Friday, December 31, 2021

Reflections on Interdisciplinarity in Higher Education

For a long time now, academic institutions - especially Tier 1 Research Universities - have acknowledged (or paid lip-service to) the importance of interdisciplinary scholarship. Realizing that the theories, methods, and insights of no single academic discipline can provide more than a partial explanation or solution to any complex social or combined social-ecological problem, they have sought to diminish the hard boundaries that traditionally have prevented scholars from (a) conducting cross-disciplinary scholarship and (b) co-producing such scholarship with scholars from other disciplines. However, as Elinor Ostrom, Amy Poteete and Marco Janssen explained in their 2010 book, Working Together, efforts to support interdisciplinary research have run up against structural impediments that still exist and may be ineradicable. 

First and foremost, academics can be tenured in only one discipline. In order to obtain tenure, they must publish articles that can be understood by their intra-disciplinary colleagues in journals that are rated highly within the discipline. Those journals will, generally speaking, restrict them to building on previous work within the home discipline, which will in turn restrict the kinds of questions they can seek to answer using the discipline's approved (by convention or tradition) methods and modes of discourse. And the extent to which their teaching can cross disciplinary boundaries will likewise be restricted. [These restrictions are relatively mild in my own home discipline of law; they are much more pronounced in other social sciences.] While the number of interdisciplinary journals has been rising steadily, the extent to which they are valued in any particular discipline is questionable. In most departments, undue weight is placed on a journal's "Impact Factor " (IF) which is an estimation of a journal's overall quality based on citations to articles appearing in it. Very few (if any) interdisciplinary journals, which tend to be more recently established that intra-disciplinary journals, have IFs that are competitive with the top journals in a particular field. The resulting structure of incentives is for scholars to focus on infra-disciplinary issues, at least until they receive tenure, i.e., six or seven years into their careers. When they finally receive tenure, they might then broaden their research to include interdisciplinary issues, but disincentives remain. For one, at that point, their entire scholarly reputation is based on work they've published within the home discipline, and they might be reluctant to allow that reputation to be eroded by moving outside their home discipline. For another, the reputation of their home department, which matters for US News Rankings, which remain a big deal for departmental and central university administrators, continues to rest on faculty publications within the home discipline's journals. 

The increasing use of "joint appointments" for interdisciplinary scholars is helpful to some extent, but by no means is it a panacea. I have held a joint appointment in the IU-Maurer School of Law and the IU-O'Neill School of Public & Environmental Affairs (SPEA) for the last 10 years. I am a full faculty member in both departments. But, under university rules (which I believe are consistent with those of other universities), I have just one tenure home, in the law school. Since I already had tenure at the time I moved to IU, Bloomington (from the Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis, now the IU-McKinney School of Law), that did not present any kind of problem for me. To some extent, the tenure-home concept actually made things easier for me. Among other things, all of my service requirements, e.g., committee assignments, are within my tenure home. But for that rule, I would have had twice the committee assignments, among other service commitments, of single-disciplinary faculty members. Nevertheless, it does involve a trade-off. Because I have not regularly attended SPEA faculty meetings or served on SPEA committees, I have interacted very little with the vast majority of my SPEA colleagues. In fact, I have not even met a majority of my (more than 100) SPEA colleagues. And even among the colleagues I have gotten to know fairly well there, some remain unaware that I am a member of the SPEA's faculty with full voting rights (other than for tenure and promotion, where voting is restricted to one's tenure-home), rather than a colleague from across campus who teaches in SPEA as a non-voting member of the ever-changing "adjunct" faculty.  

Meanwhile, my true intellectual and scholarly home at IU remains the Ostrom Workshop, which is a fully interdisciplinary unit of IU. But, of course, the Workshop is an almost uniquely successful interdisciplinary enterprise, and even that success has been jeopardized in recent years by poor leadership. Happily, the current leadership of the Workshop is fully attuned to its interdisciplinary heritage. It almost goes without saying that, because of the Ostrom Workshop, it is much easier to be an interdisciplinary social scientist at IU than at most other universities. Still, for me to teach in the Workshop, a course must be cross listed in both the law school and in SPEA, and one of those schools must agree to count the course toward fulfilling my departmental teaching obligations. The law school has been more generous about that than SPEA over the years, though SPEA appears willing to allow me to teach in the Workshop for the last course I owe them before retiring.  

In addition to the Workshop, I have also benefitted greatly as an interdisciplinary scholar from always having had a law school as my tenure-home. Both in Indianapolis, where I spent my first 20 years, and in Bloomington, where I have spent the last 10, my interdisciplinary bent has always been not only tolerated but actively supported and rewarded my law school administrations. I don't believe that is because of the inherently interdisciplinary nature of law. I do, in fact, believe the law is inherently interdisciplinary, but it's by no means clear that most legal scholars regard it as such, despite the fact that an ever-increasing percentage of newly minted legal scholars these days seems to possess a PhD in a cognate discipline. Many, if not most, legal scholars continue to insist on the "autonomy" of law as an academic discipline. Given that, I remain profoundly grateful to all of the law school deans I have had, who have uniformly supported my interdisciplinary research, including with regular summer-research funding of projects I had no intention of publishing in law journals.  

Whether academia can and, if so, will be restructured to facilitate greater interdisciplinarity remains questionable, but I remain cautiously optimistic. I believe the will exists, generally speaking, even if university administrators still have a long way to go in fixing structural problems that create disincentives to interdisciplinary scholarship. 

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