Observing the Higher Powers: Interdisciplinary Fields Need More Institutional Support

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When we discuss potential changes to Swarthmore’s academic structure, it’s important to consider those that will benefit the entire community. Today, I think that I’ve found a subject where both faculty and students can agree: Swarthmore’s institutional structures inhibit exploration in interdisciplinary fields. Fifty years ago, when academia was significantly less fragmented, these rigid structures were sufficient and didn’t serve as a roadblock to creative and innovative work. By contrast, today, these structures prevent both faculty and students from maximizing their access to these new, interdisciplinary areas.

Like most colleges, Swarthmore is primarily organized around the notion of academic departments. Faculty members almost always hold appointments in only one, and offer courses that fit in the frame of their specific department’s academic worldview. This paradigm doesn’t work so well now that much of the innovation in academia is coming from interdisciplinary fields that cut across “traditional” disciplines, combining elements from varied fields in their own. A faculty member might, for example, be a professor of Political Science, but have their research interests principally in environmental policy and strategies for combating climate change, which fits more neatly under the domain of Environmental Studies. Swarthmore currently has thirteen of these programs, and there are arguments to be made that we ought have more than we do. It is quite restrictive to pigeonhole a faculty member whose interests cuts across multiple departments into one and not let them work and offer courses in the area of their true interest.

That said, Swarthmore can, and should, take some concrete steps to mitigate this problem right away. Strategic Directions reflects this concern, and it identifies these structures as specific areas where Swarthmore needs to evolve. Two of the suggestions it offers seem to be particularly promising. The first involves the creation of positions for visiting faculty members that would be used to supplement teaching in interdisciplinary programs. These positions could be used either to give a program a visiting professor to expand the offerings in an area for a few years or to replace an existing faculty member in their “normal” department so they could teach in that program. Using the previous example, that professor could have their teaching obligations to Political Science filled by a visiting professor for three years, and they would be able to teach exclusively in Environmental Studies, enriching the program’s offerings. The downside of this solution is that bringing in faculty in this way inherently means that they are not guaranteed additions to a program, and it doesn’t provide programs with long-term staffing solutions. Nonetheless, it is certainly a quick way to expand and deepen the offerings in our interdisciplinary programs.

The second of these remedies entails the development of new standards for interdisciplinary appointments. This would address the problem of faculty members teaching outside their departments in these programs. Under the current system, tenure and promotion decisions are handled with respect to the department that a faculty member is associated with. Interdisciplinary departments have no independent tenure track faculty positions of their own; any tenured faculty in them have joint appointments in another department. What this means is that it is the obligations and standards of the “home” department that are used when making decisions about tenure. For faculty that have interdisciplinary interests, that could have significant limitations on what kind of research and academic investigation they undertake and, correspondingly, on the types of courses that they offer. If a faculty member was hired both as a professor of History and Latin American Studies, the current system prevents them from exploring the techniques of other disciplines in their research because they’ll be evaluated for tenure by the History department. This ultimately reduces their ability to participate in the interdisciplinary program. It is clear that these policies need to be revised to reflect the ways in which faculty interests have begun to depart from the traditional department constraints.

While these changes all sound great from the perspective of faculty members who have divergent academic interests, there’s something in this for the students here too. Students who study in these fields, or who would want to study in these fields, stand to gain immensely from a revision of these policies. The clearest and most immediate benefit would come in the form of an increase in course offerings in these interdisciplinary fields and programs. I would argue that most students would like to see these programs expanded, and are often frustrated by the limited unique offerings the programs have under the status quo. Most of today’s programs offer no courses that aren’t cross-listed and housed in another department, and those that do, for the most part, offer only an introductory course and a capstone seminar for minors. These limitations mean that the courses that students can choose from today are fundamentally less than they could be.

If members of the faculty are less bound by departments, or are given temporary relief from their demands, they have more freedom in the courses they can offer students. Now, it’s not a certainty that all faculty members will offer courses in our interdisciplinary programs because of these changes. But what does seem guaranteed, however, is that the number of unique course offerings will increase. That means students can take more purely interdisciplinary courses not housed in specific departments and required to comply with their specific academic world-view. Returning to the two examples from before can show why this will happen. Eliminating these pressures on faculty will allow them to offer the courses in their true areas of interest.

I hesitate to make too many predictions in terms of outcomes, but these changes would certainly make the lives of Swatties who “special major” in these programs today much easier. They would gain increased course offerings, which would allow them to round out their program of study more fully. The fact that students are doing this today indicates that there’s a clear student interest in these programs. And who knows – maybe some of these programs would even be able to grow to the point of offering a full major because of this.

So at the end of the day, while things like course releases and tenure policies may seem highly abstract and distant from the student experience, in the case of our interdisciplinary programs, they have a real impact on the courses offered and academic opportunities. As already identified, a change in these policies is absolutely necessary. It would help increase the flexibility in our curriculum. And it clearly benefits both students and faculty. It just makes sense.


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