Friday, December 08, 2006

Interdisciplinarity and disciplinary standards for tenure

The Modern Language Association's Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion report is out, along with an op-ed column by Michael Bérubé, Scott Jaschik's Inside Higher Ed article on reaction to the report, Chronicle of Higher Ed reportage (free!), and a response by University Diarist Margaret Soltan. Roughly speaking, the MLA report says, "Hey, you departments who are still demanding a monograph publication for tenure and still training grad students for that life? Get with the program. Requiring that new scholars publish monographs (and refusing to recognize other writing formats) at a time when university press language and literature book lists are shrinking is inappropriate and even unscholarly."

Two aspects of the report are intriguing to me. One is the 19th recommendation, opening a discussion of the format of a dissertation. Page 68 of the report opens with a challenge to the disseratation as a draft monograph:

[T]his is the moment to ask whether the needs of the profession—and of graduate students in the fields represented by the MLA—are best served by the current idea of the dissertation as a book-in-progress.

The report cites David Damrosch's proposal of a disseration as a set of linked articles in We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University (1995). A few years later, Nell Duke and Sarah Beck's argument that Education Should Consider Alternative Formats for the Dissertation (1999, JSTOR), and the University of Washington had a go at Re-envisioning the Ph.D. Interestingly, Duke and Beck don't refer to Damrosch's work, but in any case I haven't seen any great groundswell for alternative formats in my institution or others I know. There's a reason why education schools will probably be the last to experiment with new dissertation formats: status dynamics on any U.S. campus. As many observers from Geraldine Joncich Clifford and James Guthrie to David Labaree have noted, ed schools are pushed around because of the status envy for other colleges and the denigration of education research by liberal-arts disciplines. That, and the colonization of education research by psychology, is why the vast majority of education dissertations follow the psychologist's five-section format (expanded into five chapters). Fortunately, the MLA recognizes the status hierarchy among fields and among institutions and explicitly calls for the reputational leaders to, well, lead the way:

If departments of English and other modern languages were to encourage new structures for the dissertations required of their doctoral candidates, then deans and provosts would support such a change, in our view, because experts in the field had determined the validity and the value of such a change. Indeed, if the institutions perceived as the most prestigious thought anew about the various ways and forms in which advanced graduate students in the humanities demonstrate that they are able to conduct sustained original scholarly inquiry, these universities would open the door to a long overdue reconsideration of the dissertation across the spectrum of graduate education programs in the United States. (pp. 68-69)


It is equally clear that the institutions perceived as the most prestigious in our fields will need to initiate such an effort if there is eventually to be a reconceptualization of the culminating piece of scholarship for the
doctoral degree. (p. 70)

I hope English and other modern language departments will lead the way, so those of us in other, lower-status disciplines (stop laughing, Bérubé! English departments are treated as cash cows, but they still command greater respect as disciplinary units than education) will be able to branch out.

That leads into the second aspect of this report: the hidden interdisciplinarity of the call for a change in graduate education. Not that English departments are staying stuck in a certain notion of what literature is, but the study's discussion of graduate education strongly suggests that maybe we shouldn't stay stuck in silos. That's part of what the discussions reflects, because you start to see that monographs aren't the only coin of the realm if you recognize that "most academic disciplines, from sociology to linguistics to anthropology to philosophy, do not require books for tenure; yet tenure committees in those disciplines somehow remain capable of distinguishing excellent from mediocre scholarship" (Bérubé's IHE column). That's useful in an intellectual sense, and in many ways education schools with foundations faculty embody interdisciplinarity...

... until you get to the point where folks in other discipline are judging your work at the tenure and promotion point. The majority of my colleagues are psychologists, where articles are the coin of the realm. And others in education can be, shall we say, a little parochial in assumptions about "producing articles." I know of one junior faculty member in social foundations who was advised by a measurement faculty member to do lots of little articles. For those of us who can work on books and want to write longer pieces in longer projects, that's the dangerous counterexample to the stereotypical ivy-covered English professor who doesn't recognize that it's hard to get a monograph on Wordsworth published by a university press these days. The truth is that parochialism works both ways. (Among other things, for those who are from the article-focused realms, publishers generally refuse to print books where large chunks were previously published.)

That doesn't mean that I shirk from interdisciplinarity. Far from it: one of my association homes (the Social Science History Association) is inherently interdisciplinary, and as David Labaree put it in an online discussion of the history of education as an interdisciplinary field a few weeks ago,

For people with strong interdisciplinary interests, ... disciplinary department can be a risky location. In a history or sociology and political science department, you can face the test of disciplinary correctness, with people saying that your work is not really history or whatever. Experiments with interdisciplinarity are chronic in U.S. higher education, and so is the failure of these programs. They tend to fade and the organization of work regresses to the disciplinary mean.

The one stunning exception to this rule is professional schools. These are inherently interdisciplinary structures, in which scholars from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives train their attention on a particular institutional arena defined by the school’s dominant professional identity. The stability of the focus creates continuity in interdisciplinary work. So the short answer to Chris’s question is that if you’re committed to being interdisciplinary, seek out work in a professional school, where that work is valued and rewarded.

The position of social foundations faculty in colleges of education is ... how do I avoid the jargon? ... liminal. We're subject to being dissed simultaneously by our colleagues in disciplinary departments and by our colleagues in colleges of education, but for different reasons. On the other hand, working in the interdisciplinary interstices gives us some freedom to experiment. Social foundations doctoral students are probably the least likely to have "conventional" five-chapter dissertations as article-in-progress, so maybe we'll be the first to also veer away from dissertation as monograph-in-progress.

1 comment:

Aaron Schutz said...

Yes! One of the reasons I like being in Education is because of the freedom to be interdisciplinary--and this is especially true of foundations.

I actually didn't write a "dissertation." At Michigan, there was an option for a "multiple paper dissertation" in the graduate school which was, I think, almost exclusively used by the science departments. But I put together a committee who agreed ahead of time that I could do this. So when the time came to "write" my dissertation, I basically plugged a number of related papers I had written and pressed a button that formatted them as a "dissertation." I like to say that I "wrote" my dissertation in ten minutes one Friday night. Most of the papers were published or in press, which helped me on the job market and which also made my defense pretty straightforward.

Ironically enough, one of the first classes I had to teach here was a course to prepare students to write their dissertations. I just had them go read some and come back and explain to me what they were like. They had to explain the "five chapter" dissertation model to me.

The five chapter model, by the way, was later described to me, I think accurately, as the "five paragraph essay of academia." It's a form of writing that has no real existence outside of the Ph.D.--it's not a book, and it's not a bunch of articles. Maybe English has escaped the "five chapter" approach and can actually publish their dissertations.