Building an Interdisciplinary Identity in a (Mostly) Non-Interdisciplinary Academic World

Hi there, my name is Ethan and I’m an archaeologist.  Well…maybe not exactly. I haven’t run an excavation in years, and I don’t teach in an anthropology department.  Ok, lets try this again.  Hi my name’s Ethan and I’m a digital historian.  Ok, thats a little better, its got the “digital,” and I also live (mostly) in a history department.  But, my PhD isn’t in history.   Hmmmm…ok, how about digital humanist? Well, its got the “digital,” so that’s good.  I also “live” in the digital humanities community, work with many people who identify themselves as digital humanists, and have received digital humanities grants.   The problem is that I’m not a humanist.  Ok, mmmm…Game designer? No. Serious game designer? Not really..its what I work on, not what I am. Oh bother, what the heck am I?

The problem, dear readers, is that I’m an interdisciplinary scholar.  I sit on the happy intersection of several domains (both traditional and “progressive”).  As such, it is always a challenge for me, as well as many other who swim in these crazy interdisciplinary waters, to build and maintain an academic identify.

In many ways, the institution is at the root of this problem – not the scholar.  Many institutions pride themselves on encouraging interdisciplinary scholarship (I would hold up my institution as an example of this).  However, the reality is that its a heck of a lot easier to have a traditional, one field identity (English, Geology, Physics, etc) than it is to create and maintain an interdisciplinary identity.  The very structure of most universities are based on a model of one scholar = one discipline (the unit of “discipline” being the department).  Departments are usually walled gardens, little islands of thought and practice that are surrounded by moats filled with sharks and patrolled by giant killer robots with instructions to kill on sight (what?  your department doesn’t have giant killer robots?).  Tenure & promotion standards (which guide the activities for junior faculty – as well as many tenured faculty) are based in the department (and usually vary wildly between departments).  On top of that, there is a lot of discipline/department-based inflexibility when it comes to teaching in an interdisciplinary space.  Departments are often quite territorial about subjects that they see as their own (try teaching a class that has “Computer Science” in the title when you are in an Fine Art department, for example)   Some universities don’t even have a mechanism for recognizing team teaching – which is a hallmark of instruction in many interdisciplinary spaces.

You also have to factor graduate education into the equation as well.  You are admitted to a department (or perhaps a program), and in that department, you are educated in the arcane arts and secret handshakes of that discipline.  In the vast majority of your graduate classes, you only mingle with initiates of your own secret academic society.  You becomes familiar with a specific set of journals and a specific set of conferences.  The end result are graduate students (who turn into professional scholars of one kind or another) who are firmly rooted in one particular discipline.

Obviously I’ve set up a bit of a straw man here. There are many exceptions to everything I’ve said.  There are departments that tangibly embrace interdisciplinary scholarship and teach their grad students (from the ground up) how to be interdisciplinary scholars.  However, I would argue that these cases are the exception, and not the norm.  Now, its important to realize that I’m not trying to launch a wholesale indictment of university practice.  I am, however, working hard to reveal some of the challenges involved with forging an interdisciplinary identity.

So, what is an interdisciplinary scholar to do? The bottom line is that you have to work hard at building an interdisciplinary identity, and work even harder to maintain that identity.  In this context, here are three strategies for doing just that.  As is customary, this list is hardly comprehensive.  These are essentially the result of my own personal ruminations (some of which I’ve personally put into practice) – so, take them in the spirit that they are given.

Develop a Brand: Brand is incredibly important.  I know this sounds crass and super “stupid PR marketing speech,” but its true.  Let be honest here, brand is really another word for identity, and identity is what we’re trying to get at here, right?  Your brand serves as a foundation upon which you construct your scholarly house of cards.  In many ways, your brand will serve as your measuring stick when you go to make choices about things like the journals you’ll submit work to, the grants that you’ll shoot for, and the collaborations & partnerships you’ll enter in to.  Don’t know the best way of coming up with your academic brand?  Ok, try this little exercise.  Google “building a brand” (or some such phrase), and you’ll get a list similar to the one below.  Answer all of these questions (replacing words like “company,” “product” and “service” with more academic-y words), and you’ll be well on your way to developing your own personal scholarly brand.

  • What products and/or services do you offer? Define the qualities of these services and/or products.
  • What are the core values of your products and services? What are the core values of your company?
  • What is the mission of your company?
  • What does your company specializes in?
  • Who is your target market? Who do your products and services attract?

As an aside, when I was writing this, Tom Scheinfeldt pointed me towards something he wrote on his own blog called “Brand Name Scholar” (  The piece has some great points, and is well worth reading in this context.

Give your “discipline” a name: If you were at a cocktail party (do people really have cocktail parties anymore?) filled with other academics and were asked what you did, you would want to be able to bust out a 2-3 word name for your “discipline” at the drop of a hat (n.b. this is really part of the “branding process,” I just thought it should stand alone because of its importance).  You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to explain what you do.  You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you can’t tell people what you do (quickly and succinctly), then no one is gonna take you that seriously.  So, give your “discipline” a name, and become practiced at describing it whenever prompted.  For me, its “Cultural Heritage Informatics.”

Fight for more flexible tenure and promotion requirements: For all the obvious reasons, this is a tough one.  On one hand, the ways in which department’s reward scholars with promotion and tenure is very closely linked to maintaining an interdisciplinary identity.  On the other hand, agitating for more flexible tenure and promotion requirements is often the game of those who’ve already been tenured.

By way of example as to the impact that tenure and promotion requirements have on an interdisciplinary scholarly identity – one of the most troublesome trends as of late at my institution is that department are being asked to provide their Dean with a list of the AAA journals in their field. The (not particularly well hidden) subtext here is that if you aren’t publishing in those journals, you aren’t doing high quality scholarship.  And if you aren’t doing quality scholarship, your chances of being promoted or tenured aren’t particularly good.  The problem is that the journals that are usually added to such a list are what you would call “traditional core journals.”  The result is that many of the journals relevant to your particular out of the way interdisciplinary patch of academic ground won’t garner the same level of respect or “tenure credit” as you might get if you were publishing in one of these core journals.  What’s worse is that your work might be completely inappropriate for any of these journals.  So, what what are you supposed to do?  Fight for more flexible tenure and promotion requirements, that’s what!

Ok, now its your turn. Are you an interdisciplinary scholar? How do you maintain your identity. Are you trying to become more of an interdisciplinary scholar? How are you building your identity?  C’mon now, don’t be shy, feel free to share.

Image by Flickr user Mykl Roventine / Creative Commons licensed

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