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Promoting the Interdisciplinary Faculty Member

One of the most important features of the academy is its relentless pursuit of answers to new questions. There are no bounds to this quest; scholars pose questions regardless of their relevance to the mainline questions in their discipline. Many of the unexplored knowledge domains, however, mix traditional units of the academy, and every university is examining ways that scholarship across the units can be valued in faculty reviews. Hence, a common problem facing universities is how the tenure and promotion process can fairly evaluate scholarship that combines multiple fields.

We have recently redefined the types of joint appointments possible at Georgetown. Some of these speak to how joint appointment candidates will be evaluated at time of tenure and promotion.

Upon reflection, it may be time to become more specific on the practices involved in evaluating joint appointment candidates. Here are some initial speculations.

First might be comments on advice to give to assistant professors whose scholarship bridges two (or more) different fields. For economy of language, let’s call the interdisciplinary domain the “bridge field” and the constituent domains the “mainline field.” Mainline fields tend to be important in defining the central important questions to be pursued; they have agreed upon forms of research output (e.g., proceedings papers, journal articles, books) with attendant prestige rankings. They generally have their own professional societies, whose set of awards for success manifest the values of the field and define what an “important contribution to the field” means.

An assistant professor working in an area that combines two mainline fields usually has fewer publication outlets that support the bridge area than the mainline fields. However, those outlets will have a peer review process that respects the blending of two fields together. Correspondingly, the flagship journals in the two mainline fields will publish fewer such articles. Further, it is common that the prestige of the bridge field publication outlets is lower because of their relative newness.

A good piece of advice to a junior scholar blending two fields is to attempt some publications in the single mainline fields as well as in the bridge field outlets. Typically, I would expect a strong interdisciplinary candidate to have proportionately fewer products in outlets of the two mainline fields and more in the bridge domain. On the other hand, a scholar with no contribution to the mainline field risks the criticism that he/she is not really enriching one or the other of the mainline fields. In essence, there should be an expectation of being evaluated both from the bridge area and the mainline fields. Help in navigating the blending of fields is often obtained from professional associations that have arisen blending the two fields together. Junior scholars should reach out to senior scholars in the bridge field to get advice on how to blend together the fields effectively.

It is common that young scholars working in interdisciplinary areas are involved in more team-based work than those working only in a mainline field. For that reason, Georgetown needs to develop more effective ways of determining relative contributions of team members. Other things being equal, one would expect that scholars working in teams would produce more research products (albeit jointly authored) than those working alone.

At the time of promotion review, Georgetown has an obligation to make sure that senior peer scholars are carefully evaluating the candidate. For candidates who are blending multiple fields together, we need to assemble outside reviewers who represent the two mainline fields, but we also need senior successful evaluators from the bridge. The letters requesting external reviews should note that Georgetown has appointed and supported the scholar in building a bridge between the fields, and that it seeks evaluation of the scholarship in light of that fact. (We should note that we expect that the amount of product contribution to only one of the fields is less than that of someone totally embedded in the field, but that the contributions that are present to be of high quality.) Those letter writers who themselves work in the bridge field should comment on the candidate’s contribution to the bridge and the candidate’s performance relative to others working in the bridge area.

On the Georgetown side, we need evaluation processes that similarly offer peer review of the scholarship in the bridge area. If the units involved in the joint appointment don’t possess deep knowledge in the bridge area, we should repair that weakness with more external review from senior scholars in the bridge area.

As we attempt to improve our evaluation of interdisciplinary scholarship, we have other questions that need answering. How can new faculty communicate their intention to blend together fields so that the university can provide useful evaluative feedback throughout their pre-tenure years? How can Georgetown assist pretenure faculty in getting mentoring for their attempts to bridge multiple fields? How can we publicly honor successful interdisciplinary scholarship to offer role models to younger faculty? How can Georgetown incentivize interdisciplinary groups to work together?

2 thoughts on “Promoting the Interdisciplinary Faculty Member

  1. Another provocative and interesting post, thank you. Our experience and success in this area is poor. Along with the important questions at the end of the post, another might be:

    “how do we recruit (and retain) faculty doing excellent work in these interdisciplinary areas, particularly with our poor track record in supporting such work ? ”

    Best
    Paul

  2. Where do you recruit ‘interdisciplinary scholars from? Interdisciplinarity is not simply deciding ‘to be’ an interdisciplinary scholar, but rather someone who has immersed themselves in a rigorous curriculum designed specifically for that purpose. It is not one who has devoted their academic life to a specific discipline, an admirable pursuit in itself, but one who has, to use your term, ‘bridged’ two fields and synthesized knowledge from both, becoming a new interdisciplinary field….or perhaps a new disciplinary field. But as long as real “interdisciplinarians” are denied the opportunities for professional success that disciplinarians enjoy, we will continue to have nothing more than disciplinarians who have become “interdisciplinary” in name only. Concluding, in today’s highly politicized academic environment, one cannot become faculty as a real “interdisciplinarian.” Solve this, and you solve the problem.

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