On the Importance of an Intellectual Project

Now that I have reached the doyen stage of my career, I find myself frequently called upon to serve as an external reviewer for junior faculty who are being considered for promotion and tenure. The process begins with a letter from a departmental chair asking if I am willing to give my candid assessment of the candidate’s scholarship. Since my own research and writing are centered on race and ethnicity in American society, I am usually asked to evaluate the work a young scholar whose research is more or less within my domain of expertise. I am mindful of the unspoken fact that I have been thrust into the role of gatekeeper, and also mindful of the sinister role that gatekeepers have played historically in marginalizing minority and radical viewpoints. So I take on this otherwise mundane obligation with a sense of intellectual and moral responsibility. “It goes with the territory,” as my friend Hylan Lewis once told me, when he was the age that I am today.

Some colleges stipulate a mathematical benchmark of how much productivity one needs for tenure. We are told, for example, that one needs one book and four articles, with the caveat that the articles must be in peer-reviewed journals. I find this last stricture to be totally wrongheaded. To paraphrase C. Wright Mills, the peer review system is an instrument for intellectual conformity, since it is so often antagonistic to dissenting viewpoints. Besides, by what twisted logic is the lottery of a peer-reviewed journal more reliable than, say, being invited to contribute to an edited volume that will reach a relevant audience? Why is it better to have your work subjected to the whim or judgment of anonymous reviewers, and promulgated to disinterested readers of journals that, as is commonly acknowledged, “nobody reads”? This is where pious observance of the false god of objectivity leads us. Indeed, a cottage industry of journals has sprung up, often attached to sections within professional societies, which go through the motions of being “peer reviewed,” in order to meet this specious requirement. Sadly, the pursuit of knowledge has been reduced to gaming the system.

Before long, a package arrives in the mail, whose bulk is the first indicator of the productivity of the scholar, as well as the onus that awaits the external reviewer. Already, the shibboleth of one book and four articles is exposed. If that was the fulcrum for tenure decisions, it would hardly require the intervention of an external reviewer.

My modus operandi in reviewing “the tenure package” stems from my interest in the sociology of knowledge and the history of ideas. I attempt to discern the applicant’s intellectual genealogy based on what I can glean from the cv, publications, conference papers, and other professional activities, including contributions in the realm of public intellectualism. I try to get a sense of the germination and direction of the applicant’s scholarship, and how these disparate elements gel into an original intellectual amalgam, culminating with the dissertation. As we know at FFPP, often these young scholars are making the challenging transition from dissertation to book. Clearly, the dissertation and first book is a pivotal stage of intellectual development, where the neophyte consolidates what I am calling “an intellectual project.” And is a neophyte no longer!

As we all find out, one line of inquiry invariably engenders more questions than it answers, leading to other unanticipated lines of inquiry. Here the intellectual project reaches the next step. Our neophyte gradually develops an expertise and reputation as a scholar with depth and purpose. Hopefully, this intellectual project is predicated on a critical perspective that challenges stale orthodoxy and hegemony within the realm of ideas. This critical spirit is the sine qua non that will infuse your research and writing with energy and conviction, lest promotion and tenure lapse into professionalism.


–Stephen Steinberg, FFPP Mentor and Distinguished Professor (Queens College and the Graduate Center)