The University Record, May 10, 1993

Incentives needed for interdisciplinary work to thrive

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Although director James A. Winn acknowledges that in its first five years, the Institute for the Humanities has been “reasonably successful” in creating and nurturing discourse among departmental lines, he believes that “economic, institutional, and sociological forces still work to limit the growth of interdisciplinary scholarship.”

Winn, who delivered the keynote address with Institute faculty Fellow Fred L. Bookstein at the Institute’s fifth anniversary “Conference on Collaboration” April 23, told participants that scholars increasingly specialize in narrow academic fields because the benefits are greater.

“The rewards that individual scholars seek—money, tenure, fame, release time—most often flow to people achieving high-quality production through strategies of specialization,” he said.

By specializing, Winn believes, scholars maximize their academic output—the publishing of books—the standard of measure by which universities “hire, promote, and remunerate their faculties.”

Winn said departments tend to pressure their members to continue doing what they were hired to do, lest the reputation of the department suffer.

“Untenured persons hired to fill narrow slots are committing academic suicide if they admit that their interests have changed, even though younger people might reasonably be expected to be flexible, curious and willing to extend their range. Although the freedom of tenure does include the freedom to change fields, too many scholars are deeply dug in to a specialty by the time they achieve tenure, and therefore less likely to change.”

According to Winn, if interdisciplinary scholarship and team-teaching—a logical byproduct of the former—are to be advanced, a more precise way of measuring faculty output is needed.

“A sensible first step would be to allow fair credit for the efforts put into team-teaching and attach value to such activities as supervising dissertations, serving on committees, and all the other things we do that fall outside the crude grid that measures our effort in whole integers called courses and books,” he said.

Also, administrators should treat interdisciplinary programs the same as departments, complete with permanent budgets and the capacity to award tenure, Winn said.

He envisions a future university in which tasks, not people, would be defined along three axes: disciplinary, chronological and geographical.

“Just as we now offer basic courses defined only by discipline, we might also offer basic courses defined by chronology and geography—but not by discipline—each ideally taught by a team from several disciplines,” he said.

Bookstein believes the disciplinary structure—“a drawing of a boundary around a group of shared conversations”—neither helps nor hinders interdisciplinary discourse.

“What makes an intellectual enterprise interdisciplinary is the clash of multiple theories applied to precisely the same material,” he said. “The role of our presenting our own narratives to others is to hear them refracted through the language of other backgrounds, other disciplines.”

For Bookstein, the crux of this issue lies in the distinction he makes between scholarship and expertise—a scholar knows most of what has been said on a particular issue and an expert helps construct or sort what is yet to be said.

He believes that new fields “typically emerge as areas of expertise rather than areas of scholarship,” and result from interdisciplinary questions.