3 August 2009

Rate Your Professors

  • Michéle Lamont. How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Harvard University Press. March 2009.

How Professors Think takes up the arcane subject of academic peer review, specifically peer review in the context of fellowship competitions. Michéle Lamont, a sociology professor at Harvard, secured unusual access to five of the foundations that fund fellowships in the humanities and social sciences, among them the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. Over a period of two years, she spoke with foundation staff and read foundation documents, but she spent most of her time interviewing the professors who had volunteered to serve on the multidisciplinary panels that award the fellowships, sometimes even sitting in on their deliberations. This book is her account of what she found, supplemented with telling quotations from the panelists she interviewed and scores of charts compiling her findings.

It’s clear why academics would be interested in a book about peer review, but How Professors Think is being marketed for a general readership. Here, peer review serves as a proxy for all the acts of judgment that make up the university, all the decisions about who is admitted, who is rewarded, what is worth studying, and why. A study of how professors think, or rather how they judge, this is ultimately a book about how the university works. And Lamont’s frequent references to “opening the black box” seem to promise that the book will be an exposé. Certainly, an exposé would find a ready audience. As the New York Times confirms almost daily, there seems to be an insatiable appetite for attacks on the university and no end of disaffected professors eager to feed it. Nearly all writing about the university takes the form of the jeremiad. The financial crisis has provided the most recent excuse, if any excuse were needed, for another round of laments that standards are falling, costs are rising, affirmative action has ruined everything; the professors are would-be radicals, the professors are would-be celebrities; the old disciplines are outmoded, the new disciplines are fraudulent; the undergraduates are twittering, their parents are helicoptering; no one is being trained for the global economy, no one is teaching the classics anymore.

Lamont avoids these temptations, seeking instead to describe the academy in its banal, workaday reality. She shows that while the funding foundations give little explicit guidance to the professors awarding the fellowships, peer review nonetheless operates according to unspoken, but powerful, norms. The professors serving on the panels are expected to set aside self-interest, recusing themselves from voting for their students or against their rivals; they are expected to judge a proposal by the standards of the applicant’s own discipline; they are expected to defer to panelists more expert in a given field; they are expected, as one puts it, “not [to] be an asshole.” To be sure, these rules are never followed perfectly. There is, Lamont reveals, horse trading and strategic voting, bullying and sniping, eye-rolling and heavy sighing, and panelists voting on whims (one panelist rejected a proposal on Viagra because she was just “so sick” of hearing about male sexuality). The deliberations invariably get off to a slow start, as the panelists jockey for position, and the final few proposals are always dispatched quickly because the panelists all have planes to catch. Indeed, one panel failed to award all the fellowships at its disposal because they simply ran out of time.

And yet, despite all this, the panelists believe that they have judged fairly and identified the best proposals. “I think the process works very well,” one says, “it’s just hard to articulate what it is.” The process works, Lamont argues, precisely because people believe in it. Believing that the other panelists are acting fairly, the panelists act fairly themselves, and describing the process as fair, or fair enough, Lamont does her part to ensure that it continues to be so. And if, as one panelist ruefully acknowledges, “nothing is perfect,” if some promising proposals are inadvertently overlooked, there’s always the hope that another foundation will recognize those proposals and award them the fellowships they deserve. All of this may not be particularly inspiring—but then these professors aren’t vamping for the op-ed page. They’re simply doing an ordinary part of their job, and doing it as well as they can. It’s in this context that we can best appreciate Lamont’s own style. If she sometimes muffles her observations in a few too many abstractions or blunts her arguments by positioning them too scrupulously within scholarly debates, it is because she is writing as an academic who believes in her vocation and is paying her readers the respect of addressing them in its language.

Lamont’s focus on fellowship competitions affords her a unique view of the disciplines. She devotes a chapter to discussing six: philosophy, English, history, anthropology, political science, and economics. Lamont intends her account of these disciplines to be purely descriptive; she thinks of each discipline as having its own “culture of evaluation,” and she wants to understand the rules governing those cultures without judging them herself. Insofar as she succeeds in doing this, the chapter disappoints. Drawing more heavily here than elsewhere on the work of other scholars, Lamont offers potted histories of the various disciplines, and so we hear echoes of the old jeremiads against postmodernism and “French theory,” and we hear once more about the canon wars in English, the reflexive turn in anthropology, and, in political science, the rise of rational choice. (We hear the old misleading statistics as well. Lamont uses the number of PhDs conferred in a discipline as a measure of its relative intellectual prestige, without ever acknowledging that the shrinking of PhD programs might be a deliberate response, as it has been in the case of many English departments, to the ongoing adjunctification of university teaching.) Lamont’s attempts at neutral description are inevitably shaped, however, by what her own research has revealed: some disciplines win disproportionately many fellowships, while others win disproportionately few. Beneath her neutral descriptions, then, lurk normative claims about what distinguishes successful from unsuccessful disciplines, and it is here that her analysis gets interesting.

The two unsuccessful disciplines are philosophy, which Lamont calls a “problem field,” and English, which she claims is in crisis. Both fail to secure their share of fellowships because they fail to describe themselves in ways that other disciplines find persuasive. For English, the problem is that the discipline is too open. “I am coming from English,” one panelist says, “and in English today anything goes.” Where English scholars once focused primarily on literary works, they now describe their projects as pursuing questions that are historical, theoretical, or cultural in the broadest sense, focusing on sixteenth-century bookbinding, for instance, or Derrida’s theory of hospitality, or reality TV. As a result, proposals by English scholars are seen as wandering into territory claimed by other disciplines (history, art history, film studies, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, and sociology), and they are faulted for not following the methods of those disciplines, for not analyzing historical documents, for instance, as a historian would. English is seen as having no method of its own. Where once English scholars identified themselves as doing close readings, they now tend to be tongue-tied when it comes to talking about their method. Only one of Lamont’s interviewees tries to make the case that the discipline has a distinctive method, venturing to say that she thinks English scholars are “good readers” of historical documents, but she gives up the ground almost as soon as she claims it, wondering whether historians might not “know how to do this better” after all.

Where English is too open, philosophy is too closed. Philosophers continue to do what they have always done, exploring what one of them describes as “the very traditional problems that [have] defined the subject for, you know, thousands of years” and using methods that they think of as uniquely rigorous. But while the philosophers themselves believe in what they do, they fail to make the case to the other disciplines. Problems that are already thousands of years old don’t impress panelists who prize originality, and methods that philosophers think of as defining critical thinking often prove to be incomprehensible to those outside the field. As a result, a geographer describes the philosophy proposals as “absolutely unintelligible,” an English scholar admits that, even after much explanation, she “just still didn’t get it,” and a foundation official actually intervened in one panel’s deliberations to urge the panelists to judge the philosophers a little more leniently.

The successful disciplines, by contrast, do make a strong case for themselves. Historians, for instance, present themselves as belonging to a unified discipline, speaking often of what “we historians” do. They maintain this unity despite the fact that history, like English, has radically expanded its focus. Political, diplomatic, and economic histories have been joined by social and cultural ones, and historians now pay more attention to ordinary people, overlooked groups, and forgotten regions of the world. At the same time, historians, again like English scholars, have been open to questioning their own premises, with some arguing that the discipline is objective and others, that it is subjective; with some thinking of themselves as empiricists and others, as theorists. All of these changes have caused divisions, but historians speak of these divisions as having been pushed to the margins, so that the center, the “pretty big, pretty calm, not overtly politicized” center, remains strong. What unites history in the face of these expansions and divisions is a commitment to a single method, namely “careful archival work.” So long as a project relies on archival research, historians identify it as belonging to their discipline and defend it on those grounds. Something similar can be said of economics, which also addresses an ever-expanding array of questions, but pursues them all through a single method, mathematical formalism. Recently, this method has spread to political science, where rational choice theory is squeezing out competing approaches. Setting history and economics alongside English and philosophy, Lamont implies that disciplines make a strong case for themselves when they unify around a shared method, no matter how problematic that method may be. After all, while one economist describes the method of his field, striking a note of sardonic triumph, as “spreading like a cancer,” that spread has only strengthened the position of economics.

But while fellowship competitions reward the unified disciplines, the university has a need for the more divided ones as well. Scholarly questions do not always arise, docilely, within the context of existing disciplines, and so the more divided disciplines are needed to take in the new methods and topics that the unified disciplines would exclude. English, for instance, has welcomed the many philosophers that philosophy rejects, from Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard to Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben, as well as Richard Rorty, and it has sheltered the many interdisciplinary projects, in women’s studies, African-American studies, and cultural studies, that would be much more vulnerable without a disciplinary home. Viewing the disciplines through the lens of the fellowship competition, Lamont presumes that they are all trying to do the same thing, namely advancing their own interests as well as they can in a zero sum game. But viewing the disciplines in the broader context of the university, we see that they perform different functions within a larger system.

