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Evaluating Interdisciplinary Faculty

Best Practices Evaluating Interdisciplinary Faculty within the Promotion and Tenure Process

[This document was produced by the Faculty Advisory Committee to the WVU Center for STEM Education (Harry Boone, Jeffrey Carver, Robin Hensel, Kasi Jackson, Katie Stores) and the Office of the Associate Vice President for Creative and Scholarly Work (Melanie Page).]

Interdisciplinary research and education is an increasingly important feature of the academic landscape. A 2004 report commissioned by the National Academies notes that:

“In recent decades, the growth of scientific and technical knowledge has prompted scientists, engineers, social scientists, and humanists to join in addressing complex problems that must be attacked simultaneously with deep knowledge from different perspectives. Students show increasing enthusiasm about problems of global importance that have practical consequences, such as disease prevention, economic development, social inequality, and global climate change—all of which can best be addressed through [interdisciplinary research]. A glance across the research landscape reveals how many of today’s ‘hot topics’ are interdisciplinary: nanotechnology, genomics and proteomics, bioinformatics, neuroscience, conflict, and terrorism. All those invite and even demand interdisciplinary participation. Similarly, many of the great research triumphs are products of interdisciplinary inquiry and collaboration: discovery of the structure of DNA, magnetic resonance imaging, the Manhattan Project, laser eye surgery, radar, human genome sequencing, the ‘green revolution,’ and manned space flight.” [1, p. 17].

In order to establish a culture in which interdisciplinary work can flourish, we suggest starting with a commitment to this work officially from the highest levels of leadership that must permeate down through all remaining levels. Deans and provosts can promote interdisciplinarity by providing a clear sign of its importance, promoting tenure and promotion policies that are consistent with the recommendations below, and actively involving themselves in handling interdisciplinary careers. Senior faculty can shape the culture of the department by taking a broad view of relevant quality metrics, avoiding parochialism, and stepping up to the plate to provide the additional mentoring that young interdisciplinary faculty may require (Pollack & Snir, 2008).

Work that crosses disciplines and institutional boundaries (e.g. departments and colleges) is recognized as more labor intensive and slow than disciplinary work, yet the anticipated rewards are high, due to the fact that most significant questions and problems facing society require trans-disciplinary approaches of collaborations among multiple parties for solutions. In spite of this, new faculty are often advised to avoid these types of projects until after they attain tenure, or even full professor rank. If these faculty members are expected to produce trans-disciplinary, collaborative work before tenure, it is important that their workload assignments are adjusted to recognize the above factors and set them up for success. Specifically, they must have workloads that allow time for collaborations, including working through both disciplinary and institutional boundaries. It must also be recognized that it may take longer for their research programs to reach maturity.

We recognize there are various degrees to which research crosses disciplinary boundaries and multiple terms to describe such activities (trans-, inter-, multi-, etc.). It is acknowledged that how these points are operationalized may vary across fields, but all P&T documents should include attention to the following:

  • Because of the nature of these positions, it is expected that there will be significant overlap among research, teaching, and service. For example, a faculty member might get a grant to do an outreach project and then develop a publication from the assessment/evaluation data. The outreach project itself might be service but the publication would be research. Thus, the grant itself would apply to both service and research. The faculty member should clearly delineate how things ‘count’ in their narrative and should receive confirmation of or adjustments to this count in their annual evaluation letters. NOTE: this concept encompasses and includes what Glassick (1997) referenced as the “scholarship of teaching” and the “scholarship of service.”
  • Remove language such as “most publications need to be single or first authored’ from offer letters and P&T documents. Many of the scholarly works in which these faculty have a significant role should be multi-authored. Faculty should provide evidence of the significant role that they played in the project in the narrative statement accompanying their annual file. Faculty evaluation committees should receive clear instructions on the significance of multi-authored works for these positions.
  • Many scholarly works may appear in journals outside the primary field of their discipline (trans-disciplinary research). For example, a chemist may publish in a biology education journal. Or a CEHS faculty member might have presentations at STEM discipline conferences, as well as education conferences. Faculty evaluation committees should receive instruction that these count for equal weight as publications in the home discipline. It is incumbent on the faculty member to provide evidence for the significance of the publication venue, given that members of evaluation committees may not be familiar with a venue from outside their discipline. NOTE: when appropriate, “niche” journals may be valued highly in spite of the fact that they are not perceived as well-established “top-tier” journals.
  • Seeking and securing external funding, and publishing/presenting in non-traditional venues (e.g. competitive conferences, online journals) may be critical for obtaining a national reputation. Faculty evaluation committees should be instructed to provide credit for these equal to traditional publications in peer reviewed journals when the faculty member can provide justification for the significance of these activities. See previous NOTE.
  • External letters are often discipline specific and particular caution must be issued to writers to not judge whether candidates meet criteria for tenure in any one specific discipline at a particular institution; parallel to this is to train faculty evaluation committees to read evaluations of the quantity of work in any one given area critically as the productivity in any one discipline may be lower for an interdisciplinary scholar although the overall body of work is appropriate. In requesting external evaluation letters, consider including wording that specifically asks the letter-writer to evaluate the candidate on the basis of his or her own area of expertise, while recognizing how the candidate’s interdisciplinary research may affect factors such as output and publication venues. NOTE: the external letters provide perspective, but the analysis of such letters and the value attached to them remains with WVU personnel at the various levels of review.
  • Encourage departments to add a provision to add a member(s) from outside of department to P&T committee as a non-voting member. Persons can be from the other department and/or Center the faculty member is working within. Relatedly, consult faculty in other disciplines for feedback on annual evaluations. This helps educate the home department on what is important scholarship in the other area.
  • Allow for and encourage interdisciplinary teaching as well as research: recognize the time-intensive nature of team teaching (depending on how the course is co-taught this could involve both faculty receiving full credit for the course).
  • Promotion and tenure requirements, as outlined in their offer letters, need to address the distinction between how much of their work is to be team based and collaborative and how much is to be independent. It is also important that departmental faculty evaluation committees and all other levels of review receive clear guidelines on how evaluation of faculty with high team-based expectations may differ from more traditional appointments.

While it is expected that departments and colleges will provide support to interdisciplinary faculty by implementing the above best practices, we recognize it is expected that the faculty will provide evidence in their annual review file, including a narrative explanation of how they meet the criteria for promotion and tenure. This is especially critical given that their department’s faculty evaluation committee may or may not include members familiar with scholarship in the interdisciplinary field. The narrative statement provides the faculty member with an opportunity to give the committee needed information for evaluation. It also recognizes that it is incumbent on the faculty member to make the case for promotion and tenure. To this end, it is also important that the faculty hired into these positions receive mentoring about how to provide evidence of the significance of their work and how it meets their appointment conditions in their annual files, and to make a case for this in their accompanying narrative statements.

[Pollack & Snir, (2008). Computing Research Association, Best Practices Memo Promotion and Tenure of Interdisciplinary Faculty]