How Professors Think

Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment studies the process of evaluating and awarding grants in multi-disciplinary committees.  In this well-written and relentlessly object study (in the sense that Lamont has no ax to grind as far as I can tell and treats her subjects with respect), the author mainly I think is offering a counterpoint to Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that academic awards constitute a system of self-reproduction.  Instead, Lamont finds that even though evaluators certainly see the application through particular lenses, they nevertheless in general make a sincere effort to discover quality.  This process, however, takes place contextually through a series of negotiations in which a variety of factors shape decisions.  But while Lamont argues that the fate of each proposal is shaped by some amount of luck and that certain factors such as gender, location, and prestige of the applicant’s institution can work either for them or against them, faith in the fairness of the system is crucial to its operation.

One point that struck me was the importance of prestige, which shouldn’t be a surprise although it’s interesting to “overhear” committee deliberations that accept prestige markers so wholeheartedly.  While committees seemed to make efforts to distribute awards across a variety of institutions when it came to borderline cases, a prestigious institution and letters from prestigious scholars seemed to make a pretty big difference.  Part of the reason for this seemed to be the desire of committee members to impress each other as they engaged in deliberations.  At the same time, Lamont points out, this does not necessarily make the whole process a “fix” since employment by a prestigious institution and approval by a prestigious scholar can be genuine evidence of accomplishment.  Further, it is only one factor among many.

Lamont makes one point of particular relevance to literary scholars:  in multi-disciplinary competitions applicants from our field fare poorly.  (Historians, by contrast, do very well.)  She does not attribute this to a general disrespect for literary study but instead to a “crisis of legitimation.”  She characterizes literary scholarship as a field in decline, evidenced in part by its decrease in the production of PhDs.  (This was interesting to read, of course, since so much of the discussion around MLA has been about overproduction.  Just to be clear, though, she takes the decline as an indicator of the state of the field and does not necessarily recommend changing it.)   I have often assumed that most fields have key points of disagreement, but this turns out to be less true than one would think, according to Lamont.  Literary scholars who serve as judges remain in her observation deeply divided over both theory and multiculturalism.  Since the field doesn’t seem to have a central, agree-upon standard of quality, applications for funding are less likely to be successful.

Of course, we have heard a lot lately about the troubled nature of our field.  Usually this comes from two different directions: on the one hand, many call attention to the employment crisis, the increasing reliance on adjuncts, new burdens being placed on faculty, and decreasing undergraduate enrollments.  On the other hand, traditionalists object to the collapse of a particular cannon, interdisciplinarity, and identity politics.  Lamont’s study, though, offers something of a fresh perspective.  Without focusing on the economic issues or entering the canon wars, she sees a crisis of legitimation that seems to be damaging in a different, less-discussed context.


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9 responses to “How Professors Think

  1. The “letterhead” question is something that we’re all familiar with, if we’ve moved from one kind of PhD program to a very different institution for our jobs. This is one of the ways that our meritocratic assumptions are belied in practice.

    But having sat on things like grad admissions committees, the complexity introduced by NOT using those kinds of proxies makes the job of cross evaluating files really difficult. What other information do you have, and how reliable is it?

    Creative writing faculty at UH, to do them credit, have to read extensively in applicant writing portfolios to choose students for our highly selective program (which picks from highly selective and not so selective undergrad programs simultaneously).

    I wonder how our admissions would look if we did the same.

    Tenure decisions, however, remain one place where our lack of consensus comes as an utter surprise to our colleagues in the sciences. Scientists are often baffled by the disagreements of our letter writers in even the so-called easy decisions.

    Unfortunately, incoming grant dollars seem to be the only effective cross-disciplinary standard in many institutions. So there’s your gold standard across all disciplines, if you want it.

    I’m not sure a literary studies that could be recognized unequivocally by our colleagues in the sciences would be the kind of literary studies we would want to practice ourselves. Could we really decide beforehand to forego disagreement from this point on? I’m not sure.


  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Just to be clear about her study: she’s only looking at grant competitions and not other kinds of evaluation, such as graduate admissions or tenure decisions. I don’t know to what extent her findings would obtain in those other arenas, but it would be interesting to know. Also, since grant funding is at stake, this is one place where funding itself is not the standard but rather the thing being competed for. Although she does mention, I believe, that past success in funding can influence a committee, although it can go either way (ie, this person already had a lot of time off vs this project must be good since this other committee funded it).

