How Professors Think

Michèle Lamont’s new volume How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment is clearly designed to move: Harvard, the publisher, has put the book out in a small format, priced it down (US$28 hardbound) and printed it on low-quality paper of the sort that mystery and science fiction novels are printed on. And of course there is the punchy title. There are lots of good reasons for them to expect success: Lamont is an institutionally-central sociologist whose brand of cultural sociology ties together French and American approaches, connects with The Latest in Theory, but remains level-headed, accessible, and consistently excellent. Since the book is about professors it has a sort of autoselfpr0n or vanity press feel to it: of course we want to read about ourselves. And in the case of How Professors Think, the topic is one in which we have serious professional and even financial stakes: how are judgments made about our work?

The focus of the book is much more manageable than the broad title suggests. How Professors Think is an ethnography of grant funding committees. Over the course of two years Lamont studied four or five committees (including SSRC), did around 90 interviews, sat in on some panels and watched people rank and evaluate grant applications, got a posse of grad students to code it up in atlas.ti, and then wrote it all up. So How Professors Think isn’t an account of academic mind sets in general or how people read journal work or think about ‘theory’ — its an ethnography of the micropolitics of interactions that go on behind the closed doors when people decide who get funded and who doesn’t.

I am not yet august enough to have served on one of these boards, but I have done equivalent work at the departmental level, and the book strikes me as basically accurate. Indeed, so realistically does it portray this sort of service work that at times I found it as exhausting as actually doing the service, alternating as it does between stiff formality and definitions of ‘excellence’ on the one hand, and the actual all-too-human nature of committee work that goes on on the other. In other words, Lamont appears to have nailed it on the head.

Of course, most people on the planet have not seen this system working in action. Lamont’s description of the interactional achievement of creating standards of ‘excellence’ in academic work will, as she states in the book, be of interest to non-Americans who think our system is a good idea and are changing their to emulate it, all without knowing, sociologically how it works. And it also, as she makes clear, helps correct some portrayals of academic field (read: Bourdieu) which tend to portray academics as economizing fiends in a war of all against all for cultural capital.

But for me, the key audience of this book is graduate students. ATTENTION GRADUATE STUDENTS: READ CHAPTER FIVE OF THIS BOOK. It is the best description yet of what we are looking for in proposals for funding dissertation research. For those of us who went to elite school, we have heard this sort of talk about what good proposals look like — it is part of the oral lore that is passed down from one old boy to the next. There are even a few pieces floating out there — Sydel Silverman’s and Adam Przeworski’s — on what funders look for. But this is the longest, most detailed, and most empirical account of what judges in grant competitions look for when they fund grants. You should do yourself a favor and read the whole book, but if nothing else you’d be a fool not to check out chapter five.

How Professors Think is just one piece of the larger stream of research and publication that Lamont has produced over the past couple of years (her NSF report on qualitative research is also worth checking out), and it is not going to stop coming any time soon — John will be happy to know Andy Abbott has an article in one of her upcoming edited volumes. It is short, easy to read, and nails down very nicely a corner of the world that not everyone has has the opportunity to visit. I’d recommend it if you are interested in the topic.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

One thought on “How Professors Think

  1. This sounds like it might form a rather useful complement to the work of Bruno Latour, Andy Pickering and others concerning the actual workings of scientific practice itself and of the inter-agency of both fieldwork and wider research contexts. I guess there has been a tendency to forget that these elements form only one part of scholarly discourse and that there are a whole host of other bureaucracy- and administration-oriented facets to the sociality of academia.

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