Learn to Think Like a Professor in Two Hours or Less!

Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think (2009) doesn’t really deliver what the label announces. It doesn’t unveil the distinctive cognitive mechanisms of the strange tribe that gets to wear “Prof.” in front of their names. It’s about only one particular kind of professorial thinking: the discussion and judgment that come out in panels appointed to award fellowship money to selected research proposals– hardly the leading kind of “thinking” among professors, or (I’d hope) the most characteristic.

Even when we limit the scope to something like How Professors Deliberate About Grant Applications, admittedly a less exciting title, there’s something missing from the ethnographic standpoint. Lamont, bless her, keeps her observer’s point of view pretty close to the participants’ and reports their self-evaluations without heavy irony. The questions she asks are: how do people on these panels see themselves as working cooperatively to achieve the fairest outcomes and reward the best proposals? How do they recognize quality? Does the Matthew principle (“unto him that hath, much shall be added”) stand in the way of an open field and no favor? The professors may disagree about such matters as whether there is any such thing as objective merit or whether people can judge work outside their own specialization, but the scenario is still one in which there are no crooked cops and no one was paid to throw the World Series.

The panelists I interviewed might said to be aiming for what Jürgen Habermas describes as ideal speech conditions…. I show how panelists create a sense of justice, an undertaking that I argue is not only a compromise between conflicting norms, but also an outcome of following customary rules within specific constraints…. These rules act as constraints on and regulators of behavior, but also function as justifications that create commitments in the justice of the enterprise. (247-248)

Although I don’t doubt that many panels do perform their work exemplarily, with the usual allowances for misunderstanding and faddishness that leave some meritorious work unrecognized, we’ve all seen instances of manipulation of the collective decision-making process. Sometimes somebody wanted a particular candidate to get, or not to get, the job; sometimes somebody just hated a certain school of thought and thought it was in the interest of cosmic justice to keep it from propagating; sometimes competitiveness or inferiority complex or some other personal trait distorted the evaluation; sometimes the voting system was designed to give undue weight to the wrong factors;  sometimes too many committee members had not read the materials and just went along with the person who shouted the loudest; and so on. Lamont’s book would have had far more bite if it considered such non-ideal processes. And it would have been a gift to the profession if it had included diagnoses of such problems with concrete measures for forestalling them.

As it is, I think Lamont’s book was meant as a reassurance. It came out at an earlier moment when the “liberal professoriate” was under attack in the newspapers and certain public figures were threatening to investigate the hiring practices of universities, as it seemed to them prima facie evidence of conspiracy that professors on average skewed about 80% liberal, when the country was much more evenly divided. (This critique didn’t consider the possibility that thinking and learning per se might send you in a liberal direction.) And since Bakke there have been assertions that diversity conflicts with merit. Under those conditions, Lamont’s book was a well-documented way of saying, “Look, there’s no scandal here: people are showing up for committee meetings and making reasoned arguments for ranking this file above that file, they’re just doing their job.” If it dampened the enthusiasm of the anti-prof crusaders, good for it.

But I still think we want to have a theory and a remedy for the issue named in an old Sempé cartoon I particularly enjoy. A high dark room lined to the ceiling with packed bookcases. Two old guys in wing armchairs drinking their coffee. One says to the other with satisfaction, J’ai quand même infligé pas mal de torgnoles au cours de ma carrière — “Yeah, I’ve screwed a lot of people over in my career.” These, I suppose, are the joys.