A while back I reviewed William Schniedewind and Joel Hunt’s A Primer on Ugaritic for the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. My review was short and focused primarily on the pedagogical decision to present Ugaritic in a more inductive manner. Robert Holmstedt, Brent Strawn, and Mark Smith also gave positive reviews (Holmstedt did register a few more criticisms than I did).
M.E.J. Richardson was disappointed with the positive reviews and published his own review of the grammar also in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. Richardson mentioned all of the above reviewers in his introductory comments but singled my review out for particular attention. He said that I “appropriately applauded the authors for identifying a paedagogic gap waiting to be filled” but that my criticisms were “almost en passant” (everything sounds better in French). He then referred to this blog and quoted my interaction with Bill Schniedewind on one of my posts. In the quoted statement Bill said that he valued any feedback on typos or improvements because he was planning a second edition. After this Richardson offered a statement that seemingly framed the intention of his review: “I am grateful to the editors of JHS for allowing me the opportunity to make this supplementary assessment.”
I was surprised when the “supplementary assessment” to my review came out since neither the editors nor Richardson informed me of it. I know that Richardson sent a draft of this review to at least some of the reviewers he mentioned in his introduction several months before its publication but he did not extend this courtesy to me–we have never met so possibly he felt awkward about the situation (NB: I do this blog to meet new people so even if you think I’ve jumped the shark give me a shout out–I’d love to get to know you).
I thought I would take this opportunity offer a few reflections concerning Richarson’s review as well as academic reviews in general. First, I am glad that Richardson took the opportunity to supplement my cursory review with a more sustained and detailed study–he is eminently more qualified for this than I. Furthermore, I appreciate his reflections upon the pedagogical approach taken in this grammar because I have not had the opportunity to use it in a classroom setting nor have I ever taught Ugaritic.
Even though I appreciate his review I have a couple lingering reservations about it. Richarson is very negative concerning an inductive approach to learning dead languages:
[Q]uestions remain about the paedagogical presuppositions of the authors. The most successful results of applying the inductive method to language teaching involve living languages, including Modern Hebrew and Modern Arabic. More limited progress has been claimed when applying the method to written languages, in particular to Classical Latin and Greek but also to Biblical Hebrew. But with its relatively tiny text corpus and only minimal traces of vowels, Ugaritic challenges the method to the extreme.
I have had the opportunity to learn languages from a wide spectrum of approaches–I learned biblical Hebrew from a hyper-deductive method, I learned Classical Greek inductively by reading it 12 hours per day (5.5 hours of class work then prep for the next day at home) for 12 weeks at the University of Texas, and a hybrid method for Akkadian. My Ugaritic prof gave us a quick sketch of the language on the first day of class and on the second day we were reading texts sink-or-swim (welcome to PhD studies!). I note Richardson’s objections to the inductive method with Ugaritic but I do not think these obstacles are “extreme.” That said, I have heard from profs who have used the grammar and they report that the students were not favorable to it. Even still, I think that if it is possible with the structure of curriculum and time constraints of an academic term an inductive method is my preferred way to learn and teach languages.
Richardson provides a huge list mistakes and corrections of this grammar–in fact, apart from a few paragraphs this makes up the entirety of his 8,772 word review. I have seen reviews that attempt to exhaustively list every minor typographical error (Richardson doesn’t quite go this far). It seems to me that the primary purpose of a review is to summarize the book for people who want an overview and to provide enough information to allow them to decide if a book is worth purchasing. Secondarily, a review could aid people who have already read or are in the process of reading the book. Information that does not feed these purposes could be conveyed privately to the author to help them with editing a subsequent edition.
Much of what Richardson provides is of genuine help to people who will use the grammar, however, much it it also seems to be a response to Schniedewind’s request for corrections for a second edition–many of these corrections are not of help in deciding whether to purchase the grammar or use it. If this is the case why did Richardson feel the need to publish such a long list of corrections instead of providing a summary and crucial corrections for users of the grammar and send the rest privately to Schniedewind and Hunt? It seems to me that a huge list of published corrections is more of an embarrassment to the author than a genuine help for students or readers and attempts to establish the erudition of the reviewer.
Thankfully, Richardson includes none of the snarkiness that underlies a good many reviews (see for instance Lester Grabbe’s review of Rick Hess’ book). These kinds of reviews are getting more and more common and it is as if Simon Cowell is spawning a bunch of academics. Constructive criticism is good, helpful, and needed but ad hominems, snarkiness, and public lists of corrections ad nauseam are not constructive.
What is your take on my review and Richardson’s supplement? How about the nature of academic reviews in general?