The good people at Harvard University Press sent me a copy of Michèle Lamont's How Professors Think to review recently. This isn't yet that review (I haven't finished reading the book) but I do want to bring the book to the attention of my readers. This post is sort of a preview of the review. A trailer.
Lamont has set out to discover how the profesors who serve on the funding panels of major American research foundations evaluate the quality of the proposals they are asked to consider. In a word, she is trying trying to understand what they mean by excellence in research. To this end, she has interviewed 49 panelists over a two year period. Some were interviewed twice (66 interviews with panelists in all). Most of the interviews, which lasted about 90 minutes, were conducted over the phone using an "open-ended and inductive interviewing technique ... to identify and explore the taken-for-granted criteria that panel members rely on to draw boundaries between deserving and undeserving research projects" (253). In addition to this she conducted 15 interviews with people who could provide her with information about the decision-making processes of the panels she was studying. She was also able to observe three of the panels at work, i.e., sit in on their deliberations.
These methodological concerns are important when assessing the book's significance overall and, for me, important in deciding how to read it. It is a very interesting book, after all, so it is important to keep its conclusions in perspective. As she points out (257-8), the study is limited to multi-disciplinary, grant review panels, and is "based on a limited number of interviews". I would add as a limitation that the interview setting was chosen on highly pragmatic grounds. "Face-to-face interviews were conducted with panelists located within driving distance of my university" (253). Early on, she points out that her perspective might be a bit biased by her "insider" status as a tenured Harvard professor (16) and I note that there is a remarkable likeness between her own pragmatism and the pragmatism she ascribes to her interview subjects. The fact that she interacted more intimately with professors in the neighbourhood of Harvard is not, I think, wholly unimportant.
Perhaps the most striking passage so far:
Responses ranged from the highly developed and coherent to the off-the-cuff, unreflective, and inchoate. Participant's frank appraisals of their own and others' fields offer a unique window into what academics—and academia—are all about. My analysis uncovers a world that is understood only partially and generally imperfectly, even by most members of the academic community, let alone the general public. (15)
The idea that the "frankness" of interview subjects offers a "window" (a transparent view into) how the panels work is of course questionable. But I think it will be more constructive (and in line with my own pragmatism) to say that this book is really a reflection on evaluation by a member of the community that undertakes those evaluations (and, as she notes, gets funded on the basis of them). The book might also have been been called How I Think. The interviews offered not so much a window into a world Lamont stands outside (along with her readers) as a mirror before which she is able to reflect on her own principles of judgment. It offers the reader the same thing and, from what I have read so far, it's a very good mirror indeed.