Trailblazing or Losing Course?
Views of interdisciplinary scholarship at Emory

By Daniel Teodorescu and Carol Kushner, Office of Institutional Research


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Does interdisciplinary scholarship lead to ground-breaking inquiry, or does it dilute the notion of “disciplines”? This debate forms the essence of data gathered as part of a broader study of faculty life, in which the Office of Institutional Research interviewed seventy-five faculty members between 2000 and 2002 at different stages in their academic career. Participants had been randomly selected from all the university’s schools and disciplines.

The broader study analyzed the opinions of non-tenured and tenured faculty on the state of institutional support for scholarly work. This article reveals how faculty view support for interdisciplinary scholarship.

Overall, participants in the study agree that interdisciplinary scholarship is a worthwhile university goal that is valued, at least theoretically, in their departments. Several longtime senior faculty report witnessing “a cultural shift to advocate more for that, to highlight more cross-departmental and inter-school collaborations.” To some, this was a welcome shift; as one participant in nursing comments, “Healthcare is interdisciplinary, and there is no one discipline that has all the cards in that game.”

A few participants, however, particularly among senior faculty, think the overemphasis on cross-disciplinary work dilutes the disciplines. According to a humanities professor:

in this breakthrough [to] interdisciplinarity, we are losing track of the notion of discipline. It’s important to remember that interdisciplinarity can only exist if there are disciplines.

Further, a social sciences faculty member points out a negative side to pigeonholing research funds for interdisciplinary scholarship:


There [have] been a lot of research grant opportunities internal to Emory where interdisciplinary work has been a requirement. So over the past ten years Emory has really pushed internationalization and interdisciplinary research. Unless you could submit a proposal for something that incorporated one or hopefully both of those, you felt kind of shut out of the funding possibilities on campus.


Despite the general shift to embrace more interdisciplinary work, most participants noted that administrative and cultural barriers to collaboration remain strong. We highlight some of those barriers, as well as the benefits of collaboration that faculty most often cited. We include several recommendations based on participants’ suggestions for strengthening interdisciplinary scholarship.


Barriers


There is a distinction between junior and senior faculty’s perceptions of barriers to collaboration. Most untenured junior faculty see interdisciplinary research as a high- risk activity. Across schools, junior faculty express the importance of establishing themselves in their own fields to meet tenure requirements before doing collaborative work with colleagues from other disciplines. Many agree it is better to postpone interdisciplinary research until
after tenure:


I think it would almost be a mistake for a junior person to try to make the research highly cross-disciplined. . . . When you come up for your tenure decision, by that point you’re expected to have established yourself. (social sciences)


I think it’s a departmental priority to first establish oneself in one’s field. . . . That’s the most important thing, to be recognize,d andit is actually how the tenure process works. (humanities)


I see that for after tenure because of the amount of time it would take to put together something like that. . . . There is just tenure hanging over your head and that’s what you have to work for. (law)


Other junior faculty have the impression that “there are certain journals that are considered tenure worthy” and interdisciplinary research is “other things you do on the side.” Similarly, others fear that not all collaborative projects receive equal recognition as independent scholarship; moreover, “sometimes collaborative research may in fact backfire for tenure and promotion.”

In fact, the precaution junior untenured faculty express was
validated by several senior faculty. One associate professor documents her experience:


Had I done more cross-disciplinary research for my book I think the faculty council might have said why are we tenuring her in the X department? So there is self-censorship. (humanities)


Indeed, junior faculty’s opinions are influenced by senior faculty’s views. Several noted reluctance in advising junior faculty to pursue interdisciplinary research, simultaneously recognizing undesirable outcomes of this acculturation.


The problem is, however, by the time people are tenured, their perspective is fixed, and then they’re not interested in doing interdisciplinary work. (business)


Once granted tenure, senior faculty are more likely to engage
in cross-disciplinary research than their untenured colleagues. But
the interviews also reveal some reluctance even after tenure. Some recently tenured faculty are aware of the potentially harmful professional outcomes: “You have to watch your own investment in it.” Likewise, others attribute reluctance to collaborate to a lack of recognition and pressure to focus on discipline-specific research.

Additionally, many senior faculty, especially those paid partly or fully by external grants, identify funding as a potential barrier. One faculty member remarked that financial pressures limit one’s research agenda. In the health sciences, deciding how to divide the monies is also problematic:


If it’s NIH funded, then who gets the indirects? . . . That’s the biggest barrier. . . . Is it the PI who gets the indirects? is it the co-PI? Whose school gets the money?


Other barriers exist within the hiring and evaluation practices. Or the challenge is that “it requires too much initiative of your own.”

Faculty want more formal support for planning collaborative projects across disciplines. Sometimes, logistics are an obstacle in coordinating work and teaching with faculty in another school. Some concern comes from faculty who fear losing departmental autonomy. Similarly, some prefer having control over the research process, “the creative part of the work.”


Finally, many participants, particularly senior faculty, cite “lack of time” as the main barrier to interdisciplinary scholarship. “This is the kind of place that will just suck you in. . . . The formal committee assignments can take a lot of time,” claims one participant. Thus, collaborative efforts can result in feeling pulled in different directions.


Benefits


Despite the difficulties, over half the senior faculty indicate that the benefits of interdisciplinary work, such as intellectual stimulation,
outweigh the challenges. One faculty attributes his success to cross-
disciplinary research:


There are so many diseases now that begin in childhood and go on into adulthood that it almost behooves us to be able to set up those sort of cross-disciplinary collaborations.


A humanities professor relishes “the potential to actually engage in intellectual dialogue with methodologies and questions that will bring new life to your own intellectual work.”

While one acknowledges the importance of independent scholarship—“You had to have the solo flight”—another in humanities says, “Some of the most rewarding work have been precisely collaboratively written books in areas that would have not been written had I written only on my own.”


Recommendations


Participants suggested incentives to encourage interdisciplinary
scholarship, ranging from more social and professional opportunities for faculty to interact informally and formally, (“then we can make personal connections afterwards to explore collaboration”) to perhaps offering a monetary reward. A law school faculty sees untapped possibilities for interconnection:


I think Emory being physically contiguous for all these disciplines and also having a pretty strong public policy—that is, between CDC, School of Public Health, the law school, business school having a lot of overlaps—there really should be ways to encourage scholars coming together and doing something.


Participants recommended more cross listing of classes, reduced teaching load, and release time from departmental responsibilities. Repeatedly, participants in the natural sciences argued for more collaborative opportunities between the college and School of Medicine. Says one such junior faculty:


[Georgia Tech] had twenty, thirty faculties from engineering, chemistry, physics, all areas, come together. That’s the kind of thing we need to do at Emory too . . . bring people from the chemistry, from the medical side together, in some kind of symposium, some kind of workshop, so that we can define common themes and
help each other in terms of research and in terms of funding.


Finally, if Emory wants to encourage interdisciplinary scholarship, faculty members need other incentives, such as funding for
sabbaticals and for research travel, joint appointments, and recognition in the promotion and tenure system.