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The Sciences

Interdisciplinarity

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Zachary Ernst, a philosopher at the University of Missouri, has written up an aggravating tale of sexism in academia. (Via New APPS. I initially mistakenly said Ernst was at the University of Wisconsin, which is where he went to grad school -- fixed by commenters.) A woman philosopher in his department -- who happened to be his wife -- was denied tenure. It's always hard to discern the influence of sexism in individual cases, but he was able to directly compare what his wife was forced to go through to his own experience in the same process. I have no way of judging the merits of the tenure case (and the opportunity for bias in this kind of report is clear, and clearly acknowledged), but the differences in standards seem to be pretty clear. But I wanted to highlight this bit, because it makes a different point that I have touched on before. [Update: in the comments, Andrew Melnyk (who I gather was the department chair being quoted) offers a different recollection of this conversation.]

While I was still an assistant professor, I had published in several different areas – I had papers in ethics, action theory, game theory, logic, and philosophy of science. The chair of my department was unhappy about this, and he told me so. He said, quite explicitly, that it would be very difficult for me to get tenure with such research breadth. This may sound unbelievable to someone outside of academia, but his reasoning was quite sound. Tenure decisions were made largely based on whether the faculty member had developed a reputation in the field. And it is easier to do that if you repeatedly publish in the same narrow subset of the academic literature. Spreading myself around too much, I was told, might result in my having failed to achieve a reputation. At the time I had this conversation, I had two distinct feelings. On the one hand, I felt that this was totally absurd – how can the ability to publish in several distinct areas be considered a liability? But on the other hand, I had to admit that he was right, and that this was good advice.

The reality is that everyone likes breadth and interdisciplinarity in theory, but the resistance in practice is considerable. A university is a bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy is made of slots, into which people are fit. We know what slots we like, and are suspicious when people or ideas don't fit into the slots. Note that Ernst wasn't exactly straying way off the reservation, dabbling in aeronautical engineering or Medieval prosody; he was doing technical work in philosophy, just in more than one different area. To an outsider it might be hard to discern any difference at all, but within a department this is taken as a lack of seriousness. One could certainly imagine an unapologetic defense of narrow interdisciplinary categories for their own sake; research proceeds fastest when attention is focused on depth rather than breadth, something like that. But this defense is very rarely explicitly articulated; the department chair in the above quote was just more candid than usual. (And he wasn't trying to defend the state of affairs, just making sure it was understood.) For those of us who do think interdisciplinary work is useful, it's hard to know exactly how to change things. The problem is structural; universities are divided into departments, each with their own carefully-guarded boundaries, and strict sub-categorizations within the department itself. (Everyone loves biophysics, but people who actually try to do biophysics within either biology departments or physics departments inevitably encounter stumbling blocks.) Some specific institutions can be populated by individuals who respect boundary-crossing and even encourage it, and of course there will always be ornery researchers who do it despite any obstacles that are thrown their way. But it would be nice to have more reliable and institutional ways of encouraging good work for its own sake, rather than only because it fulfills a narrow ideal of what work counts as valuable. From the comments at New APPS, here's news of an interesting attempt along these lines at USC. It would be good to see other universities consider similar strategies.

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