Book: “How Professors Think”

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:

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.

Related Links

Lamont summarizes the book on Huffington Post (April 30, 2009)
Review from InsideHigherEd
(March 4, 2009)
NSF Interview with Michèle Lamont

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Funding Opportunity: APS Sabbatical Fellowships (Deadline 10/15)

The American Philosophical Society offers stipends of stipend of $30,000 to $40,000 to mid-career faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences who have been granted a sabbatical/research leave, but for whom financial support from the home institution is available for only part of the year.  This year marks the last time this fellowship will be offered by APS.

Opportunity: NEH Teaching Development Fellowships (deadline 10/1/2009)

Faculty interested in applying for this National Endowment for the Humanities opportunity should note the October 1, 2009 deadline.  Applications must be submitted through Grants.gov and interested individuals are encouraged to allow a few days for delays and other technical difficulties associated with that system.

Teaching Development Fellowships (TDF) support college and university teachers pursuing research aimed specifically at improving their undergraduate teaching. The program has three broad goals: 1) to improve the quality of humanities education in the United States; 2) to strengthen the link between research and teaching in the humanities; and 3) to foster excellence in undergraduate instruction… Teaching Development Fellowships cover periods lasting from three to five months and carry stipends of $4,200 per month. Thus the maximum stipend is $21,000 for a five-month award period… Recipients may begin their award as early as June 1, 2010, and as late as March 1, 2011.