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American Speech 79.2 (2004) 208-209
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On Book Reviewing as a Scholarly Act
My review (Hazen 2003) of Sonja L. Lanehart's (2001) Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English was written under the assumption, perhaps false, that book reviews are essentially different from jacket blurbs and publishers' descriptions. All texts about a book encourage readers to consider the book. However, book reviews have a different purpose. This purpose is at least threefold:
- Prompt the review readers to read the book.
- Prompt the review readers to think about the book in specific ways. The reviewer could suggest positive or negative critiques, and the review readers could accept or reject any or all of those critiques. Yet in considering those critiques, the readers engage in the scholarship of the academic field.
- Improve the scholarship of the field, ultimately, in some small way.
With the original review and these responses, if logical fallacies such as argumentum ad hominem are avoided, then the purpose of the book review is fulfilled.
American Speech has a diverse readership. Its content reflects the quality and scope of that diversity. A book review from one reader will not represent the scholarly views of all or even most readers. The editor determined that Lanehart (2001) was a work of scholarship worthy of review, and I was asked to submit a review. The worst fate the book could have received would have been NOT being reviewed, as is the fate of most books. I accepted this responsibility in order to provide myself the opportunity to reflect on the status of scholarship on African American English (AAE) and because I knew the book was substantial. I had attended the State of the Art Conference, well organized by Lanehart, and some of the seeds for the book review were planted by other scholars in the audience at that conference. Their concerns and praises remained with me and became incorporated in the review. As part of the responsibility of a book reviewer, I offered critiques, but, certainly, I did not strive to establish criticisms of the book.
Geneva Smitherman and Arthur Spears are respected elders in the scholarship of AAE; I myself have used their work (e.g., Smitherman 1998; Spears 1998) with good success in my own writings and graduate classes. Their views should be considered but may reflect different scholarly orientations than my own. The book review does reflect my background and goals in scientific research. Since scholars from backgrounds as diverse as [End Page 208] education and linguistics work on AAE, it is to be expected that differences in opinion arise. This diversity of opinion undergirds academic freedom and should only improve scholarship.
Hazen, Kirk. 2003. Review of Lanehart (2001). American Speech 78: 103-19.
Lanehart, Sonja L., ed. 2001. Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Smitherman, Geneva. 1998. "Word from the Hood: The Lexicon of African-American Vernacular English." In African-American English: Structure, History, and Use, ed. Salikoko S. Mufwene, John R. Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh, 203-25. New York: Routledge.
Spears, Arthur K. 1998. "African-American Language Use: Ideology and So-Called Obscenity." In African-American English: Structure, History, and Use, ed. Salikoko S. Mufwene, John R. Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh, 226-50. New York: Routledge.