The book “How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment” by Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont offers a peek inside panel review sessions of grant-making agencies in the humanities and social sciences, including:
- the American Council of Learned Societies,
- the International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) Program of the Social Science Research Council,
- Princeton University‘s Society of Fellows, and
- the Women’s Studies Dissertation Grant Program of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation
One of the stated goals of the book is to “open the black box of peer review and make the process of evaluation more transparent, especially for younger academics looking in from the outside” (p. 12). However, the book is not written as a “how-to” manual. It is an ethnography of the world of these closed evaluative sessions, drawing on sociological theories of knowledge and of group dynamics. The conclusions are based on observations of panel discussions as well as interviews with many of the panelists.
Alex Golub, of the anthropology blog Savage Minds, thinks that chapter 5 should be required reading for new scholars, particularly those looking for funding for their dissertation research. This chapter details how panelists arrive at definitions of quality or “excellence” and the extent to which these criteria vary by discipline.
There is nothing terribly new here. For example, Lamont finds that panelists favor proposals that are clearly written and polished, and that use theory and methods appropriately. These insights don’t add much to the conventional wisdom about proposal evaluation.
One area that I did find somewhat novel was Lamont’s discussion of panelists’ propensity to divine the “morality” of the proposer when reading submitted text. “Panelists” she writes, “privilege determination and hard work, humility, authenticity, and audacity”(p. 195). Of course, applicants have only limited control over how well their proposal and letters of support communicate their worthiness according to this criterion.
The section I found most useful is the discussion in chapter 6 of how reviewers view interdisciplinarity. One of the panelists tells Lamont “There is a… way of doing things in which you use your knowledge of… the things outside your discipline, more as a rhetorical strategy than as something in which you really steep yourself” (p. 208). Interdisciplinary proposals are risky. Authors must demonstrate competencies in multiple areas while not seeming too ambitious. The potential to impact multiple disciplines is nearly as important as the ability to use them.
Chapter 1 of the book is titled “Opening the Black Box of Peer Review”. However, the book opens the black box only to reveal a multitude of differing attitudes and approaches that might be overwhelming to inexperienced proposal writers. Lamont devises useful typologies to classify and analyze divergent approaches to significance, originality, diversity and other key ideas. Faculty hoping to use the book to guide their preparation of proposals will need to dedicate considerable time and thought to figuring out how to apply this analysis to their own work.