Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Michèle Lamont's "How Professors Think"

Michèle Lamont is Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies, and Senior Adviser on Faculty Development and Diversity, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, and reported the following:
How Professors Think is a book that analyzes how social scientists and humanists go about evaluating the research of their colleagues and students. However, unlike other books on peer review, it is concerned with the meaning that is given to excellence as scholars go about separating the wheat from the chaff. This book also discusses disciplinary differences in evaluative culture – why political scientists and English professors don’t look for the same qualities when they sort through a pile of fellowship proposals or applications to graduate school. It also shows that economists and anthropologists have very different views concerning where excellence resides – in the object being evaluated or in the eyes of the beholder. While economists think that excellence is objective and is to be found in the proposal itself, scholars hailing from more interpretive fields believe that evaluators play a central role in giving value to the proposals – indeed, that they are engaged in the coproduction of excellence. While participating in panel deliberations, they produce what they hope will be convincing arguments about what is good work. They don’t think that their views – their subjectivity – corrupt the process. Instead, they think it is essential to the process, because they are asked to serve in their quality as connoisseurs, as experts who have spent many years developing a very refined classification system for understanding what the field has already produced and what is new and promising.

P. 99 of How Professors Think discusses the evaluative culture of political science. While some disciplines, such as English, tend to be skeptical concerning whether knowledge “advances,” such is not the case in political science. To quote: “Despite the divisiveness that characterizes the discipline, most political scientists I interviewed say they believe in scientific progress (“We stand on each other’s shoulders. It is a collective enterprise.”) They also tend to agree that quality resides in the proposals themselves, as opposed to resulting from the interpretation of the judges. One political scientist defines excellence in terms of successfully meeting disciplinary standards. He states: “I believe that there are scientific norms that are relatively well understood, that are pretty explicit. My view on this would be Lakatosian ... There are certain norms that one can battle about. The battles are within, I think, pretty narrow parameters.” This scholar believes that relativism applies to some kinds of knowledge and not others. For him, there are poles of relativism and certainty, and interpretations of the world are important when it comes to ethical matters. But, “I don't think it works well if we're looking say at thermodynamics or mathematics ... the mathematics we have is not relative, you know, there are proofs there.” Another political scientist dismisses as “silly” the view that claims to truth are just competing narratives. Of those who adopt such views, he says, “I think they believe in academic excellence, but defined differently. It's more defined in terms of intellectual virtuosity and the capacity to find hidden meanings in arguments rather than original contributions to knowledge. I think they have some very clear ideas of academic excellence, they're just different.” When asked if she believes in academic excellence, another political scientist—a Europeanist teaching at a large Midwestern university—responds, “I mean, it’s not like God or something, but I know when I’m reading something excellent and when I’m not. I don’t know that there’s consensus about it. I mean either someone has convinced me of something or they haven’t. Either they have the evidence or they don’t. If they have the evidence, then it’s nicely done.” These quotes suggest that the identification of excellence is far from being a simple matter, and that to understand it, we have to consider the broader normative and cultural contexts that scholars inhabit, which contexts vary enormously across the disciplines, and across the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Moreover, reaching consensus on what defines excellence is not a desirable goal. It would require a cultural flattening of our problems and research questions and result in an impoverishment of our intellectual world – a uni-dimensional world decried by Herbert Marcuse, which we have many good reasons to fear.
Read an excerpt from How Professors Think, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Learn more about Michèle Lamont's scholarship at her faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue