Historiography: Video Book Review Assignment

Using This Guide

This assignment provides faculty with a framework to instruct students on the process of researching, developing, and presenting a scholarly video book review in an undergraduate or graduate historiography course.

Purpose of This Exercise

The video book review assignment forces graduate students to think creatively about using new media for scholarly communication.


The book review is one of the most fundamental components of academic discourse. Because there are far more books than anyone can read in their general field, the summaries of and commentaries on new works that reviews provide remain essential guides to scholars at all levels. However, given space constraints of printed journals, reviews can seem like an exercise in futility, hardly able to capture the richness of an entire book in a few hundred words.

Fortunately, we are no longer limited to the printed word (and limited space) to share ideas about scholarship. Yet writing, especially long-form writing, dominates training in history at all levels. This assignment provides an opportunity to explore the process of creating a short video book review to gain an experiential understanding of the format and medium. Furthermore, in an increasingly digital world, having the ability to communicate in a variety of formats is a great professional asset, and it helps the historian reach a wider audience.

You will come away with invaluable experience in planning and executing a small video project, a greater appreciation for well-done videos, and ways of thinking about communication that will improve your writing and presentation skills.

So what is a video book review?

Ultimately, a video book review serves the same function as a written book review, and that should be kept in mind at all times. A well done video book review accomplishes the following:

  1. Provides a brief synopsis of the book’s content

  2. Highlights its key strengths and weaknesses

  3. Calls attention to its scholarly value

  4. Situates it in its field

While the fundamental goals remain the same, however, communicating by video is a fundamentally different task from communicating in writing. Conceptualize the video and the narration together. You want a synergy between them, not merely for them to happen at the same time.

Think about video clips and documentaries that have helped you understand something and analyze these clips for techniques that were particularly effective. Copy them to get started, and find your own style along the way. Here are some things you can do with video that would be difficult to do with text alone:

Sample Videos for Inspiration

Michael Wesch, The Machine is Us/ing Us (4.5 min. video).

Aaron Titus, How the Internet Works

Bill Wurtz, History of Japan

Random Course Trailers: Medical Ethics and History and Making the Middle Ages

Fred Gibbs, A Brief History of Toxicology and a short explanation.


You can make a perfectly fine video using free software that you probably already have. If you’re unfamiliar with movie editing software, consider Movie Maker (Windows) or iMovie (Mac), or a free trial of Camtasia (be careful of the expiration date unless you intend to buy it, although I highly recommend it).

For more details on using PowerPoint/Keynote with Camtasia, see my description of creating a simple slideshow voice-over. Even if you don’t use Camtasia, you can learn a lot from their basic “Getting Started” series of video tutorials (they are good video models in themselves, as well). If you have a particular problem you’re trying to solve (separate audio and video, splice audio, fade, add a text effect, etc.), you can usually Google the problem/question and name of your software to find web tutorials. Even though most of you will find this assignment challenging, you’re not solving new problems, so take advantage of others’ generosity in sharing their knowledge!

You should upload your video to YouTube or Vimeo, and make sure they are publically viewable. You can take them down when the class is over if you’d like.



Your Grade

These video assignments produce some grade anxiety because they are foreign, and it’s hard to know if you’re “doing it right.” Please bear in mind that most of your grade is based on you making an earnest effort. As we critique each other’s video drafts in class, you’ll see that it is totally obvious who is putting in work and who isn’t. You are not graded on how polished your video is, but your effort to communicate with the unique capabilities of video.

Sample grade guidelines

There are two components to your grade: the intellectual work of the book review (the content) and the video (the presentation).

Book Review

A: Addresses all of the core components—a summary of the book, analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, historiographical context, and assessment of its scholarly value—in a sophisticated way, drawing widely from course content and materials

B: Touches on most of the core components of a book review, but seems rather superficial in its analysis

C: Focuses on only one or two core components, for instance providing a summary of the book without any analysis of its strengths or weaknesses or its historiographical context


A: Uses a variety of visual effects (even if they don’t all work perfectly well) with mostly seamless editing; incorporates interesting interplay between visual and audio tracks

B: Employs at least a few different techniques to incorporate images provocatively; uses meaningful juxtaposition of images and narration

C: Includes very few visual effects. Video is basically you reading a book review while a few images slide across the screen. Video editing is rather choppy and distracting.