Monday, April 27, 2009

How Professors Think

If one ever wonders how the peer review process for awarding grants and fellowships works, a reading of Michèle Lamont, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), will help. This is an interesting study in the process of peer review of a variety of academic disciplines by funding agencies, seeking to inform academics about how such evaluation works and to assist them to get outside of the “disciplinary tunnel vision that afflicts so many” (p. 12). Lamont examines how anthropologists, historians, economists, political scientists, literary scholars, and philosophers think and interact with each other.

1 comment:

Richard J. Cox said...

It could be easy to read Mark Taylor’s essay as another tirade about the state of higher education, and many of these have been written by insiders like him. Taylor places the problems on a long-term drift of the university: “Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization.”

However, the real import to us here may be how we respond, if we ever would, to his recommendations for change.

Taylor urges “curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.” Have we even achieved this in our school, or actually exerted much effort to do this? Think of all the disciplines we have represented by the existing faculty – library and information science, computer science, cognitive psychology, engineering, history, and so forth.

He wants to abolish “permanent departments” and “create problem-focused programs.” What would be the problems we would focus on? The growing movement of digital curation is doing exactly this, focusing on the long-term survival of the digital documents and objects. Why couldn’t we do this here?

Taylor wants to “Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty.” Seems to me the growing I-School movement may represent an opportunity to do this.

He wants to “transform the traditional dissertation.” This is a recommendation much bigger than what one school could do, but it seems to me there is a lot of soul-searching we could do about how our students’ dissertations are focused, how they are used, and the influence they have on our fields.

Next, Taylor wants us to “expand the range of professional options for graduate students,” moving them into “businesses and nonprofit organizations.” Seems to me we are doing very well here already.

Finally, he wants to “impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure,” but I am not sure what evidence has ever been offered about how this would breathe new life into the university. A system of post-tenure review, however, might make all of us much more accountable.