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How Professors Think
By David W. Kirkpatrick (November 3, 2009)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

         How Professors Think, by Harvard University Michelle Lamont, is a recently published book from the Harvard University Press.

         Obviously not a report on how all professors think, its basis is better indicated by its subtitle, "Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment."  The author studied the process of awarding fellowships and research grants and interviewed many panel members at length to determine how they think, collectively and/or individually in this setting.
         Her motivation f or this study includes a belief that "the relative fairness and openness of the peer review system is crucial to the vitality of American higher education."  Specifically, she talked to scholars who "served on funding panels that evaluate grant or fellowship proposals submitted by faculty members and graduate students ...(and) interviewed scholars involved in five different national funding competitions and twelve different panels over a two-year period."
         This is a significant work but how one reacts to a book depends on many things, only one of which is what the book brings to the reader.  Another is what the reader brings to the book.  A book might have something very significant to say but if, in an obvious example, it is in a foreign language it won't communicate much to someone literate only in English. And language may be foreign in more ways than one.
         Professor Lamont's work has the advantage of being relevant to me because in my education career I have served on many panels, commissions, committees, and the like, at both the national and state levels. On occasion I have even been in a position to help select, or, in some circumstances, to unilaterally appoint, members of such groups.  Thus I have perhaps a bit more than casual interest in Professor Lamont's work although mine is not a requisite background to find her volume interesting.
         Having said that, there are others, active in the field, who are far better qualified than I to make expert judgments, ones of which I obviously approve.
         Craig Calhoun of the Social Science Research Council, in his review of this study, notes that, "Professors pride themselves on objectivity, or failing that, fairness to competing views, or failing that, at least the capacity for neutral analysis.  Based on her groundbreaking study of peer review, Michele Lamont argues that professorial pride is excessive, that the outcomes of peer review are shaped by institutional mechanics as much as by reason, and that reviewers favor work that looks like they own much more than they realize they do."
         In other words they are human.  But, then, it doesn't hurt for the obvious to be documented or, as has been sometimes stated, to try to see if what works in practice works in theory.  As noted in the book cover introduction, "Judging quality isn't robotically rational; it's emotional, cognitive, and social, too.  Yet most academics' self-respect is rooted in their ability to analyze complexity and recognize quality in order to come to the fairest decisions about that elusive god, ‘excellence.'"
         Arthur Stinchcombe of Northwestern University terms this work "a masterpiece" in which the author "breaks new ground in showing how personal preferences,, disciplinary, gender, and ethnic diversity, and elitist and populist impulses are incorporated in such decisions."  According to Professor Lamont "one of the prime determinants of influence is institutional affiliation" and "Ivy Leaguers often are perceived as favoring criteria related to who studied with whom and where."  Surprise!
         Karin Knorr Cetwina, of the University of Chicago, agrees that this is an "ingenious study, the first of its kind...Lamont brilliantly shows us not only the interpersonal processes that make review panels work, but also how disciplinary cultures affect academic judgment" which "will be enlightening for everyone in academia."
         Thomas Bender of New York University, concludes that "This fair-minded and reader-friendly book might just help produce the trust, respect, and tolerance necessary for academic community" as the author "shows that academic culture, far from being a hierarchy declining from supposedly more ‘rigorous' and demanding disciplines to those less so, is constituted of many different excellencies."
         As Bruno Latour concludes "...the deans and provosts who fret about their rankings and grant money should read this firsthand account of  how scholars and social scientists are evaluated in practice."

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Copyright 2009 David W. Kirkpatrick
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