15.172 Interdisciplinarity

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sat Aug 11 2001 - 06:22:30 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 172.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Sat, 11 Aug 2001 11:17:16 +0100
             From: Geoffrey Rockwell <grockwel@mcmaster.ca>
             Subject: Interdisciplinarity

    Dear all,

    I find the distinction of top-down and bottom-up interdisciplinarity
    doesn't quite match my experience. I worry it feeds off an unexamined
    proposition that all senior administrators are bad (or cynical) and
    everyone in the ranks is good (or straightforward). The truth about
    administration is that it can be done well or badly like anything else.
    Further, administrators in universities have limited tools at their
    disposal, especially when most of their budget is tied up in tenured staff
    and governments ask them to cut budgets. At McMaster the administration has
    been pushing interdisciplinarity and have put real (though limited)
    resources behind it. Here are some of the ways administrators can support
    such initiatives:

    1. They can keep some of the budget (as opposed to distributing it to the
    next tier of units) and then award it to projects/initiatives that cross

    2. They can back grant applications that support interdiscipinary
    initiatives with things like space, support, and money.

    3. They can fund the development of interdisciplinary initiatives (courses,
    programmes, institutes).

    4. They can set up special structures for interdisciplinary initiatives.
    For example we have had a Theme School model where groups of faculty can
    propose a undergraduate program that runs for about 6 years on a theme and
    that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

    5. They can insist that new faculty hired into tenure track positions
    (which entail a 25 year committment on the part of the University)
    demonstrate interdisciplinary research/teaching potential.

    In short, there are ways in which senior administrators can support
    interdisciplinarity and I have worked with such administrators (they do
    exist!) Such support has a cost and usually comes at the expense of
    supporting other types of activities. (If you fund theme schools then you
    have less money to fund other things.) This leads to the question of why
    senior administrators would put serious funds behind such initiatives. Some
    of the reasons I have heard here are:

    1. It is a way of keeping talented faculty whose research and teaching has
    taken a direction not supported by the programs/departments they teach in.

    2. It is a way of experimenting with and preparing for larger initiatives
    that might better reflect the interests of faculty and students. Before you
    create a department of Humanities Computing you fund an interdisciplinary
    program to see if the student demand is there.

    3. An administrative structure based on the traditional disciplines is
    brittle. There need to be ways to handle the gentle shifts of
    faculty/student interests over time without having to overhaul the
    department structure every 10 years. As such, support for
    interdisciplinarity is actually a way of preserving the traditional
    divisions by having an escape valve for initiatives that call the
    traditions into question. Without concrete administrative structures and
    flexibility we would be forced to either keep things as they are or change
    them drastically. Either/or administration is inflexible and doesn't work,
    in my opinion.

    4. Senior administrators are looking at long-term trends and worry about
    being stuck with highly specialized programmes/departments that do
    something very well that no one is interested in. There seems to be a
    natural tension between chairs, deans and provosts. The higher up, the more
    flexibility they want to make large scale changes. The lower down the more
    administrators want the perfect person for a targeted need now. Deans and
    Provosts worry about being stuck with specialists that can't meet the
    changing needs of students. Chairs worry about being stuck with
    interdisciplinary generalists that can't do the specialized graduate
    courses. This tension plays itself out in terms of budgets. Each level of
    administration wants the most flexibility they can get for their level. A
    provost doesn't want to committ all his/her budget to the faculties. He/she
    wants to have a budget to do things the faculties won't do - and those
    things tend to be interdisciplinary in that they cross faculty lines. Deans
    on the other hand want to do stuff that crosses departmental lines, but are
    reluctant to help other faculties and so on down the line.

    My point is that interdisciplinarity can be more than just a trendy word -
    the word can be used at different levels to protect budgets from the level
    below for initiatives that would not be supported by any of the units
    below. Interdisciplinarity can be implemented in concrete ways if
    administrators are good at what they do. It can also be the site of tension
    between levels of administration which is why the term itself gets called
    into question. If you don't like how interdisciplinarity plays out why not
    label it a trendy term as a way of dismissing it. (This tactic rarely
    works, the senior administrators just close ranks and dismiss us as people
    who don't understand the real world - the administrative response to the
    disregard we can hold administration in.)


    Geoffrey Rockwell

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