In a survey last year, the Georgetown faculty expressed the belief that they felt inadequate support for interdisciplinary work. We’re trying to do better on this score, and I’ve talked with several faculty about related issues over the past few months.
Interdisciplinary work is difficult at all universities because the traditional organization of a university follows disciplinary boundaries. Disciplines are powerful organizing devices because they validate which research questions are the most important, which research methods are most valued, and what constitutes a real contribution to knowledge.
Disciplines vary on these features, and, hence, working across disciplines requires inventing ways to navigate multiple approaches to scholarship.
At the same time, there has been a sea of change among those institutions that fund scholarly research activities. Most foundations and government research agencies increasingly underscore the value of interdisciplinary work. The unsolved problems and gaps in knowledge are disproportionately on the edges of disciplines. The solutions do not appear to lie within a single field. For example, while the chemistry and biology of environmental harm to land and water is now better understood, the solutions to such problems cannot be found without deep understanding of the social, economic, and cultural influences on human behavior. Countless other examples exist.
We’re trying to facilitate more interdisciplinary research and education, in search for more robust approaches to the major problems facing the world. We have created a stronger framework for joint appointments between two disciplines and between schools. We have empowered the Graduate School to identify coalitions of faculty who want to work together in new interdisciplinary graduate programs.
However, there are two interesting challenges in moving ahead in this domain. First, we need to have wise evaluation of interdisciplinary scholarship. Second, we need to value the role of faculty who are collaborative magnets across fields.
At time of promotion it is typical for evaluations to be sought from those in the field of the primary appointment of the faculty member. The reviewers are promised that their reviews will be seen only by those involved in the review process, in an attempt to elicit frank assessments. When the faculty being reviewed works across fields, it’s more difficult to identify competent reviewers. The typical problem is that a reviewer embedded in only one field tends not to value that fieldwork that partially lies in another field. In some fundamental sense, such interdisciplinary work is not central to the field in question. The best evaluators for such faculty are those working in the same interdisciplinary space. Often that is a smaller set of scholars. Extra care is needed to identify competent reviewers.
The second problem is related to interdisciplinary work, but not limited to it. New studies of scholarly productivity have identified some scholars who are collaborators to many other scholars. These scholars often possess a deep knowledge of a theory or a set of research tools that are valuable to many other disciplines. They become “collaboration magnets” in a scholarly community. I have known many such colleagues in my career. In my opinion, they are often not sufficiently valued. Their publications tend to have more co-authors; they tend not to be the primary author on larger sets of publications; they tend not to be rated as the most prominent scholars in a community. On the other hand, in a real sense their activities make their colleagues better. They are multipliers of research productivity; they are disproportionately valuable to a community.
As we increase support for interdisciplinary work, we need to tackle the issues of assessment of the quality of that work and the valuation of those whose contributions are heavily collaborative. This requires deliberate effort to adapt existing procedures to fit our interdisciplinary goals.