I have been awaiting Michèle Lamont’s book, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, for a long time.
Her study of peer review in multi-disciplinary humanities and social science grant competitions in the US first came to my attention via the co-authored article “What is Originality in the Social Sciences and the Humanities?” in the American Sociological Review in 2004.
I credit that article for helping me articulate some of the issues that humanists face in translating the often scientistic language of grant instructions into something that makes sense for their projects. In my experience, differing understandings of originality are crucial to many of the differences in academic cultures between disciplines, and particularly between the humanities and other types of academic research.
How Professors Think complements that detailed account of originality with an examination of the process of evaluation in which “originality” becomes salient — the adjudication of applications to prestigious multidiscplinary fellowship competitions.
Lamont has used observation and semi-structured qualitative interviews to examine the process of peer review in 5 prestigious US fellowship competitions. All of these are multidisciplinary panels in the humanities and social sciences. And they include awards to doctoral students as well as fellowships for more experienced scholars.
Lamont’s approach is situated within the symbolic interactionist tradition in sociology. As such she is interested in how meaning is produced through social interaction, in this case the meaning of “excellence”, “quality”, “significance”, “expertise”, “authority”, “method”, and other concepts central to academic judgment and the awarding of fellowships and grants.
If your interest is primarily in whether the grant review process is fair or objective, this book may not be of interest. However, if you are interested in how academics produce fair and objective decisions, you are in for a treat.
The complexity of evaluation
In my own presentations about the granting process, I often compare grant competitions to the Olympics. It is a competition in which applicants will be ranked in comparison to others who have submitted proposals to the same competition. However, unlike the Olympics, we do not have the benefit of super-accurate Swiss timepieces to measure the equivalent of hundredth of a second differences in performance.
In How Professors Think, Lamont paints a picture of the complex nature of those differences. Not only are panelists making fine distinctions between high quality proposals, but they are often comparing incommensurable projects. It is more like trying to judge a downhill skier, a slalom skier, and a figure skater in one competition and come up with a fair result based on excellence. Your Swiss timepiece would be useless, even if you had one.
One normative conclusion to be drawn from this observation is that it is pointless to attempt to collapse the many considerations that factor into funding decisions into a single matrix … Academia is a highly variegated world, one where qualitatively incommensurate proposals cannot be subsumed under a single standard. … Each and all of these standpoints enrich our understanding of what makes research a meaningful endeavor — and, likewise, shape the value we assign to the work of others. (Lamont, pp. 200)
Encouragingly, Lamont demonstrates that because those academics who serve on grant peer review panels believe in the fairness of the process and the existence of excellence, they work very hard to ensure that they proceed fairly and privilege excellence in their decision making.
What this means for you
As I have often said, there is no magic formula for a successful grant proposal. However, understanding the process can help you communicate your project and achievements in ways that enable panelists to recognize the value in a proposed program of research. And understanding how the context of evaluation affects the negotiation and production of fair decisions about excellence can also help you present your work better.
If you are interested in learning more about the process, particularly if you plan to submit an application to a multidisciplinary competition, How Professors Think would be a good place to start. Despite a thriving field of Science and Technology Studies, there is a dearth of material specifically on the practice of the humanities and social sciences. Lamont demonstrates that broadening such studies would be productive.
How Professors Think has also reinforced my view that the national context also matters. The Canadian and UK contexts with which I am most familiar differ in some ways from the American context that Lamont describes. And yet there are also shared elements.