The Elusive Book Review

ImageThe book review is quite often a graduate student’s first publication.  However, a perfect book review is an elusive creature that no one can agree upon.  There are common elements found throughout, but on the edge, there are topics that are constantly up for debate.  Here, I have listed them and the details that should be considered or included in each section, in no exact order.  Be conscious of your word limit! I am not an expert on writing book reviews, but I thought it would be helpful to share the knowledge I’ve collected over my grad school career.  I recommend reviewing the information below and grabbing some highlighters and between 10-15 published book reviews in large circulation and highly respected journals (American Historical Review, Journal of American History, etc).  This will help frame what a book review is supposed to look like and how a completed book review feels to the reader.  Always make sure to go back and reread your book review at least once and pass it on to one person who has also read the book and one person who hasn’t so they can critique it.  I know sometimes this isn’t possible, but at least one other person should review your writing before it gets sent anywhere.  A little help goes a long way to save embarrassment of errors.

Sometimes writing a book review requires an amount of outside research on a semi-unfamiliar topic to get an understanding of how to place the book in the field and in context.  The book in question’s foot or endnotes are also a great place to start and the introduction often offers a historiography.  Read the book reviews for the authors or books mentioned and follow the trail back.


  • Credentials (degree, research, etc.): What makes this person believable on this topic?


  • What is the book trying to prove and why?
  • What have other historians/scholars in the field said about this topic?
  • Is it in align with previous thought?
  • What makes it an original argument?


  • Where is this book in the historiographical conversation?
  • Is it repeating research or moving the field forward?
  • Name two or three other historians in this field who have researched and published on this topic (or one close to this topic depending on how specific it is).  How does this work reflect theirs?

Resources and Method of Presenting an Argument

  • What type of resources has the author implemented?  Primary or secondary documents?
  • Where the resources retrieved from a single location/archive?
  • Are the sources logical and credible? Do they fit this topic?
  • Would you recommend any other resources or archives to the author?
  • What type of history is this? (see below for more of an explanation on this)
  • How does the author map out the book? (see the introduction or the first few paragraphs and concluding paragraphs of each chapter)
  • Is it logical or confusing?
  • Is the book laid out in a chronological order? By topic? By person?


  • Analyze each section not just summarize.
  • How does this section fit into the rest of the work?
  • Does it support the argument?
  • What is the sections strengths and weaknesses?
  • Is there something in the chapter that should be more in depth or is too much time spent on certain topics? (remember to relate back to the argument for this)


  • What group(s) of people is the author trying to research with this book?
  • Who would enjoy this book and why?


  • What is this book about?
  • Frame the topic with events or years.
  • What type of work is this? (essay collection, synthesis/survey, etc.)


  • What are the strengths of the work?
  • What are the weaknesses and why are they weaknesses?
  • Did the author leave out anything of importance?

Types of History

This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully can present a better understanding of the different types of study that come together to make up the field of history.  Likewise, these defitions are not all-encompassing.  Rarely does a book or work rely solely on one type of history.  They are oftern interwoven throughout, though one type may prevail.

Political: history relating to politics, anything regarding presidents, results/effects of political decisions, etc

Comparative: comparing any two or more events, people, places, etc

Psychoanalytic: looking into the mind of a historical figure trying to determine “why” and motivations behind actions

Social: a study of human interactions and movements as well as social structure (including classes) and change

Cultural: study of what makes a civilization a cohesive group of people, including their language, popular traditions, and art as well as how they remember their past

Economic: study of the effect of the economy and economic theory on the human population and history, including human motivations; game theory is popular, analyzing the structure and logic of interpersonal interactions (contracting and bargaining

Environmental: the study of the change in the environment and its impact

Military: the study of the change in military over time, including warfare, methods, research, schools, etc.

