The Constraints of Interdisciplinarity

Written with Michael Brown

MIKE: You ended our last post with a provocative statement implying that  seniority is inconsistent with academic freedom at the junior level, and that this is partly because senior professors are more likely to defend disciplinary boundaries at the expense of innovative interdisciplinary work. It seems to me, however, that the ways in which funds and authority are now being allocated to departments have led to an even greater distortion of the idea of interdisciplinarity, especially since it reinforces the idea that disciplined work is adequately represented by separate departments.

MARY: Louis Menand provides an excellent discussion of this in The Marketplace of Ideas. Even interdisciplinary work relies on the concept of disciplines, and when it relates to teaching, it usually involves pulling together two professors from different departments to teach a single course. Each brings their own disciplinary expertise to bear on the subject, while respecting the boundaries of their colleague’s discipline. This seems like more of a disciplinary constraint than an administrative one.

However, when we go beyond the level of a course, we are talking about a more serious institutional investment. At the end of the day, I have to present a balanced budget to my dean or provost, and if I add another program — particularly one that will not pay for itself — I need to show that I have made cuts elsewhere. The easiest place to make these cuts is in the interdisciplinary faculty member’s “home” department, particularly when this balancing is done at the dean’s-office level. That creates hostility within the department and further resentment of a faculty member who may already be at the margins. For a junior faculty member, this means angering the senior folks who will be voting on their tenure case. Most assistant professors I know are not willing to take that risk.

Mike, in your experience, has the budget always played such a strong role in determining what can be taught and ultimately, what counts as legitimate research? Interdisciplinary programs such as gender studies and international relations are some of the most exciting on campus. But they exist outside of the departmental structure and partly because of that, they can be more challenging to manage and more costly to run.

MIKE: Decisions about budgets made by administrators have always been part of the life of the university, for obvious reasons. But I’m emphasizing “allocations,” since what goes on today involves pulling more “windfall” money that used to stay with departments up to the administration level for various reasons that have more to do with the public-relations side of the institution than with its academic side. That creates scarcities that force departments to evaluate work needing extra support differently, and it creates competition for scarce resources that is disruptive and feeds the stereotype of faculty as unable to govern themselves or get along well together.

While I think the constraints on content and teaching are generally increasing, it is clear that there are many exceptions. Perhaps those exceptions can help maintain the critical thinking, creativity, and self-reflection so necessary to education but that seem increasingly to go against the grain of what is happening in higher education.

MARY: Mike, where do you see exceptions? The exceptions that immediately come to mind are of two types. First, those areas that are wildly popular, such as international studies, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing majors on campuses in the United States. Second, there are the exceptions that have been made in the interest of funding — either through the support of a wealthy donor or through the perceived promise of future grant money. Most of those are in the physical and life sciences rather than the humanities and social sciences. External funding brings different constraints. Programs become beholden to donors with their own agendas or to federal agencies whose missions and levels of funding change with the rise and fall of the political parties.

Return to Top