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How Professors Think PDF

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How Professors Think H O W P R O F E S S O R S T H I N K INSIDE THE CURIOUS WORLD OF ACADEMIC JUDGMENT Michèle Lamont HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS Cambridge, Massachusetts / London, England / 2009 TO FRANK, AVEC AMOUR Copyright©2009bythePresidentandFellowsofHarvardCollege Allrightsreserved PrintedintheUnitedStatesofAmerica LibraryofCongressCataloging-in-PublicationData Lamont,Michèle,1957– Howprofessorsthink:insidethecuriousworldofacademicjudgment/ MichèleLamont. p. cm. Includesbibliographicalreferencesandindex. ISBN978-0-674-03266-8(cloth:alk.paper) 1.Collegeteachers—Ratingof. 2.Peerreview. 3.Teachereffectiveness. 4.Portfoliosineducation. I.Title. LB2333.L36 2009 378.1(cid:2)2—dc22 2008031423 C o n t e n t s 1 OpeningtheBlackBoxofPeerReview 1 2 HowPanelsWork 22 3 OnDisciplinaryCultures 53 4 PragmaticFairness:CustomaryRulesofDeliberation 107 5 RecognizingVariousKindsofExcellence 159 6 ConsideringInterdisciplinarityandDiversity 202 7 ImplicationsintheUnitedStatesandAbroad 239 Appendix:MethodsandDataAnalysis 251 Notes 259 References 289 Acknowledgments 316 Index 321 1 / O p e n i n g t h e B l a c k B o x o f P e e r R e v i e w Therearecompetingnarrativesaboutwhatpassesforbeinggood. Therearedifferentstandardsofexcellence,differentkindsofexcel- lence,andI’mcertainlywillingtoentertainsomebodyelse’sstandard ofexcellenceuptoapoint.I’mnotsurethatIcouldarticulatewhat thatpointis,butI’mprettyconfidentthatI’dknowitwhenIseeit. Youdevelopalittlebitofanoseforit.Particularlyforwhat’sbad. Sociologist Definitionsofexcellencecomeupeverytime.[Mycolleagues]feel perfectlycomfortablesaying,“Ididn’tthinkthiswasaterriblygood book,”asifwhattheymeanbyagoodbookisself-apparent...What theymeanseemsreallysortofephemeralorelusive. Englishprofessor Ifeltlikeweweresittingonthetopofapyramidwherepeoplehadbeen selectedoutatvariousstagesoftheirlivesandweweregettingpeople whohaddemonstratedafairamountofconfidenceandweresorting betweenkindofB,B+,andAscholars,andweallthoughtwewereA’s. Politicalscientist “Excellence”istheholygrailofacademiclife.Scholarsstriveto produce research that will influence the direction of their field. Universities compete to improve their relative rank- 1 ings. Students seek inspiring mentors. But if excellence is ubiqui- touslyevoked,thereislittlecross-disciplinaryconsensusaboutwhat it means and how it is achieved,especially in the world of research. “The cream of the crop”in an English or anthropology department haslittleincommonwith“thebestandthebrightest”inaneconom- ics department.This disparity does not occur because the academic enterpriseisbankruptormeaningless.Ithappensbecausedisciplines shineundervaryinglightsandbecausetheirmembersdefinequality invariousways.Moreover,criteriaforassessingqualityorexcellence can be differently weighted and are the object of intense conflicts. Makingsenseofstandardsandthemeaningsgiventothemistheob- jectofthisbook. The Latin word academia refers to a community dedicated to higherlearning.Atitscenterarecolleagueswhoaredefinedas“peers” or “equals,”and whose opinions shape shared definitions of quality. In the omnipresent academic evaluation system known as peer re- view, peers pass judgment, usually confidentially, on the quality of theworkofothercommunitymembers.Thustheydeterminetheal- location of scarce resources, whether these be prestige and honors, fellowships and grants to support research, tenured positions that provide identifiable status and job security, or access to high-status publications.Peersmonitortheflowofpeopleandideasthroughthe various gates of the academic community. But because academia is not democratic, some peers are given more of a voice than others andserveasgatekeepersmoreoftenthanothers.Still,differentpeo- ple guard different gates, so gatekeepers are themselves subject to evaluationatvarioustimes.1 Peer review is secretive. Only those present in the deliberative chambers know exactly what happens there. In this book I report what I have learned about this peculiar world. I studied humanists and social scientists serving on multidisciplinary panels that had beenchargedwithdistributingprestigiousfellowshipsandgrantsin 2 / Opening the Black Box of Peer Review support of scholarly research.I conducted in-depth interviews with these experts and also observed their deliberations. During their face-to-face discussions, panelists make their criteria of evaluation explicit to one another as they weigh the merits of individual pro- posals and try to align their own standards with those of the appli- cants’ disciplines. Hence, grant review panels offer an ideal setting for observing competing academic definitions of excellence. That peer evaluation consumes what for many academics seems like an ever-growingportionoftheirtimeisanadditionalreasontogiveita closelook. Academic excellence is produced and defined in a multitude of sites and by an array of actors.It may look different when observed through the lenses of editorial peer review, books that are read by generations of students, current articles published by top jour- nals, elections at national academies,or appointments at elite insti- tutions.American higher education also has in place elaborate pro- cesses for hiring, promoting, and firing academics. Systematically examining parts of this machinery is an essential step in assessing theextenttowhichthissystemisharmonizedbyasharedevaluative culture. Evaluationsof fellowshipprogramstypicallyseekanswerstosuch questions as: Are these programs successful in identifying talent? Do awardees live up to their promise? The tacit assumption is that these programs give awards to talented people with the hope that the fellowship will help them become “all they can be.”2 Examining how the worth of academic work is ascertained is a more counter- intuitive,butIthinkultimatelymoreintriguing,undertaking.Rather thanfocusingonthetrajectoryofthebrilliantindividualortheout- standing oeuvre, I approach the riddle of success by analyzing the context of evaluation—including which standards define and con- strainwhatweseeasexcellent.3 Bywayofintroduction,Iposeandanswerthesamekindsofques- Opening the Black Box of Peer Review / 3

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