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When Does a Academic Field Become a Field?

One of the key functions of universities historically was to validate the existence of academic fields. The validation often manifested itself as degree concentrations or majors, departments, and schools.

There seems to be a natural progression in the evolution of this validation process. The establishment of an interest group often is often a first step. This might be a set of colleagues from different institutions who meet in sessions at conferences of traditional professional associations. They may begin to share their works in progress, collaborate on joint work, and keep in touch via email. They share ideas for developing content for courses in the emerging area. This is sometimes followed by a series of courses or, in fields eligible for external funding, the creation of programs of research funding. At a later stage, there are new degree programs.

On the research side, new subfields face resistance for space in flagship journals and traditional presses. A common reaction is for leaders to sponsor small conferences and created edited monographs that collectively create a body of cohesive content. Later, new journals specific to the area, are created. More and more the subfield asserts itself and is recognized as a coherent body of useful knowledge.

One can see this progression historically in many of the fields that undergird commonly present programs on US campuses (e.g., data science, biophysics). New fields split out from existing fields, sometimes from multiple fields simultaneously.

Over the years, students have been a strong force for the growth of new fields. They tend to examine the existing departments, units, schools, etc. and question why there are such legislated boundaries among them. They are more quickly attracted to new combinations of knowledge that new programs entail. So, the student pressures for increasing the number of subfields and degree programs are large on US universities.

These challenges require real wisdom. Human knowledge is expanding at unprecedented rates, largely based on the cumulative effects of research in universities. With this increase comes to ability to combine new findings with prior knowledge in new ways. Specialization abounds.

To some extent, this has been true for centuries of higher education. In recent years, however, the articulation of bits of knowledge seems itself to be moving faster. Why is this so? Three hypotheses seem logical. First, the more knowledge is produced, the more combinations of domains of knowledge are possible. Indeed, they increase multiplicatively. Second, the digital revolution and the internet make it easier to search for new pieces of information across fields. The same infrastructure makes it possible for scholars throughout the world to interact almost seamlessly and instantly. Very small groups of scholars can form organically, support one another, and build global interest groups. It seems that more small group meetings of scholars are occurring, outside the traditional professional organizations. Third, there seems a growing consensus that the remaining key problems facing the world are not going to be solved by the traditional fields. This has driven much of the external research funding institutions to reorganize into programs that require interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or convergent approaches.

Several key organizational issues facing universities stem from these developments. How can universities support the new combinations of knowledge? How can students be given the freedom to combine knowledge sets in new ways? How can curiosity driven research be nurtured as well as research focused on pre-defined pressing problems? Does peer review succeed in vetting what new combinations of knowledge have merit? Can research and education in these new domains be nurtured without creating permanent structures prematurely?

One thought on “When Does a Academic Field Become a Field?

  1. Dear Robert:
    The many administrators have known conveyed the impression that they started out as teacher-researchers but turned to ‘administration’ when they ran out of ideas. That obviously is not your case. I do appreciate your continuing ‘pushing the limits’ of academe. Thanks for letting us know. Othmar

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