The “Truthiness” of Academic Meritocracy

By Marybeth Gasman

How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Michèle Lamont. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009.

How many times have you applied for a grant or a fellowship only to be rejected? You begin to wonder, “Why didn’t I get the grant?” “What did the review committee think of my work?” “What about my proposal just didn’t cut it?” Michèle Lamont, in her new book, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, gives the reader keen insight into the decision-making process behind the awarding of prestigious fellowships. Lamont’s book is an enjoyable read, even a bit of a page turner at times. Of course, I am not sure how someone who is not a professor might react to the volume, as we professors tend to like reading about ourselves (find me a faculty member who has not at least thumbed through Jane Smiley’s Moo).

Lamont divides the book into seven chapters, and all are quite even in their quality. In her first chapter, she discusses the peer-review process and the questions, suspicions, and controversy around it. In fact, anyone could pick up this book and understand what peer review is after reading it. Lamont is wonderfully clear and realizes that her audience will probably stretch beyond academe. She illuminates issues of fairness and, in a nuanced way, discusses the “truth” behind meritocracy in the academy.

In chapter 2, Lamont outlines the way grant and fellowship panels are chosen and how the individuals on these panels approach their work. This chapter, although a bit tedious and hyperdetailed, hits elitism on the head. Lamont shows how connections and pedigree matter in applying for awards as well as how privilege and opportunity are passed from one elite academic to another. It is rare that someone outside of the established mix gets through the nearly impermeable wall separating insiders and outsiders in academe.

Chapter 3 focuses on the variation of thought among professors representing different disciplinary cultures. Lamont shares the conversations between philosophers and economists, between historians and sociologists, noting what each values and what each finds peculiar. She teases out what is at stake in discussions about pure and applied research, emphasizing the biases held by individual faculty members. Lamont also provides ample analysis of disagreements within disciplines and the perceptions of various disciplines by those in methodologically opposed ones. This discussion will be quite familiar to those who constantly face the quantitative versus qualitative research method arguments in their departments. Perhaps most disheartening is Lamont’s discovery that too many faculty members tend to judge quality based on their own personal interests, skills, likes, and dislikes, rather than on an objective scale.

Lamont also provides a view into the deliberations that occur as decisions are made by panels. Interestingly, the panelists, across the board, felt that their decisions were fair and impartial. They did not seem to understand the way their institutional status, race, gender, or class might influence their decision making. They also felt that they could separate themselves intellectually from any potential bias. I was particularly struck by the “deal making” that occurs in these deliberations—at times, as a result of personal commitments (the need to catch a plane, for example) and self-interest.

Of note in chapter 5 is Lamont’s investigation of the multiple meanings of excellence—an ambiguous word at best. Lamont’s delineation of the evaluation process for major fellowship competitions in this chapter makes it a “must-read” for graduate students and new professors. She writes about what the reviewers value and what can make or break an application. The most disturbing part of this chapter is Lamont’s discussion of the decline in quality of deliberation as the reviewers get tired; they put less thought into defining excellence and making decisions based on perceived excellence. She notes that “despite its many otherworldly aspects, judging academic excellence is a process shaped by real-world constraints.”

Of greatest interest to me, given my work related to African American higher education, is when Lamont dares to venture into “diversity” territory, exploring the ways that reviewers value diversity in their deliberations. She finds that diversity is respected, but not across the board and not in any systematic way; typically it depends on the individuals involved in the process. Particularly notable is Lamont’s finding that “panelists appear to favor an expansive definition of diversity that does not privilege race or gender.” Diversity is often defined by diversity of institution and topic. Of course, this expansive definition limits access to these prestigious fellowships by racial and ethnic minorities by watering down the definition of diversity and turning the focus away from issues of race. In this same chapter, Lamont explores the value placed on interdisciplinary work—a concept that many support in rhetoric but that becomes more difficult to support in practice. The reviewers that she interviewed placed a high value on professors who had more than one scholarly or disciplinary home. They expected scholars to master multiple literatures in various disciplines and assigned more weight to this skill.

How Professors Think is informative and entertaining at times, and it offers a window into the decision-making process of professors throughout the country. The book is definitely worth reading; just be ready for the guilt and perhaps for the question you might ask yourself: “Are we really like this?”

Marybeth Gasman is associate professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund. Her e-mail address is [email protected].