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Interdisciplinary scholarship needs to be normalized within professions

Deans can champion interdisciplinarity all they want – but once scholars are up for tenure or promotion, it all rests on the individual professions.

BY IAN MILLIGAN | AUG 04 2020

Judging by what university administrators say, you would think that the moment for interdisciplinarity to shine was upon us. At my university, the University of Waterloo, we have the Waterloo Interdisciplinary Trailblazer Fund and a dedicated associate vice-president, interdisciplinary research. Elsewhere in Ontario, the University of Toronto highlights a series of initiatives that “span fields and faculties,” the University of Windsor has a series of multidisciplinary “Grand Challenges,”, Brock highlights the “scores of partnerships between … all faculties within the university”, York highlights their “reputation in leading-edge interdisciplinary curriculum”, and Western has constructed a gleaming new Western Interdisciplinary Research Building. With COVID-19 research spanning disciplinary boundaries, this might seem all the more pressing and relevant.

In our day-to-day and year-to-year lives, administrators drive interdisciplinarity forward. They make internal funding available, facilitate the process of applying to external bodies and forging partnerships, steward funds, keep our labs running, make sure we hire in equitable ways, and crucially, through procedures such as annual reviews, our academic administrators evaluate our work based on internal metrics.

There is a moment, however, where the power of university academic administrators almost entirely disappears from the equation: tenure and promotion.

An inexperienced chair or dean might be singing the praises of a scholar for forging new interdisciplinary pathways… but at these critical moments of tenure and promotion, the power of the chair or dean recedes, and is replaced by the power of the profession. Suddenly, the dean who had been encouraging interdisciplinary research isn’t as powerful as they might have seemed.

The power of the profession

To an outsider not versed in the unique nature of the tenure and promotion process, this might seem surprising. Let’s look at a tenure case example – the highest-stake decision that a university takes in the life cycle of a tenure-track faculty member. At many universities, the process looks like this: a departmental committee (helmed by the department chair or head) evaluates the candidate; then a school or faculty committee (perhaps chaired by the dean), and then the president makes the final decision, perhaps with the help of an advisory committee.

At research universities, these committees cannot just make decisions to tenure and promote based on internal evidence. That might be possible with teaching, but when it comes to research even within a department, the expertise simply is not there to evaluate interdisciplinary scholarship. Take my own field of history, for example. A token Canadian historian in an American-history dominated department would struggle to explain why their work is important. Colleagues do not know what the best journals are, what the scholarly conversations are, and what the significance of work might be. As scholars are increasingly global practitioners, the problem of evaluation is becoming even more significant.

If the problem of evaluation is apparent at the department level, the faculty level is even more fraught. Just ask yourself: do you know what the tenure standard for an economist is? A poet? A visual artist? A literature scholar? An accountant? At Waterloo, for example, the school of accounting exists alongside the department of history, in the same faculty.

Wisely, then, committees often defer to external experts: tax experts for tax experts, digital historians for digital historians, labour economists for labour economists.

Chairs and deans might be in the tenure committee room as primus inter pares, but their power largely recedes at these crucial moments and to these external experts. The candidate might have done everything right according to the university – forged new interdisciplinary ground, for example – but suddenly that does not look important if the external experts ignore it.

Professions set the standards

For example, why does a historian need a sole-authored monograph for tenure? This is not a plot by the dean or even the chair, but rather the communally-decided standards amongst historians for what a “tenurable historian at a research university” is. Universities can want great interdisciplinary scholarship to happen, but at these crucial junctures, the power of the university recedes, and the discipline takes hold.

If an external letter says, “Dr. Milligan does not have a book so he would not be tenured at my university, but sure, you can tenure him at yours because you seem to care more about interdisciplinary scholarship,” then eyebrows get raised. Two letters like that? Suddenly, Dr. Milligan is on shaky ground.

This is where conservatism comes from. When I’m mentoring junior scholars, it’s the demands of the discipline that shape the conversation: and that is why that conversation is more or less the same in research history departments across North America. Focus on the book. Articulate a second book-length project. Do digital scholarship, if you want, but focus on the book.

Culture, not policy

We thus need to change the paradigm of an entire profession, so that external letters will in general be open to interdisciplinary candidates.

Interdisciplinary practitioners, then, need to continue to target disciplinary journals and institutional venues: to stress the significance of what they do to the discipline, and how new voices and perspectives enrich rather than dilute the scholarship. It can sometimes seem tempting to target truly interdisciplinary venues, but these lack power within the profession.

Take digital history as an example. The appearance of interdisciplinary digital scholarship in the American Historical Review – uniformly undisputed as the top-tier journal of North American historical scholarship – serves to cast a halo effect over all digital scholarship, convincing external letter-writers of the value of this sort of work. Similarly, too, pioneers in interdisciplinary fields attempt to facilitate roundtables of emerging interdisciplinary work, their review in leading venues; all ways to mentor and support a new generation of scholarship through the tenure and promotion process. Interdisciplinary scholarship in this case needs to be normalized within professions.

It is an uphill battle. But it suggests we need to look to the professions, not to administrators.

Ian Milligan is an associate professor in the department of history at the University of Waterloo.

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  1. Jim A Nicell / August 7, 2020 at 10:48

    Thanks for this article. I think that you describe very well the embedded traditions within a discipline that discourage a shift to interdisciplinary work. I think that it is the responsibility of the leadership at all levels – the leadership of the unit, the leadership of the Faculty, and the leadership of the University to establish a culture that recognizes non-traditional forms of scholarship including interdisciplinary work. This must permeate the hiring process, and all the subsequent appointment, tenure, and promotion processes. It cannot be left to the individual professor to fight alone for the recognition of their interdisciplinary work. One point in the article that bothers me is that the author appears to ask the interdisciplinary professor to focus their efforts on publishing in traditional journals in their field to demonstrate how interdisciplinarity can be of benefit to that field. In principle, I can’t disagree with this. However, in practice, I think that many journals simply reinforce the traditions of their field through the peer review process (where anonymous reviews can reinforce the worst of traditions and the best of innovative thinking and approaches). My concern is that if professors follow this advice, they will gradually become more traditional in their approach, simply because they need to publish in these particular journals to justify tenure and promotion. This could undermine the careers of these individuals at the outset of their career and before they were able to offer their expertise to not only to their own field, but to other fields by publishing in non-traditional journals that would reach a broader audience. I have no perfect solution to suggest, but I think that those in leadership positions must constantly work to change the culture of our fields. Moreover, when such professors are evaluated for tenure, we must abandon our adherence to certain traditions for what constitutes recognized work (e.g., sole authored work, books, or publishing within a select set of journals). Professors should be asked to make their case for tenure based on their original scholarship, their significant contributions, their impact on their filed and others. This should be accompanied by an appropriate justification for the venues they chose to publish in based on the audience that they were trying to reach with the goal of maximizing the impact of their work.