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.