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.