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Interdisciplinary Review of Interdisciplinary Faculty

Any large organization is necessarily segmented into specialty areas. Automobile companies have divisions devoted to single brand names within the larger enterprise. Government agencies have directorates, divisions, branches – all oriented to coalescing talent and responsibilities of sub-processes within the larger mission of the agencies. So too universities have schools, departments, programs, areas, fields, etc., oriented around knowledge in particular domains and/or professions recognized as career clusters.

Increasingly, all the organizations above realize that members who have knowledge across the various subunits can contribute to the overall mission in uniquely powerful ways. Hence, the rise of attempts to flatten business organizational structures and create cross-functional work teams. In universities with missions that include improving global conditions, scholars who combine knowledge from multiple domains can offer unique contributions to that mission.

Interdisciplinary scholarship thrives with reward systems that sustain the effort to bridge disciplines. One reward often comes directly – students are attracted to new ways of combining information and the joy of teaching engaged students is a reward. Further, for those domains that are supported with external funding opportunities, rewards seem to be growing, as many research funders are disproportionately funding interdisciplinary work. However, almost by definition, the publication outlets for interdisciplinary work are less prestigious, within any one discipline contributing to the interdisciplinary content. Further, scholars in one of the fields, especially those deeply embedded in that field, may not give high marks to the quality of interdisciplinary work involving their field.

All of this is relevant at any point that an academic is evaluated on his/her performance. In the academy, in addition to annual merit reviews, there are important mid-course pre-tenure reviews (often in the third or fourth year of an assistant professor’s career), and reviews for tenure and promotion to associate professor, and for promotion to full professor.

After having read many promotion dossiers over the years, there seem to be a few important features of an effective evaluation of an interdisciplinary scholar. First, the quality of the internal review by colleagues is enriched when the colleagues collectively represent the various knowledge domains exhibited by the candidate, ideally when they are engaged in similar interdisciplinary efforts. This produces a real peer review. Second, the quality of the external review is enhanced when there are multiple different types of expertise represented – the individual fields of knowledge being combined by the candidate, as well as the interdisciplinary field of the candidate. It is especially useful for external reviewers working in the same interdisciplinary area to comment on the quality and relative impact of the publication media and products of the candidate. It’s to be expected that those representing a single one of the fields may have trouble evaluating the interdisciplinary work, but a good review also needs to determine whether the candidate’s contributions to the single field are useful to the field, if only to test theories of the field.

Interdisciplinary scholarship is best judged, therefore, by a combination of perspectives. Our institution’s synthesis of those perspectives needs to recognize that the critical question is whether the work of the scholar has impact on the interdisciplinary field as well as the constituent individual fields.

2 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary Review of Interdisciplinary Faculty

  1. Indeed. Many thanks for another provocative post. As perhaps another point to consider, the institution also needs to recognize, and better respond to, the internal political consequences of living an interdisciplinary life for those that chose to live that way. We have made some progress, but we still have a long way to go. Dept’l chairs and imbedded mindsets within depts. can demand (in no uncertain terms) loyalty to *the* discipline, not across disciplines or (heaven forbid) multiple disciplines. That pressure can be particularly acute for junior faculty.
    Administrators may (perhaps unknowingly) further support those mindsets or make them more difficult to overcome. This affects students at least as much as it affects interdisciplinary faculty. Interdisciplinary scholarship is indeed the stuff of the modern world but at Universities, internally, it often comes with not – so – obvious but real and serious costs to faculty that pursue such things. Historically at least, progress at Georgetown to mitigate those costs has been slow. Until we remove the political costs, (at all levels, not only pre – tenure) serious and bold interdisciplinarity will not achieve it’s full potential at Georgetown.

    PD Roepe
    Professor of Chemistry (main campus)
    Professor Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology (GUMC)

  2. Seems to me that the same matrix for describing the distribution of the faculty member’s time among various fields and various roles also could be used for distributing review responsibilities. For example, if a faculty member engaged in teaching activities (70% of total time) and researching activities (20% of total time) and administrating activities (10% of total time) across the fields of history (70% teaching, 10% researching, 10% administrating) and literature (8% researching) and religion (2% researching) then performance reviews should be conducted by a general teaching supervisor/expert/committee (35% of total performance rating) and a history teaching supervisor/expert/committee (35% of total performance rating) and a general researching supervisor/expert/committee (10% of total performance rating) and a history researching supervisor/expert/committee (5% of total performance rating) and a literature researching supervisor/expert/committee (4% of total performance rating) and a religion researching supervisor/expert/committee (1% of total performance rating) and a general administrating supervisor/expert/committee (5% of total perfomance rating) and a history administrating supervisor/expert/committee (5% of total performance rating). The reason for having general reviewers of teaching and researching and administrating is so that university-wide standards as well as field-specific standards are considered. The general reviewers (being responsible for half of the total performance rating) would be especially relevant given that the interdisciplinary case is being considered.

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