Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Ask the Administrator: Inter-discipline and Punish

A Western correspondent writes:


I'm finishing up my dissertation in an interdisciplinary grad
program, and I'm on the job market. My experience so far has been that
despite departments' talk about valuing interdisciplinarity, all of them
want candidates to have degrees in their departmental field. Additionally,
in the interdisciplinary programs where I might otherwise qualify to teach,
almost every job call emphasizes a certain fashionable subject that has
nothing to do with my dissertation or extensive teaching experience. What's
an interdisciplinary (and apparently unfashionable) applicant to do?


This is one of the most annoying traits of the academy. While research is supposed to be new, groundbreaking, exciting, paradigm-shifting, high in fiber, and generally exquisite, it also has to fit into neatly-defined departmental boxes. A candidate defies the boxes at her peril.

Something very close to this happened to a close friend of mine from grad school. He did a dissertation that blended subfields of our discipline that don’t usually get blended. As a result, he has had a bear of a time on the job market – the folks in subgroup A think he’s really from subfield B, and vice versa. Since jobs are allocated according to pre-existing slots, someone who falls between them doesn’t make the first cut. Despite having a dissertation topic that made some very smart people sit up straight, he frequently lost out to mediocrities with easily-defined research.

In my own case, a certain (okay, inborn) indifference to fashion meant that even though I had studied all the fashionable folk, I didn’t do my research on them. I found an idiosyncratic topic that appealed to me, and apparently to almost nobody else. A peculiar career has followed.

From a dean’s perspective, the motivation for hiring the clean fit is simple: risk aversion. If I need someone to cover courses in, say, medieval Europe, am I better off hiring someone with a doctorate in medieval history, or a cultural-studies grad whose dissertation topic included medieval Europe? The question answers itself. I can’t trust the interdisciplinary one to stay on the reservation. Given tenure, her research could veer off in a completely different direction (always a risk with independent thinkers). The mindless thought-bureaucrat, on the other hand, won’t leave me high and dry. The courses will be covered. All will be eerily still.

If I knew I could keep every ‘line’ in my budget no matter what, I could afford to roll the dice on some offbeat hires. If they don’t work out, just deny them tenure, replace them, and move on. But when replacements are spotty, I can’t afford to get cute with hires. A bad hire might not be replaceable, and then I’m really in a bind. (Ironically, that means that the elite, affluent places are the only ones that can take risks. Transgression becomes a class prerogative. This is the kernel of truth to the ‘liberal elite’ canard.)

In a way, this is similar to the eternal, annoying undergrad question always asked of liberal arts majors: what are you going to do with that? Choosing to take the intellectual high road by following a topic wherever it leads, regardless of the disciplinary boundaries, involves a certain short-term risk. The first job will be harder to get.

Does that mean all is hopeless?

Not really. Folks of an interdisciplinary bent seem to find homes on the extremes: either very large places, or very small ones. Very large ones often have ‘centers’ that focus on particular subject areas without disciplinary boundaries. Very small ones need people who can cover multiple fields, since they’re so short-staffed. It’s the mediocre middle that won’t know what to do with you.

If you manage to break in, though, you will have a higher ceiling than your more traditional peers. Unlike most others, you’ll be able to talk across fields. You’ll have at least a glancing familiarity with the ways in which other disciplines see the world. Although you may have a hard time getting that first job, the path to management should be easier, if you should choose to take it.

(That’s why so many baseball managers are former catchers. Broadly speaking, there are two camps in baseball: hitters and pitchers. Hitters don’t understand or like pitchers, and pitchers don’t understand or like hitters. Catchers have to understand and like both to succeed. Catchers aren’t usually the star players, but they’re disproportionately represented in managerial ranks, since they alone can talk across camps.)

In the short term, I’d recommend focusing on the extremes, and emphasizing range. Show the small school that can’t hire very many people what a bargain it’s getting by hiring someone with range. They tend to care less about fashion, anyway. At my old school, when I was on faculty, I taught courses in several different disciplines; that’s what got me the job in the first place (and that exposure has been invaluable as an administrator). It will make for a tricky and often frustrating search, but the long-term payoff could be quite high. Good luck out there!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I found out early on in my career, and in a big way when they kicked me out of my previous Ph.D. program, and now again as I try to craft a new one from the whole, unwilling cloth of an actual discipline or two: being interdisciplinary allows others to consider your work shallow and misinformed in more than one field at the same time. Each discipline will see the work you've done in the other discipline as a distraction, a side-track, and of only marginal merit and interest.

It is of course not true that this is the case; but nonetheless they will believe it to be.
I have a PhD in an interdisciplinary field as well. I was kind of worried about it after hearing someone else from my field complain about how none of the traditional departments wanted him, but i got a job in a traditional department. I think the thing you have to do is show them (in your cover letter, and then hopefully your job talk, especially) how your work really fits in to their department. You have to prove that you can teach traditional courses X and Y, but then point out how you can also offer interesting course Z, which would be a big draw for your dept. In my dept, this was important, because we need innovative courses that will be popular in order in increase our presence on campus. In the end, then, I think it's all about how you sell yourself. Make it clear how you're perfectly competent to be in a traditional department.
Back in '88 when I sitll thought "Cultural Studies" counted as a discipline just because it had a department... I jumped into it, and out of philosophy... I spent the years to 2001 perpetually anxious, and finding that the "shallow, shallow" and "jack-of-all trades, master of none" type of aspersion was common (turns out that Cultural Studies was indeed the most disciplinary thing I pursued in my education -- I won't repeat it here but on my site there's an 'about me' that shows just how idiosyncratic my studies became).

Now I am in a pretty traditional Sociology department, with a clear sociological mandate. No one ever questions my belonging there... except me sometimes. (I intend to tattoo Edward Gorey's 'Dpubtful Guest' on my shoulder as a comment on these feelings about being a sociologist).

But mostly, it's good, and I still get to do whatever I want... so long as I do it well.

The secret to what happened was that I conferenced a lot in strict disciplinry areas dealing with social justice. I met people who wanted intersting colleagues. I made a fairly wide berth for myself that way, and find that these days the only place I likely still could not make it would be in a traditinal philosophy dept.

I think it depends on how you can argue the merits of your research subject, and on making the connections before you finish.

OH... and I kept crib notes on what made my work very recognisable to traditionalists and I would pull those stickies out in job interviews on the tenure track. They helped enormously.
Hey DeanDad,

I have a question; I hope it's okay to post it this way.

From what you've posted, it sounds like advising is part of the job description of your faculty members. Yet it's even more difficult to document good advising or exceptional advising than to document good or exceptional teaching.

How do we assess advising, and how do we make advising a meaningful part of our faculty review processes (at various levels)?

How do we mentor good advising?

Thanks, Bardiac
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