If Lamont’s focus on fellowship competitions prevents her from seeing the value of the more divided disciplines, her own method prevents her from recognizing that even the divided ones are not quite so divided as they might seem. Lamont’s method is the interview. Although she is self-conscious about how she may be distorting the fellowship competition in the very act of studying it, she nonetheless continues to believe that if she wants to know how professors think, she can simply ask them. But there is a crucial difference between rhetoric and practice, between what people say and what they actually do. This difference is most obvious to me when Lamont is discussing my own discipline, English, but there’s no reason to believe that it’s not present in other disciplines as well. What Lamont hears, when she interviews English scholars, is a rhetoric of division and questioning. One scholar celebrates the “kind of internal self-critique, which is good … very healthy,” while another says, “it’s always good to be a little more sort of self-conscious and self-aware and self-questioning when you come into things,” and a third admits, “there’s no real, no sort of set terms of agreement.” But these same scholars also admit, and Lamont does not take this seriously enough, that their actual practice is far more unified and certain. One notes that whatever disputes he may have with his colleagues, they invariably agree when grading student work, while another observes that while it may be difficult to say what characterizes great scholarship, nonetheless “when you see it, you don’t miss it.”  Divided in rhetoric, consensual in practice, English clearly has norms and standards that it does not articulate. (As it happens, one of these norms is the persistence of close reading as a method, decades after its putative demise. Indeed, so enduring is close reading that the most provocative scholarly work of the past ten years has been Franco Moretti‘s call for “distant reading,” an empirical approach to the vast numbers of non-canonical works that would go otherwise unread.)  

There is another problem with Lamont’s method, as well. More qualitative than many sociologists, Lamont nonetheless does a great deal of empirical analysis. As she conducts her interviews, she listens for the often-repeated words. She recognizes that when panelists speak of excellence, they tend to speak of clarity, quality, originality, significance, and feasibility, and she takes these words to constitute a kind of lingua franca of judgment, a language that allows political scientists to speak to anthropologists and philosophers. Having identified these words, Lamont has her research assistants transform the words into codes, the codes into data, and then aggregate the data into statistics, all through a process that she details in an appendix. At times, Lamont’s statistics cut through the noise of long-ritualized debates and reveal facts that neither side has grappled with, as when she shows that the diversity practiced in academic contexts bears little relation to the diversity that figures, for better or worse, in the public imagination. That is, a number of panelists refer to “diversity” as a factor when making awards, but they are much more likely to be speaking of diversity of institution (35 percent) or discipline (34 percent) than to be speaking of diversity of gender (15 percent) or race (14 percent). At other times, however, her statistics don’t reveal nearly as much. Our sense of how professors judge is not greatly enriched by knowing that clarity is mentioned more often by humanists (68 percent) than by social scientists (41 percent) or that 41percent of all panelists speculate about the moral qualities of the applicants, in particular, hard work (31 percent), humility (21 percent), and authenticity (19 percent). The lingua franca of judgment is too impoverished a language to capture the standards the panelists are actually applying when they judge.

How Professors Think offers a richly detailed and persuasive account of peer review, one that is likely to inspire further scholarship in the sociology of judgment, in addition to reassuring academics more generally that peer review is fair. So there is no question that this book is of interest to academic readers. But what of the book’s general readers, who are less interested in peer review than in the university more generally? Lamont’s account of the university, focusing as it does on procedures of judgment, proves to be curiously bloodless. While she departs from the jeremiad tradition in describing professors as simply doing their jobs as best as they can, she fails to tell us what those jobs really are—or why they are worth doing. At moments, Lamont’s interviews capture real intellectual passion, as when scholars speak eloquently in praise of those whose work they most admire or, more haltingly, about the deep pleasure they take in their own work. Pure brilliance, sheer delight—these come rarely, but they are what motivates scholarship and what scholarship aspires to be. Neither, however, can be easily captured by the procedures of peer review. And so while Lamont’s book does many important things very well, the one thing it fails to do is to describe how professors, at their best, actually think.

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