  3. Because “them that has, gets,” I think grant competitions would be precisely the kinds of competitions that would base their rankings on earlier rankings. It’s when your corroboration comes from unfamiliar or unlike fields that cross-evaluations get difficult: my colleagues in the sciences essentially have two ways to measure impact, both of which are essentially quantitative: grant dollars and citation rankings. Because both these methods represent the coin of the realm, I don’t hear much griping about these methods per se.

    It’s when scientists encounter fields that don’t use such quantitative methods to evaluate quality or impact that I hear the skepticism you describe, because we may very well seek out the ineffability that other fields shun.

    In this respect, I think that historians, to the extent that they ape the language of naive empirical observation, do fine with such mixed scholarly audiences, as do philosophers when they ape the language of “cognitive science,” etc.

    In other words, I think the academy may be going through a period where no one receives reflexive support, and the disciplines best able to ape the rhetoric of scientific discovery get the goodies, at least with audiences used to thinking exclusively in such terms.

    If that’s the case, then literary scholars may be better off in the long term trying to make the case for the disciplinary specificity of what they do rather than aping the rhetoric of others. In order to do that, though, you may very well have to show the incompleteness or limitations of other disciplines’ work to make your own case. In that case, though, I think it’s helpful to find authorities within those disciplines to corroborate that kind of critique.

    It might be better to regard that kind of work as interdisciplinary collaboration rather than criticism, however, and see if you can get others in those fields interested in what you’re doing. Interdisciplinary work that commands the attention and respect of practitioners in that field would be the goal for those in literary studies who wished to appear as if they were not just weakly appropriating other disciplines.

  4. Anna Battigelli

    Is one reason for the crisis of legitimation the gap between using quantitative standards (citation statistics, grants awarded, institutional ranking, etc.) and using the less quantifiable evaluative skills that literary studies foster, something like “judgment”? We no longer seem to agree on the merits of literary judgment, which is a trained and informed skill at recognizing excellence, both of literary works and also of other written texts, such as grant proposals. Using something as potentially subjective as judgment brings its own set of concerns, but so does eliminating literary judgment entirely.

    If this is the case, our own willingness to embrace interdisciplinarity may work against us, since members of the hard and soft sciences may not bring to the reading of grants the kind of evaluative judgment best suited to see a literary studies grant’s merits. Interdisciplinarity is, of course, a great thing. But in the case of large awards committees with panelists from many different disciplines, it brings a set of evaluative problems that need to be addressed.

    To take the example of citations, it is difficult for most eighteenth-century scholars to have as many citations to their work as, say, modernist scholars. This does not, however, necessarily indicate that their work is less worthy, only that its audience is smaller. But by the logic of using citations alone, less popular fields (or more challenging fields with fewer fit readers) will continue to get smaller until they are gone.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    You’re making some good points here. In line with what you wrote, Lamont notes that interdisciplinary projects actually do seem to have a pretty hard time because of the difficulty in mastering a second discipline (given that someone with expertise in that second discipline will also be judging the proprosal).

    Re the ‘crisis of legitimation’, this is what she says (based on interviews with panelists from English):

    “The disciplinary broadening and diversification of criteria of evaluation may have led to a deprofessionalization that puts literary scholars in a vulnerable position when competing on theoretical or historical grounds with scholars whose disciplines “own” such terrains . . .. To judge a proposal on the basis of the criteria most appropriate to the applicant’s dicipline requires that panelists have a sense of what such criteria would be. In disciplines like English, where a laundry list of criteria might arguably be applied, panelists are much freer to choose their evaluative criteria as they see fit. So if a literary studies proposal makes much of its reliance on or expansion of work in history, this might prompt a panelist to apply criteria approriate to the discipline of history rather than of English, and convince others to do so as well (a task make easier by the fact that there is little consensus within the disicpline).” (73)

    So while for some disciplines panelists can (roughly) learn to grasp the discipline’s internal set of values and apply them, for other, more conflicted disciplines this is harder to do, and so the panelist’s own standards, which are less likely to be sympathetic, tend to fill the gap.

    There is less in “How Professors Think” about differences between hard and soft sciences than about differences within “soft” sciences. I think there aren’t many grant application situations where hard and soft scientists compete with each other.

