That's Not My Department

Judith Shapiro considers whether it is time for faculty members to focus on their colleges and universities more than on their disciplines and organizational units.


April 30, 2015

Once the rockets are up

Who cares where they come down.

“That’s not my department,”

Says Werner Von Braun

          -- Tom Lehrer

This is not the best of times for faculty members. Many of the problems they face are beyond their control. And yet there are some they can address, especially if they are fortunate enough not to belong to the growing numbers of non-tenure-track, part-time, contingent faculty, but to those who can reasonably expect a secure future in the academy. 

First and foremost is how they can transcend the barriers dividing them in finding the best way to serve their students, coming together not just as scholars in the same field and comrades in arms against administrators they perceive as soulless, but as a community of teachers. How can they achieve this by expanding their concept of what is, in fact, “their department”? 

For one thing, how might they expand their thinking about the goals of their disciplinary departments themselves? For another, how can they go beyond a focus on their respective departments to contribute to the mission of the wider institution of which they are a part (and which, by the way, pays their salaries)?

We might begin by asking: Are faculty members taking an overly provincial approach, both intellectually and professionally, to their respective departmental programs? Insofar as an undergraduate major is focused on what a student will need to enter a graduate program, it is more properly seen as vocational training than as an integral part of a liberal arts education. Majors with relatively heavy requirements lead to a level of specialization that may be desirable for some students, but unnecessary and premature for others, many of whom will never seek a graduate degree in the field of their major. It is always possible to serve the interests of those heading to graduate school in the field by providing special curricular enhancements.

Faculty members should also consider how undergraduate departmental majors can connect more organically with one another and with the wider curriculum of the institution. This interest is not served simply by creating new interdisciplinary programs, since too often these have simply resulted in a proliferation of departmentlike entities and have failed to create greater intellectual coherence in the undergraduate experience as a whole. So, for example, in the place of separate ethnic studies programs and departments, one might instead see greater multicultural sophistication in the United States history curriculum, not to mention stronger collegial ties among faculty -- and hence students -- in the departments of history, anthropology, sociology and literature. The outcome might also yield a course or courses deemed desirable for all undergraduates.

If, in the spirit of John Donne, we wish to believe that no department is an island entire of itself, that every department is a piece of the main, we are no longer in a position to follow Donne’s next move and argue that if a single program be washed away (presumably, by the administration), the institution is less. As an institution continues to add programs without ever subtracting any, the curriculum comes to take on the aspect of a zombie movie in which the living cohabit with the undead and much frantic bumping into one another ensues.

On occasions when faculty come together for the lengthy, intensive process of an institution-wide “curriculum review,” the outcome too rarely justifies the time and energy expended. (I believe comparative research would show that, in general, the more elite the institution, the more modest the results.) Aside from their ritual dimension, such processes commonly involve the kind of logrolling especially familiar to political scientists, in which faculty members approach “general” or “distributional” requirements in terms of how their respective departmental interests are being served.

And yet, there have been some curriculum reviews that actually aim to make the student experience intellectually coherent, providing room for varying interests and passions while creating a student community that reflects the mission and identity of the institution. And apparently succeed in doing so. Some of us in the foundation world have been in a position to encourage this process, supporting those who are doing the real work.

How might graduate programs also better serve their students’ interests? Leaving aside the question of preparing graduate students for careers outside the academy altogether, graduate programs need to consider preparing them for the range of institutions within the universe of higher education in which they may find themselves. This means focusing on preparing students as teachers and not just as researchers, especially since their students’ chances of getting positions in research universities are clearly shrinking (though, even in such universities, better preparation as teachers would stand them in good stead).

Given that teaching assistantships are an important way of financially supporting graduate students, departmental faculty must decide whether they are viewing those students as junior colleagues or as cheap labor. This choice clearly influences how graduate students see themselves, as well as how well equipped they are for their working lives after graduation. Is responsibility for helping them develop as teachers being farmed out to teaching and learning “centers,” which are all too often teaching and learning “peripheries”? Or are there the strong collaborative ties between such centers and departmental faculty that are essential to the professional development of graduate students?

Some graduate programs are stepping up to this particular plate; more need to do so. Perhaps one way of getting their attention is to present them with the following choice: either (1) broaden the graduate program to properly prepare admitted students for a wider range of careers in higher education and beyond, or (2) limit the number of admitted students to those who are either likely to find jobs in research universities or who are interested in graduate education for its own sake and harbor no expectations about how the program will advance their future careers. Departments choosing the second option would have to find other ways for senior faculty members to occupy their time, which might possibly involve teaching undergraduates. 

To put these two options in terms of reproductive biology, some species follow what is termed the R-selection strategy, in which a large number of offspring are produced and few are expected to survive. On the other hand, species that pursue the K-selection strategy produce fewer offspring but invest in them heavily, which results in their relatively high survival rate. Graduate departments, being (generally) composed of human beings, should presumably follow the strategy characteristic of our species.

And if, to continue the biological metaphor, we take note that evolutionary theory in general has come to emphasize cooperation as well as competition, we want to be sure that academics, as a population, are not so focused on departmental rivalries and individual career ambitions that they fail to have a sufficient regard for the common good.

A final point: the case for tenure is most commonly made in terms of academic freedom, which is certainly important. But the argument for tenure would be further strengthened if tenure were seen to reflect a deep mutual commitment between a faculty member and an institution -- a mutual commitment that truly serves them both.


Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.


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