Intellectual: the study of ideas (the philosophical history)

Women’s/Gender: study of women and men throughout history, their roles,

LBGT: the study of the change of LBGT culture and society, including viewpoints and biases, across time

Race & Ethnicity (ethnographic): effects that race and ethnicity has on the lives, experiences, and cultures of people across the world; viewing race and ethnicity to understand the world

Religious: analyzing the impact that religion has had on civilizations and culture throughout history and how people have shaped religion

Labor: analyzing the change in work/how people make a living throughout history and its impact on other aspects of people’s lives

Legal: the study of law and its change, including the impact of legal decisions

For more information:

History on Wikipedia for quick info

Los Angeles Valley College: How to Write a Book Review

The Writing Center at UNC: Book Reviews

American Historial Association: The Art of Reviewing

Book: A Pocket Guide to Writing in History

Book: Writing History: A Guide for Students

Book: Writing History: Theory and Practice


Unrealistic Expectations?

My lack of blogging is due to taking a six week course that felt like being beaten with a bag full of railroad spikes. On top of working full time, which includes traveling every other week at this point, I also took a 6 week course about United States history between 1920 and 1945. The class was a lower level graduate course so I figured it wouldn’t be that difficult.  Apparently my perception of a lower level course and the professor’s perception were completely different.  Our assignments included reading 9 books in 6 weeks, writing two 12 page papers on two books each, one 16-20 page paper on three books, and presenting a 15 minute lecture.  I felt like all of my work was rushed and below my average quality- or at least what I consider quality but they let me stay here so it must not be too bad!  I barely had time to think about one thing before I had to get onto the next.

So now I pose the question, at what point do we assign too much in a class?  There is a fine line, no doubt, between too little and too much.  However, when do we allow for time for the student to absorb the information they are reading and process the knowledge, taking the time to apply it to other information in their mind before we usher them off onto the next assignment?  Undoubtedly, I am not the only student in the class that has a full time job since the class was offered in the evening.  I was fortunate though to be one of the only students enrolled in the class to not have other classes for which I had responsibilities as well.  One, a social studies education student, had a panic attack during break on the first day of class because of the load of work from her education program every night with lesson plans, portfolios and such that were due at the end of the week every week on top of the assignments and reading for this class and two others.

Stress is manifested differently in each person and everyone has their various stress levels.  I panicked but I looked at the class as a challenge with my work and unavoidable travel schedule.  I walked out of the first class thinking, “Challenge Accepted.”  But in less than a year, these are the kinds of problems I will be running into as a teacher.  How do I manage my courseloads in the classes I teach so that I can challenge everyone but not overdo it?  Likewise, what will I be capable of handling with 4-6 classes?  I’ve talked a little bit before about time management, stress management, and migraines.  This seems to be a recurring theme, though not only in grad students (and history students!) but life in general.

Today I ordered a Yoga for Stress DVD through my subscription at Yoga Journal.  I will let you all know how that works out.  Until then, contemplate, what’s my toxic stress level?  At what point in the past have I wanted to just throw in the towel and what’s made me get there?  How did I get out of that dark place?

This weekend, I will be updating with some book reviews that I’ve owed people for months now and possibly a bit more on the levels of stress.

Until then, enjoy life my friends 😉

OAH 2012: Thursday Review

Good evening from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the OAH conference!  Woke up this morning and was reminded of exactly where I am.  It was in the 30s this morning and only got into the 40s today. This Florida girl was cold!The registration this morning was busy but efficient!  The bags they always given away are appreciated.  Since my interests lay in teaching, naturally I am following along with the teaching track.  Thus, the first session I attended was:

Session 1: Reading and Writing Like Historians: Literacy in History Teaching

Chair: Bob Bain from the University of Michigan

Ben Hoffman, University of Maryland

Chauncey Monte-Sano, University of Maryland

Abby Reisman, Stanford University

This was an excellent session with very dedicated professionals with a deep interest in both education and history, but especially the combination or synthesizing of the two professions.  Dr. Bain opened the session discussing how “doing” history teaching is on an entirely different level than “doing” history.  What exactly are the tools that can be implemented to help teachers help student learn how to do history and historical thinking?  How do we teach the necessary critical thinking skill and assess it?

