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Women In Academia

Women in Academia: What’s the Deal with Interdisciplinary Work?

Earlier this year, as I stepped into a cool classroom holding one of the many interdisciplinary seminar series I take part in, I was surprised by the number of men in the room ““ there were three of them! Every other such interdisciplinary event was marked by the complete or near complete lack of men ““ even having 1/7th of the attendees be men was a huge jump towards equal demographic representation. But why is that? Why are these interdisciplinary meetings so dominated by women?

I’ve always been a big supporter of interdisciplinary collaboration. When dealing with problems, in my case, when dealing with environmental issues, the types of ideas and solutions that come from interdisciplinary discussions provide more depth and are more comprehensive than those that come from people solely in one field. Each field and academic area gets put in perspective: participating in these seminars and discussions feels sort of like zooming out of the small, highly specialized world of thesis/dissertation work and seeing that work get placed within a larger picture. It feels relevant, and that leads to a lot of genuine enthusiasm and action on the parts of the participants.

There’s a growing movement towards interdisciplinarity within and outside of academia. Interdisciplinary majors and minors are getting introduced frequently, working groups within academia often call upon people in many departments across the whole spectrum of schools, and even funding agencies are looking to endorse with cash money interdisciplinary efforts. The value of multiple experts working together on creating new research and addressing existing problems is quickly being recognized.

But even as the value is being recognized, there is still an undercurrent of, I’m not sure how to put it. Since interdisciplinary work is often more applied, so it tends not to have the same cache as pure research and it tends not to be as sought after an experience for people dedicated to continuing with academic careers. That’s definitely not true for everyone, but the intense “R1 or Bust” scientists by and large prefer to focus exclusively on their, often heavy in theory, research. Participating in interdisciplinary work is often something encouraged for those looking outside of academia for jobs.

It’s not a bad thing that there are so many women involved with interdisciplinary work, but here’s the thing, the people most interested in these interdisciplinary seminars and meetings fall into two categories: people looking to leave academia after they complete their degree, and people who are dedicated to including a large outreach or community involvement component to their academic careers. Invariably, those two groups are mostly composed of women.

That’s not really a surprise, but it’s also not great. Academia is not the most welcoming place for women, so the number of women interested in pursuing non-academic careers points to that issue. And the idea that women academics are more involved with outreach and community involvement is again not a surprising one, but it is a disappointing one. Women feel a unique pressure to extremely well-rounded academics, and so take an interest in activities that are generally dismissed by many hardcore theorists. Further, those activities are strangely feminized. For example, outreach is seen as heavy on cooperation a trait that has arbitrarily been deemed “feminine,” but it also requires a great deal of leadership, an arbitrarily “masculine” trait. The feminine aspects are played up, and the masculines ones are down played.

So the future of interdisciplinary programs on campus should not be guided on how to attract men. That’s fundamentally flawed. How interdisciplinary work is viewed and the merit it’s given needs to change. How traits associated with interdisciplinary work (cooperation, for example) are viewed and gendered needs to change. It’s the same thing I keep referring to in these posts ““ a shift in perspective must happen and the only way I see it coming about is through a shift in who makes up academia.

6 replies on “Women in Academia: What’s the Deal with Interdisciplinary Work?”

While not directly involved with the type of academia you’re talking about, I work in an incredibly interdisciplinary field: museums. First there’s the academics of museum studies: museology, which is a legitimate and growing field of research. Then you have core content areas: archaeology, art, paleontology, physical sciences, etc. and that research. And then you have the tenants of informal education, free-choice learning, visitor studies, consumerism, marketing, and leisure and recreation studies. All of these pieces have to work together for an institution to be successful, and, in all honesty, if you can’t do all these things museums have no use for you. The academic museology programs I’m involved with are very focused on interdisciplinary studies because this field can’t succeed without them.

What I find interesting is the gender shift happening within museums. Traditionally the institutions are “old boys clubs,” but because there’s so much of a necessity to be able to navigate interdisciplinary realms, more and more women are taking over what have traditionally been men’s positions, even with the hardcore research areas (which are no longer safe from interdisciplinary-ism, either).

I recently asked one of my professors if it was possible for me to go back and do a PhD in my undergraduate field (biology), since it has occurred to me to apply biological-type of research to my current field, which mostly relies on psychological/sociological research. I was told there was an “interdisciplinary” option at our school, but this doesn’t appeal to me for several of the reasons you’ve listed. First, the term “interdisciplinary” feels too vague. I am not interested in doing survey research. Second, it seems to me that unless the training and cooperation between departments is excellent and rigorous, that the research possibilities and outcomes would be too broad and at the same time too limiting, in that I think the focus would be unclear and maybe even useless for specific problems or disorders.

I don’t know. It is possible that I am biased against the term since I am mostly familiar (and attracted to) more direct laboratory research, but there isn’t enough information out there for me to make much sense of what “interdisciplinary” means most of the time. To me, right now, it just means “vague”.

I agree…I think arguing for more involvement in interdisciplinary studies is a false point of discourse. Interdisciplinary fields don’t really exist, and they’re nightmares for students (see my primary comment) who have the bad luck of being assigned professors who are using their classes as an opportunity to expand their CVs. No one actually wants to take these classes. They’re fun to teach, hell to take.

I see your point and I agree that classes as you described them sound like a bad idea, but we’re not necessarily talking about classes. Interdiscliplinary research and cooperation can be very useful and is often a neglected duty in a lot of fields. My main complaint is that it is often ill-defined, which turns a lot of people off these programs and if not implemented well it can lead to an “empty” degree that is not useful in any specific area. I think we need to both define these programs very well, implement them well, increase t heir value (which s hould happen through good definition/implementation, and I think this might be what AA is arguing in the article) and then we can maybe attract more people into them.

I’m really not trying to be a contrarian, but my point was more along the lines in that these fields are ill-defined because no one’s interested in them to begin with. You enjoy being on the administrative end of this stuff, but there’s virtually no student need for it. You’re trying to make them play euchre when they’re content to play poker and the job market is also demanding poker players.

Okay, here’s my deal with interdisciplinary stuff: it often feels like a slapped-together operation orchestrated by people who needed to justify keeping their departmental titles. My college tried to introduce gen ed “clusters”: students would take corresponding English, history, and psychology/sociology courses and then do a mass final that incorporated all of those subjects. Problems arose when kids in the clusters couldn’t take all 3 regimented courses. They’d either AP’d out of English or opted not to take the corresponding PSY or SO course, which created a lot of problems when they all had to take the same final about classes they’d never taken. So yeah, this stuff doesn’t always work out in reality, and if you want to get sociological about it, it feels like a result of women’s desire to work through problems together (by assuming that not being interdisciplinary is actually a problem) vs. the male impulse to keep teaching independently.

For what it’s worth, at my university, it was usually the female profs trying to get these projects going (again, partly because they were in contractual binds to do committee work where often there wasn’t anything substantial to do) while the male advisers and administrators saw firsthand the scheduling nonsense that was starting to happen. What happens when a kid needs an English course but can’t fit the other two regimented courses into his schedule? I’m not surprised the men sort of gave up on trying to make it work.

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