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.