One of the most precious attributes of being an academic is the great freedom of choosing the problems and issues in one’s scholarship. The restrictions on choice are, admittedly, larger when one is pre-tenure. Those early years are ones that demonstrate the ability to have an independent, integrated research agenda that yields multiple products and demonstrably some thematic consistency. This often limits risk taking of the scholar as the focus needs to have high odds of peer review support. Compared to other professions, however, even that restriction is rather minor. Even then, one’s curiosity and hunches for innovation are given large import.
Of course, after the demonstration of independent scholarship is achieved, and tenure, received, the faculty member is given even greater freedom. It is interesting to note the findings that many faculty at that point feel some loss of direction – a post-tenure depression, as it were. Part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact those pre-tenure restrictions are removed. (The other interpretation one hears, in a type of gallows humor, is that one begins to question whether all the work pre-tenure was worth it.)
It is great to talk to faculty who are newly tenured as they deal with this new freedom of choice. Some for the first time contemplate projects that will take many years to complete. Others consider learning new research skills that they judge are high-risk but high potential payoff. Some feel emboldened to take on a new perspective using blends of multiple disciplines. For these, there is a sense of renewal, excitement of taking on new challenges.
A special joy for a provost is to see some of this freedom lead to new collaborations across fields that normally don’t work together. Groups of collaborators with multiple perspectives maintain an energy that is rare in more homogeneous groups. The energy seems to come from the shared experiences of learning from one another. Sustainable voluntary collaborations generally consist of folks who mutually respect one another. In some sense, they know they need each other to complete their understanding. They exchange teaching the other and learning from the other. Perfect reciprocation.
Of course, they never can fully exchange all the deep knowledge that each has achieved in their own specialty. They learn enough to complement the other’s knowledge, enough to solve the research problem at hand.
One of the greatest pleasures as a scholar is to develop a long-term collaboration with another scholar who comes from a different tradition. Collaborators most often become friends, so there is a socio-emotional benefit. Such collaborators supply inputs to the research that the other can never match, so they magnify the productivity of a scholar. Such collaborators often make research more fun, so the natural addiction of scholars for knowledge acquisition is supplemented by greater joy. What could be better?