John Decker is the Departmental Chairperson of History of Art and Design at the Pratt Institute, a position he has held since 2017. Prior to that, he was a tenured professor of Art History at Georgia State University in Atlanta. John's research interests lie in the area of religious life and behavior in Northern Europe during the 15th century, especially where these intersect with objects used for individual as well as communal devotion. He became Renaissance Quarterly Reviews Editor on the first of January 2021 and spoke to Communications Manager Rachel Klein Khalil about his new role.
Congratulations on your new position, John. What are one or two main things you hope to accomplish as RQ’s Reviews Editor?

Thank you! It’s a great honor to be named Reviews Editor for RQ. I would very much like to continue the work that has been done in broadening reviews to include more non-English language books, more works from emerging scholars, and more studies by, and about, people and communities of color. I would also like the reviews to include digital humanities and born-digital projects.

What do you think makes a great scholarly book review? Can you provide any specific examples of what to do or not do?

A great scholarly book review not only synopsizes the most critical arguments of a book, it also tells us why they are important. This can be accomplished by putting them into greater context with developments in the field(s) in question or by discussing their implications for further study. Doing this requires going beyond a rehearsal of the book’s table of contents or a recapitulation of its introductory materials. It needs a sensitive, generous, and engaged reading. If there are notable issues or problems with the arguments, a great review acknowledges them, explains why they are significant, and puts them into their proper context. The review, however, should not confuse personal preference or judgment substitution for useful peer critique. Finally, a great review is agnostic of the status of the author(s) or the cultural capital of their institutional affiliations. Great ideas can, and do, come from emerging scholars who are unaffiliated or working at humble institutions.

What’s the best way for early career scholars to be involved in writing book reviews for the journal?

Early career scholars can become involved with writing reviews in two very simple ways. First, they can make review suggestions for new, exciting books in their field(s). We cannot guarantee that the person making the suggestion will perform the review but knowing that a book is of interest always helps. Second, they can let us know that they are willing to be reviewers so that we can try to make use of their expertise and enthusiasm.

What role can book reviews play in supporting the Society’s statement of social justice and vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Book reviews can help bring more attention to the larger cultural and intellectual issues outlined in the Society’s social justice statement in two key ways. First, reviewing books that take critical stances regarding unflattering aspects of the early modern period (slavery, sexism, exploitation of labor, techniques for mass manipulation) help bring these approaches to wider attention and can go a long way in shifting how we all conceptualize our own research projects. Second, reviews of books written by BIPOC scholars, and BIPOC scholars reviewing books, are critical to the Society’s efforts to call out and address long-standing patterns of marginalization, oppression, and elitism in the academy.

How would you like to see RQ evolve over the next several years and where do you see the future for academic journals in general?

Over the next few years, I would like to see RQ continue to expand its inclusion of studies that view early modernity through ever more interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary lenses. As part of this, I would love to see digital humanities and born-digital works find a regular place in the journal both in terms of article space as well as reviews. I would also like to see more opportunities for ongoing community engagement with current scholarship through channels such as blogs, micro-blogs, and reader comments so that more voices can join in the conversation. A formal review serves a very specific scholarly function and follows well-known formats. Less formal reader responses perform a different role and can help build a robust community dialogue around various ideas and trends by permitting more multiplex forms of interaction than a formal review. These modes of engagement can be complementary and one need not replace the other.

I think that academic journals, in general, will continue to be reliable sources of new scholarship and information for specialists and various interested publics. Academic journals will all face challenges in regard to their financial well-being, how and by whom their authority is constructed and maintained, and their relevance not just to a particular field but to larger social patterns and concerns. These challenges also present immense opportunities to rethink and remake what journals are and do, to reconsider who speaks and how, and to ask how we can make scholarly information more accessible to the widest possible audience.

You had an essay published recently in RQ (71.1): Aid, Protection, and Social Alliance: The Role of Jewelry in the Margins of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves examines five miniatures in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (completed 1442). Tell us about what you uncovered in your research and what you found most fascinating.

The article examines depictions of fictive jewelry in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves in terms of their effect on how the book functioned for its owner. In particular, my claim is that the fictive jewelry acted as simulated ex-votos invoking the aid and protection of five particular female saints. I then argue that these offerings can also be thought of as a means of establishing strategic alliances with each saint. I support this claim by examining patron-client relationships familiar at court and also considering how networks among women at court functioned socially and politically. Finally, I discuss various parallels between the vitae of each saint and the Duchess’s own life to help understand why perhaps these particular saints were chosen for special treatment. In the process of writing the article, I learned quite a bit about the Duchy of Cleves and its court thanks to Gerard Nijsten’s insightful and interesting book In the Shadow of Burgundy: The Court of Guelders in the Late Middle Ages. I found it fascinating to see how the Guelders court went about creating, asserting, and sustaining status and authority. It was interesting to see how both Duke and Duchess used the tools and trappings of piety to assert their personal legitimacy and authority, both at court and among their subjects and peers. For the Duke, this approach helped to counter his image as an ineffectual leader. For the Duchess, it helped to offset a growing reputation as a schemer more loyal to her Burgundian cousins than to her husband.

Anything else you feel RSA members should know about you or your vision for RQ?

It isn’t necessarily tied to my vision for the reviews but I would like everyone to know that I am always happy to talk. If you see me at the RSA, feel free to say hello and chat with me about your thoughts, concerns, and ideas.

You can read more about John Decker on his biography page.