  6. Well, of course, the really debatable proposition that comes from Lamont’s reported interviews is that “interdisciplinarity” is a weakness rather than a strength, because certain fields of knowledge are simply “owned” by one discipline rather than another. Lamont is committed by her ethnographic method simply to report this, but there is no reason for us to accept it at face value. We know, for example, that philosophy can barely recognize the importance of its own history, which is taught, if at all, by intellectual and literary historians. So who decides who owns which field?

    The question raised by Lamont’s interviews is whether the boundaries and content of disciplines other than English are as solid, unitary, and uncontested as these participants claim.

    Analytic philosophers may be happy to claim that they are the only “real” philosophers, and economists may have just rediscovered the problematic nature of markets and the virtues of Keynes, but there is no reason to go along with the pretense that deep disagreements don’t matter in these fields. What does seem true is that disagreement in literature is not rationalized or disavowed or forgotten in the same ways as occurs in our more positivist fields. To put it another way, literary studies seems to find as much value in documenting its histories of disagreement and dissensus as most fields find in consensus. I suppose that I’d like better reasons for why I should consider this a problem, compared to the problems of, say, pedantry, proceduralism, formalism, etc.

    Many of the “advances” that have occurred in academic philosophy, for example, have come at the expense of any sense of engagement with the complexities of modern societies and the lives lived there. For those who would disagree with that statement, look at this interesting post how philosophers themselves described their expertise in a survey. Do literary scholars want to emulate that kind of narrowing down of concerns to the “manageable” and “answerable”?

    I think that Lamont’s view of interdisciplinary work as “deprofessionalizing” may reflect the view of her interviewees, but I think it also involves the possibility that fields like literary studies evolve quickly, sometimes unpredictably, and certainly from “external” changes in the intellectual landscape. Is that disabling? Only if you think it possible for an intellectual field to remain the same over time.

  7. Laura Rosenthal

    I hope I haven’t misrepresented Lamont here. She isn’t claiming, as far as I can tell, that interdisciplinarity is in itself a weakness. (Her title, in fact, is Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies, Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies, and Senior Adviser on Faculty Development and Diversity at Harvard U. Seems pretty interdisciplinary!) She’s only noting that interdisciplinary proposals face particular challenges in getting grant funding. I don’t think she’s saying that they *should* face particular challenges. In fact, in her reporting some of the panelists come across as “dug in” to their disciplines in troubling ways. One of the pleasures of this book is its rigorous objectivity; she’s really good, it seems to me, at handling these explosive issues in a way that comes across as neutral. One could equally come away from this book thinking that there is something wrong with the vetting process because of its difficulties with interdisciplinarity, and/or that it seems far more difficult than it should be to speak across disciplines. But she does not make an explicit critique along these lines; she lets the field notes speak for themselves.

    Also, she doesn’t say that English is the only field with conflicts. She delineates conflicts in other fields as well. She proposes, though, that fields with a more unified sense of excellence do better at getting grants (which doesn’t mean they are better in other ways; it just means they get more grants in multi-disciplinary competitions).

  8. I don’t doubt that Lamont is simply reporting the pragmatic deliberations of her respondents, with whom she may or may not disagree. And she may very well value interdisciplinarity differently than her respondents.

    I suppose the important question is really what we as lit scholars should do with these accounts of multidisciplinary deliberations? What form of action is warranted by this documented behavior of committees outside our discipline? Should we attempt to satisfy those concerns, explain our singularity better to outsiders, or ignore this as irrelevant to our research?

    I think the second tack seems like the best one, from the perspective of a lit studies that needs to change and evolve as other aspects of knowledge change over time.

  9. Laura Rosenthal

    I take away a couple of things:
    1) People always tell you to apply several years in a row and not to take a failed proposal as a sign of the project’s worthlessnss. This study really confirms how good that advice is, given the degree of randomness and unpredictability involved.
    2) Write different proposals for different grants depending on disciplinary makeup of the evaluators. A book proposal will be read by people in your field, but an ACLS proposal should look different.
    3) If there was an answer to the title “How Professors Think” it is that even though many are capable of negotiating and understanding different fields, professors think through the lens of their disciplines. This can be good for the purpose of achieving deep understanding of certain things, but it also comes across as limiting as well. One wonders also how students manage to assimilate this, having to think through the lenses of several different disciplines in one day.

    Re the issue of lit scholars in particular: my personal sense has always been that there is more agreement than Lamont describes, but perhaps we are less good than other disciplines at describing the significance of our projects. I also wondered if the very senior people she interviewed were working through debates that have more or less been settled in most contexts.