Area Studies: plus ça change?

June 16, 2011

Liz Lightfoot’s recent article “The value of area studies” in British Academy Review succinctly outlines the difficulties and challenges facing departments of area studies. In the eight plus years I have held the area studies remit for the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, discussions about area studies invariably focus on the identity of the field–for example in 2004 LLAS ran a workshop entitled the Disciplinary Identity of Area Studies. In 2005, I attended a workshop entitled The Future of Interdisciplinary Area Studies run by the University of Oxford. In many respects the British Academy event The role of Area Studies in Higher Education in November 2010 was a revisiting of the Oxford conference. I even had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with many of the same people.

When I joined LLAS in 2003 my primary role was to run the Area Studies Project. A key aim of that project was build up an area studies community. There have been some successes. Driven by the project and in particular the vision of Dick Ellis, the then chair of the Area Studies Specialist Advisory Group the UK Council for Area Studies Associations (UKCASA) was formed in November 2003. It is pleasing to see that UKCASA is providing a strong voice for area studies in both teaching and research. Moreover, it has helped to bridge the gap between Anglophone and non-Anglophone area studies. The funding for the Language-based area studies centres was also an encouraging sign.

However, the questions raised when area studies is mentioned seem to be the same as they were eight years ago. And they are probably much the same as they were twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Department closures, the apparent rewarding of disciplinarily specialisation by the RAE and REF, the reliance of area studies programmes on ‘donor’ departments and questions of whether interdisciplinarity (more breath) inevitably means less depth leading to the suggestion that interdisciplinary courses might be a bit light, intellectually speaking. Naturally the latter is denied more area studies proponents who see the demands of area studies as more rather than less challenging.

Lightfoot’s article opens with the newsroom cry “Find someone who knows about Egypt!” in response the protests taking place there and elsewhere in the Middle East.  Quoted in the article Tim Wright says “The problem with providing a national resource is that no one knows where the next area of concern will come from? Will it be a need for Kurdish specialists, or people with a deep knowledge of Afghanistan, Egypt or Pakistan?”

Or Canada maybe? Well probably not, but from a government perspective a key rationale for area studies is based on the national interest, the next protest or the next war. Talk is afoot of another referendum in Quebec, but whether that referendum, whatever its outcome, will generate much interest in the UK is unclear. The rationales for area studies tend focus on the need to understand the different, the unknown, the economically important and the dangerous. Perhaps the real worry is that we will never seek to understand those societies which we see as similar, known, economically unimportant and safe.

Reference: Lightfoot, L. (2011) The Value of Area Studies, British Academy Review 17, pp. 48-51

Why write book reviews?

March 25, 2011

For three years running now I have run a session for our postgraduates on writing book reviews. I have written quite a few for the British Journal of Canadian Studies and am about to begin to write my first one for Innovations in Education and Teaching International. When I started to think about how I might approach the session with the postgraduates I was surprised at how little discussion there is on how to write good book reviews, or if indeed we should even spend our time doing them.

As the status of publications go a book review is pretty insignificant. I don’t list them on my CV or on this website. I make it clear to postgraduates that book reviews are not perceived to be as ‘good’ as peer-reviewed journal articles, books, book chapters etc. Over on the Chronicle of Higher Education forums there are those who regard the appearance of book reviews on a CV as ‘padding’, even for more junior members of the academic community. In their view claiming a book review as an actual publication is along the lines of listing blog posts, tweets and postings to internet fora on your CV.

So, why do I do book reviews?

1. Keeping up with Canada. These days all my research is in the field of higher education teaching and learning, but by writing book reviews I can motivate myself to keep my interests in Canadian matters going.

2. The challenge of summarising. Summarising and evaluating a book in 500 words is a challenge. I have just submitted a review of Quebec and the Heritage of Franco-America, which contains six essays plus an introduction from one of the editors. In this case I have just about managed to address each chapter individually, but books with 10, 15 or more contributors are much harder to write about in 500 words.

3. A sense of providing a service to the academic community. I would like to think people actually read my reviews and find them helpful, but in all honesty no-one has ever mentioned anything I’ve written in a book review.

4. To increase the size of my book collection! I like having lots of books. My wife is less keen though. We have two big bookcases in our front room and many of the shelves contain two rows of books. My Canadian book collection takes up a couple of shelves and it is nice (for me) to add to this section.
If you are teaching a session on book my materials are available for open sharing in Humbox.

Other sources I have found online include:

Roger Shiner (adapted from Susan Swan), ‘Nine ways of looking at a critic’, Toronto Globe and Mail 30th November 1996. E23)

How to write a book review (Los Angeles Valley College)