How We Get Disciplined

Who gets to decide what is “good” or valued?

May 18, 2014

Well, there’s this new fangled thing called interdisciplinarity. Everyone’s talking about it, especially universities who want to attract students to their exciting campuses. They know students don’t want to be siloed into boring old disciplines. They want to be able to see the world more widely, to understand it through the lenses of different approaches and methodologies. They want to be well-rounded, interesting people.

And who should offer this to them? The faculty, of course. And many faculty members want to do their work this way, too—understanding complex issues through a mixture of methods, approaches, and epistemologies. We may have been trained in one discipline, perhaps, but we understand how methods can be integrated into new approaches, and how findings from one discipline might apply to others. Many of us revel in the creativity that interdisciplinarity affords us.

In theory, this is what universities want, too.

But how does one evaluate interdisciplinarity? In evaluating a scholar who uses multiple methods and disciplinary approaches, who gets to decide what is “good” or valued? Who decides what is cutting edge?

Unfortunately the current system of merit, at least in my university, affords no one room for interdisciplinary work, as much as the university might promise it in their shiny brochures. If you want to get tenure, you will have to meet the demands of a discipline. One. And those demands will be measured along the most mainstream of lines. Are you a “real” political scientist? Are you a “real” (insert traditional discipline)?

What does this mean for junior faculty? For those who want to follow the rules, it means that some of our most creative years are spent churning out work we hope will make it into the “top” journals, the gatekeepers who have a chokehold over the discipline itself. This means some approaches have been ignored or marginalized, irrespective of their merits. Fortunately there are a growing number of outlets for interdisciplinary work (blogs have been a godsend), but the gatekeepers are still that: in evaluating work, it’s the names of the journals and number of citations (in those journals) that will get you tenure. Not your creativity, nor your flexibility with methods across disciplines.

If universities are serious about interdisciplinary work, there must be clear and transparent means of evaluating that work, especially for tenure. In my case, there were no procedures to do so the first time I came up for tenure. The second time, one “procedure” (an additional letter outside my department) was created in an ad hoc fashion to clear up this problem. It didn’t. In the end, my work was still evaluated solely along disciplinary lines because the administration had no other means of doing so.  Interdisciplinarity is important, it is necessary, and it’s a growing trend. But so far the academy doesn’t know how to measure it or reward it. So it sticks to disciplining its faculty instead.


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