Dr. Monte-Sano and Ben Hoffman discussed their 3 year project on preparing 8th grade teachers to teach historical writing.  Their project revolved around implementing a three step process into document analysis associated with separate teacher coaching and education to help them understand the process themselves and how to teach it.  Monte-Sano and Hoffman wanted students to not only be able to pull the main idea out of a document, but to be able to form an opinion based on knowledge from the classroom and use these historical documents to support their opinion in a well-formed essay.  Definitely a higher level of critical thinking and organization for an 8th grade student.  Their project schools consisted of between 1200 – 1400 students, most of which were 2 grade levels below in literacy.  Their results were fascinating.  They shared essays that students had written after 3 “sessions” and then after 6 “sessions.”  The basic level readers had significant gains in their writing ability, including paragraph structure, documenting naming and use.  Monte-Sano and Hoffman presented two tools that they had the teachers use to coach their students: IREAD and “How to Write Your Essay.”

Next, Abby Reisman presented on teaching students to read history.  Her enthusiasm for her subject and work are unparalleled.  She challenged the audience to consider what are the precise things that we’re looking for the students to understand/gain and what do we want the end result to look like?  She discussed the evolution of school systems turning to the Common Core Standards (which 45 states have already adopted) and their positives and negatives for the history teacher.  One of the negatives is the deemphasis of the literacy in the historical/social studies sense.  They are essentially making it seem similar to general reading when in reality, we as historians and history teacher asks our students to look at different aspects such as the source and contextualization.

Dr. Reisman also challenged us to consider the documents we pick to teach with and offer to students.  Why are we picking that particular document?  What do I want the students to do with it/get from it/know at the end of the lesson?  It can be used as assessment or instructional.  What else would the student need to know to fully understand this document in a strictly knowledge sense?

She presented three types of comprehension in historical assessment: background knowledge, reading comprehension, and historical reasoning.  These three pieces come together to form a true historical analysis.  We can use texts as a way to analyze arguments because everything someone writes has some sort of argument.  What argument is the author making?  What type of supporting evidence did they use?  Is there anything they left out?  What point of view did they leave out?  What would you have written differently or added in?  We should not forget about using historical fiction as a possible teaching tool.  To get an oral component into the works, consider adding a debate at the end of a unit after analyzing numerous primary documents and potentially an essay have the students take sides.  Possibly rewrite their essay with information that they learned during the debate.

It is important to consider what the students themselves bring to the table in the classroom.  A major shift has occurred and is still occurring in some places to student-centered learning.  The students should always be at the center of lesson planning and not the other way around.

After an hour and a half lunch, it was on to Session 2: Teaching Ideas, Beliefs, and Culture in the Revised AP US History Course.  Presenters were Lawrence Charap from the College Board, Emma Lapsansky-Werner from Haverford College, and Ted Dickson from Providence Day School.

Lawrence opened the session by talking about the upcoming publication of the revised curriculum and framework for the AP exam.  The new curriculum will give teachers the flexibility to be able to go more in depth on topics of their choice while still keeping on track.  It will also be more focused on historical thinking skills- a bonus for any historian.

The new revised curriculum has 6 goals:

  • Maintain college credit and placement
  • Emphasize skills over memorization
  • Ease coverage pressure
  • Improve teacher flexibility
  • Include recent scholarship
  • Develop student thinking proficiency

The curriculum will focus on developing 5 historical thinking skills:

  • Crafting historical arguments from evidence
  • Chronological reasoning
  • Historical causation
  • Comparison and contextualization
  • Historical interpretation and synthesis

Not only will it focus on thinking skills, but also will revolve around 7 course themes that are easy to incorporate into any unit.

  • Work, Exchange, and Technology
  • Peopling
  • Ideas, Belief, and Culture
  • Politics and Power
  • America in the World
  • Environment and Geography
  • Identity

The College Board is also coming out with state alignment guides to align the AP curriculum/course with state standards and also a Common Core guide eventually.  For more information, please visit

In addition to Lawrence’s talk, Drs. Lapsansky & Dickson presented a booklet of information and ideas to help integrate art, music, poems, and literature into the history curriculum to enhance the teaching of culture/belief and ideas.  Major ideas in teaching through art of all forms revolve around bias and context as well as the intended audience.  These are all aspects of “thinking historically” that ties so wonderfully back to the first session.  I will post more information on this in a later blog where I will look deeper into the Document Based Question (DBQ), analyzing images & historical documents, and teaching students how to do so.

