Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Peer pressure

Over the last week, my fellow Honors administrators and I have made an interesting discovery about our university: it's riddled with multidisciplinary departments.

Now that might not seem like an important matter, but it's a eureka moment for those of us engaged in the campus-wide discussion over whether faculty should be tenured in interdisciplinary departments. A chief objection to that practice seems to be that no faculty member can be properly evaluated for tenure or promotion except by those who share his discipline. Only historians can evaluate the work of historians, only artists can evaluate the work of artists, only those with degrees in religious studies can evaluate the work of scholars in the field of religion. Since departments are the locations in which evaluation is done, departments must be defined by a common discipline (so the reasoning goes). Therefore there can be no interdisciplinary departments, because their denizens would not share a common discipline and therefore would be unable to form the committees needed to evaluate each other's work.

Yet there are multidisciplinary departments all over campus. Looking at the departments and degrees found in the six colleges, it's abundantly clear that departments are not organized around disciplines, but around functions suggested by the university and college missions. The Family and Consumer Science department encompasses disciplines as dissimilar as nutrition and interior design. The Mass Communications and Theater department houses journalism, theater, and digital filmmaking. The Health Studies department includes addiction studies and nuclear medicine. The Political Science department has faculty devoted to international studies and public administration. The Speech and Public Relations department -- well, you get the idea.

According to the procedures for tenure and promotion outlined in the faculty handbook, tenured faculty in each department form the primary committee for evaluating the work of their peers. Yet in these departments, the faculty are not peers in a disciplinary sense. According to the assumptions above, then, how is evaluation to be carried out?

Even more strikingly, many departments have added faculty with disciplines shared by no one else in their midst. There is one Chinese scholar in World Languages, one anthropologist in Sociology. What will happen when it comes time for them to be evaluated?

These facts seem to suggest that departments are not defined by disciplines. Instead, they are defined by their mission -- which is sometimes discipline-specific, but not always. In general, the mission of departments is to serve segments of educational need or demand in the student body. Those segments do not always conform to disciplinary boundaries.

If departments are defined by mission, then one's peers in the department don't have that status because they share a discipline, but because they pursue the same mission. It seems that the university has embraced, in fact if not in its self-reflection, this definition of a peer. Those who have no disciplinary peers in their departments are not stymied when it comes to tenure and promotion; instead, the members of that department rely on their shared experience to evaluate teaching and service, and rely on the solicited opinion of experts and on objective measures (such as the rejection rate of journals and conferences) to evaluate scholarship.

The important facet of this picture that is only now becoming clear for us is that the university (and its faculty) have not prevented any department from hiring faculty based on the objection that there will be no disciplinary peers on their tenure and promotion committees. If such objections were raised on the case of these multidisciplinary departments or peer-challenged junior faculty, it's difficult to imagine how the departments, colleges, or the university at large could ever add new specialties or programs. The reason they do, of course, is because such programs are needed to serve the student body -- because the missions of universities, colleges, and departments alike actually revolve around that service, not around disciplinary purity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear the story behind this post...