Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Practical Professors

I'm still working on my review of Michèle Lamont's How Professors Think, which I'm having a hard time getting into. Here are a couple of passages that, I think, reveal why.

They usually have a month or so to study the applications and accompanying material and come up with rankings. In most cases, this reading and evaluating is "squeezed" into a schedule already overpacked with teaching; communicating formally and informally with colleagues; meeting with and advising graduate students; serving on departmental, university-wide, and professional committees; doing research; and writing books and papers. Many panelists say they use time usually spent with their families to evaluate proposals, which often consumes weekends. For instance, a sociologist explains that he spent a whole weeked reading his eighteen proposals, allotting forty minutes to each. (40, my emphasis)

The first part is an established fact (she cites relevant sociological studies): academics are very busy. But the second part (which I have italicized) reports on the results of her own research and suggests that she takes her informants pretty much at their word. But there is reason to think that academics aren't very good at estimating the amount of time they spend at particular tasks, nor even distinguishing real busy-ness from passive worrying. I haven't found anything to suggest that Lamont is critical or skeptical about her informants' responses.

One gets the sense that this book isn't so much about "academic judgment" (as the subtitle suggests) as academic self-esteem:

They invest themselves in decisions and share excitement with others. They reach "good enough" decisions instead of ideal ones, because they have to get the job done in the time allotted. They go home usually feeling that they have risen to the occasion, betraying neither "the system" nor themselves. They have stood for principles, but not so rigidly that they could not reach consensus. For them, panels are an opportunity to be influential, and to be appreciated. (240-1)

Not so much how professors think but how they feel when they are asked to assess the proposed research of others. They react to this task as problematic (to borrow a formulation of Dewey's); they are pragmatists about "fair evaluation"; the "truth" about the quality of each proposal is "what works" to get them through the assignment of evaluating it (240).

My problem with this is that they share their pragmatism with Lamont. At bottom, I'm not sure she reaches her conclusion on the basis of her evidence, but is, in a sense, an apologist for the somewhat (and perhaps seriously) compromised ("squeezed") process of research evaluation. She doesn't presume to have any privileged point of view from which to make such a judgment. In a sense, the evaluators, whose job it is to judge, are trying to be equally unpresumptuous.

There is something wrong here. But I'm still trying to identify exactly what that is.


martin said...

Is it, that there is not enough contrasting material? Using interviews and not having a privileged point of view usually needs to be compensated. Lamont did this beautifully, I think, in her "Money, Morals, and Manners". There she interviewed white, upper-middle-class men in France and the US both from urban and rural settings. By contrasting their statements along several distinctions like France/US, rural/urban, academic/business, etc. she was able to show more than just the self-esteem of the subjects. In the current case, where her subjects are also her peers, contrasting material would seem to be even more important to avoid the criticism you are suggesting.

Thomas Basbøll said...

That's very possible. She does emphasize contrasts between various disciplines, though. But there is something insufficiently "edgy" about these contrasts, perhaps because her interview subjects don't have very interesting opinions about their colleagues in other fields. Everyone knows that these differences in our perception of ourselves and others exist in academia. Lamont (so far anyway ... I want to stress that this is still quite tentative) fails to convince me that these images affect judgments about academic excellence.

You're right that it's more important to set up some kind of critical tension, perhaps by way of the contrasts you suggest. But's also no doubt much more difficult. She may simply be working too close to home; she understood a bit TOO well what was going in those meetings and what her subjects subsequently tried to tell her.

martin said...

Now I remember that her older book (MMM) profited considerably from the fact that her interview partners felt that she was an outsider and were thus more willing to "let their guard down" and explain themselves more than they would otherwise. She mentioned herself that being a younger woman might have helped making these older men talk more freely, since she was seen as non-threatening or even inferior. It also help her to keep distance to her subjects. Your "too-close-to-home" argument might thus be valid.
To say more about the new book, I will have to read it first. I'll get to it as soon as I finish Shapin's "The Scientific Life". So far I am judging from her papers and a talk she gave in Montréal.