The third session was a Roundtable: The Warfare State since the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately the moderator, Corey Robin from Brooklyn College & City College of New York Graduate School could not make it to the conference, but the three presenters, Michael Allen from Northwestern, Beth Bailey from Temple, and Fredrik Logevall from Cornell, introduced each other and survived the session beautifully.  They presented varying perspectives on the Vietnam War and its impact on the current government and opinion of war.

Tomorrow I will be attending the 8:30am session about Teaching with Objects.  Then I will be hitting up the 10:00am walking tour of Historic Milwaukee (expect pictures!) and a trip to the Public Museum to see the Cleopatra exhibit.  Then at 5pm we have the graduate student pub tour!  Busy day tomorrow!

If you want any more information on anything that I talked about here, let me know and I’ll get you what I can!

Things I’ve Learned in Grad School: Stress Migraines

Graduate school has a profound impact on a person, not the least of which involves an added level of stress.  Intense weight gain or loss, irritability, isolation from friends, depression, sleep deprivation- these are all effects that I expected as I signed up for my first course.  However, there was one sneaky little stress ninja that had snuck under my radar – migraines.  As a full time employee at a strictly grant funded department at the University and a part time history graduate student, to say I was stressed was an understatement at first.  Time management skills became crucial elements to the maintenance of my sanity.

Just as I thought I had it under control, my body disagreed and decided to go on the offensive.  Searing pain ripped through my head, down my neck, and into my shoulders one morning as my alarm went off.  The noise alone made me want to burst my eardrums because surely the pain from that could not have been as bad as the one that was pounding its way through some kind of offbeat anthem in my brain.  My eyes were swollen to the point where I felt like I could barely open them.  I knew what was going on, I had experienced minor migraines in high school that had similar effects though nowhere near this degree.  Those were more to the degree of tension headaches.  Time, strong coffee, and a hot bath helped me through the day but once I could stand bright lights and sound, I opened my laptop and dug around on the internet for more information like the good little researcher I am.

I went through all the different elements that could be triggering it: household pollutants (dust, mold, new items brought in), weather changes, diet changes.  None of those seemed to have an effect on either the intensity or frequency that these monster migraines were coming at me at this point.  As the semester wore on, they were coming every week.  Having portions of my brain removed was starting to sound like a fantastic idea, just to relieve some pressure I’d tell myself.

Finally, I broke down and made a doctor appointment who prescribed me a medication and gave me a referral to a neurologist.  The magical little pills worked wonders and put me in a very happy, but full functional, place for about four hours, just enough time to be on the other side of the migraine.  Yet I was interested, if not apprehensive to hear what the neurologist had to say.  My great grandmother had passed a few years back because of brain cancer, so with that in the back of my mind I sat in his office explaining my family history as well as my current situation.  He asked me what I was responsible for at work and then what type of classes I had been taking and what my grades were as well as the papers I had written and outside activities I was involved in.  When I had finished, he told me that I was understandably having migraines and he was surprised they hadn’t started sooner.  The culprit was stress.  The age old adage “this too shall pass” was tossed around as we discussed my looming graduation date, but he did not give me much hope for the future.  However, those time management skills will last me a lifetime, especially now that they are paired with my newfound discernment in “outside” activities.  Walking out of his office, my mind drifted back to my great grandmother, the same who had battled brain cancer, bent over the tomato plants in her backyard teaching me how to tell the good from the bad.  She taught me then to “do what you’re able” as she put it “not much more but certainly no less.”

Now, I have the migraines under control and have found exercise to be a fantastic stress reducer for any of you who may be in my same position.  Below are some helpful links regarding migraines, their types, and how to deal with them. If you have any questions or just want to share your story, please post below!

HHS Women’s Migraine Fact Sheet for Women: Stress Migraines

HeadWise Magazine: 7 Ways to Manage Stress and Reduce Migraine Pain:

WebMD: Preventing Migraines and Headaches by Managing Stress: