’s seminar, one of the students observed that the author had a tendency to drop what seemed like the beginning of an interesting story that had the potential to illustrate a point … and then abandon it and move on. This is an astute observation, and would be a good point to raise in an review.

It’s also common in first books that come out of dissertations. The author has spent so much time working with the material that they start to think some of their illustrations are common knowledge and don’t need to be fully fleshed out. (This is also a sign of a cursory editing job).

When you’re writing your dissertation you’ll probably experience this once or twice. I literally had moments of despair because I ran across a book that used some of the same sources that I did–and therefore “everyone already knows this” and “I’m not doing anything new.” (They don’t, and you are.)

Here are some other things to take into account:

  • What methodology or theoretical approach is the author using? Is it presented in a way that makes sense. (A lot of historians in particular are allergic to theory and only introduce it at the end in a “I have to do this” sort of way. Does it show?)
  • How is the author contributing to the historical literature? What conversations are they contributing to? How might someone who works on a different area find the book useful?
  • Does each chapter have an argument? Is the argument fully supported? How does the chapter contribute to your understanding of the overall argument of the book?
  • Do the chapters flow from one to the other? (In a book where each chapter is a difference case study they should still fit together somehow in the end).
  • What sources does the author use? Are there sources you might have expected to see that aren’t there? Conversely, are there sources that you didn’t expect to see that are?

Critiques don’t have to be negative

It is often easier to write a review of a book you didn’t like. That said, while “critique” has something of a slightly negative connotation, it is actually a neutral term. Remember to point out things that the author does well–a mix of positive and constructive comments helps demonstrate that you have approached the book on its own terms.

When all else fails, take a look at reviews of books (one of the students in the seminar yesterday mentioned Goodreads, which I’ll admit I haven’t looked at in years). While everyone loves to circulate the fire-and-brimstone type reviews that throw lightning bolts at texts, you really want to get a feel for more nuanced reviews.

In particular, spend time reading reviews that are mostly positive–a lot of students struggle with these because they don’t want to come off as fawning or sycophantic; learning how to write a positive review takes some practice, but you also shouldn’t scour a book for something negative to say just because being fully positive is too challenging.

The more you write reviews, the better you’ll get at it!