Monday, March 1, 2010

2010.03.04

Version at BMCR home site
Fisher on Joyal on Fisher on Joyal, McDougall, and Yardley, Greek and Roman Education: A Sourcebook. Response to BMCR 2010.02.26
Response by Roger S. Fisher, York University

Authors do not get to review their own books for the same reason that condemned men, as Creon says (Ant. 883-84), do not get to sing their own song, for there would be no end to it. Authors, like parents, are too close to their own progeny to have the professional perspective that is called for in a scholarly review. I wonder if the same restriction should not also apply to authors writing reviews of reviews of their books. Mark Joyal (on behalf of his co-authors) has reviewed my review of their sourcebook, which overall described their book as "useful." I find some of the criticisms misleading and genuinely puzzling, and feel I must respond on several points. My review was based on a lengthy and deep "test run," and I stand by my comments (not all of which were negative). I offer this second round of comments reluctantly but in the hopes that they may be of use to the readership of Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

My book review was a review of the authors' book and not the book's authors. This reviewer has never seen a book review (or reply) where the authors' accumulated years of teaching (more than 100 years in this case) has been considered relevant to the purpose of the review, which is the merits of the book. The authors also hoist a positive book notice from Choice, a journal written by and for acquisitions librarians. The fact that the sourcebook is a Choice "pick" is misleading. Choice is a journal in which librarians recommend acquisitions (and the reviewer of the sourcebook in Choice appears to be a librarian whose speciality is Buddhism, not the classical world). The book notice in Choice points out that this is the only book of its kind that is currently available. The authors go on to claim that they have used the book in the classroom. All of this is the language and logic of book marketing, not scholarly reviewing, and if this is the direction that the authors suggest scholarly book reviewing should take, then why have book reviews at all, rather than just celebratory blurbs from the back of dustcovers and publisher's promotional materials?

The authors protest that I did not evaluate the sourcebook according to its stated purpose, which was to be a "large, diverse and representative sample of the primary evidence for ancient Greek and Roman education" (p. i). A claim of such breadth makes the scope and content of the book fair game for comment and criticism. My purpose in illustrating some of the many things omitted by this sourcebook was to demonstrate its boundaries and limitations. By their lengthy assertion of what their rather short book does include, which is not in dispute, the authors seem to have missed the point of the review, which is that the authors were not explicit in the book's introduction about what the book does not include, both in terms of content (material and literary evidence that goes beyond standard ancient texts on pedagogy) and in terms of concept (what they think constitutes education and educational practices in ancient society). The authors' only answer to this criticism is the claim that they lacked space (but as the review noted, a much shorter book on the same topic has several more illustrations). And while the authors attempt to rehabilitate their introduction by extensive quotation, only kindness stopped this reviewer from pointing out banalities from the introduction such as "their [i.e., philosophers'] discussions are intrinsically interesting" (p. xvii) or "some of these works [of literature] are very famous, while others are known and read by only a few people" (p. xv).

The second substantive criticism pointed out in my review was the inadequacy of the index. Although the authors assert in their introduction "that quick progress in locating the evidence can be found by consulting the general index at the back of the book" (p. xix), the authors, in their reply, completely contradict this assertion by saying that readers should be expected "to do a little work themselves to find everything they want." The index to this book is so deficient that, for the reasons I stated in the review, I could never assign this book to undergraduates because more than a little work is required. This reviewer spent many wasted hours working with a very inadequate index, and going page by page looking for passages and material that had been encountered in the book and then could not be found again when going back to look them up (evidence of this very fact can be found perhaps in the authors' own comments -- to put together a package of sources on a topic, one must hunt all throughout the book to do so). Without a detailed index, such work is time consuming, if not impossible. This reviewer does not apologize for having high expectations for the index in a book of this nature. A quick comparison shows that Lefkowitz and Fant's Women's Life in Greece and Rome has thirteen and one-half pages of index (a ratio of one page of index for every thirty pages of text), Austin's The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest has twenty-one and one half pages of index (a ratio of one page of index for every twenty-seven pages of index), and Dillon and Garland's Ancient Rome has nineteen pages of index (a ratio of one page of index for every forty pages of text). In contrast, the book under review has only a total of four pages of index (a ratio of one page of index for every seventy pages of text). The aforementioned books are all sourcebooks aimed at a similar target audience (non-specialist scholars and students) that this reviewer has used in the classroom. These books have proven to be thorough and comprehensive, well-annotated and with excellent indexes, and they cover more than literary sources on important aspects of ancient social history.

This reviewer also stands by the assertion that the book is out of step with current trends in classical scholarship and teaching. There has been a generational paradigm shift in how classics is being done, and this is not reflected in this sourcebook. This reviewer thought that we had moved beyond emphasis on literary topoi as evidence. In an era when classics departments are called upon to teach courses of a general nature to a broad spectrum of students, is there not a need for a book on Greek and Roman education that fully translates Greek and Roman terminology, has an adequate index, and includes material and social evidence that goes beyond traditional literary sources?

It is responsible for a reviewer to point out shortcomings in a book if that may assist potential users of the book who might want to supplement it with other materials. A second purpose of pointing out a book's shortcomings is to offer the authors (and publisher) suggestions about what they might have overlooked (for whatever reason) and that they might wish to consider in future editions. That offer seems, in this case, to have been declined, which is too bad because the more the authors assert the perfection of the book under review, the less likely it is that we may look forward to an improved edition, one that might at least address the very serious deficiencies in the index, and one that might address the need for a comprehensive source book on such an important topic.

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