The New Generation of American Scholars

By Gonzalez, Cristina; Niemeier, Debbie A. et al. | Academe, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

The New Generation of American Scholars


Gonzalez, Cristina, Niemeier, Debbie A., Navrotsky, Alexandra, Academe


The quest for new kinds of knowledge tests disciplinary and departmenta boundaries, To foster this pursuit, institutions need to rethink traditional ideas about faculty identity and support.

About ten or fifteen years ago, faculty search committees began to report that many of the newly minted Ph.D. 's they were trying to recruit had written dissertations crossing disciplinary boundaries in significant ways.1 When invited for campus interviews, these candidates asked to visit departments other than those doing the hiring. When offered jobs, they sought assurances that working across disciplinary lines would be facilitated. These young scholars' views about the university and their place in it were different from those of most senior faculty. Rather than being firmly anchored to a department, intellectually and socially, this new generation of scholars wanted to circulate more freely and to collaborate much more with faculty from other departments than many of their senior colleagues.

In the past, most senior scholars saw themselves mainly as citizens of their departments and viewed other departments as separate countries with foreign languages and cultures. Indeed, letters of promotion praising faculty members for being excellent departmental citizens often exemplified and reinforced this view. Although senior scholars interacted with the rest of the university through senate committees and the like, their core intellectual and social relationships revolved around their own department and its counterparts at other institutions. This vertical structure was well suited for discovery of new disciplinary knowledge and was favored by granting agencies, which, for the most part, sponsored research in the traditional disciplines and organized their programs accordingly.

New Approach

In the pretenure stages of their careers, the new generation of scholars chose two different, but complementary, strategies to survive and prosper in this academic setting. First, they assimilated within their departments by becoming experts in their disciplines, publishing in traditional journals, and taking relatively few cultural risks. At the same time, they built alliances with and sought mentors from among prominent and progressive scholars in related fields outside their departments, and often outside their institutions. These senior scholars supported and nurtured the aspirations of their proteges for greater flexibility in their research and, in the process, engendered ample loyalty from the new scholars. A subculture of interdisciplinary viewpoints began to emerge.

Of course, not all senior scholars limited their activities to discovery of new knowledge in the traditional disciplines. Since the Manhattan Project, the early 1940s U.S. program aimed at developing an atomic bomb, interdisciplinary approaches have been used in industry and academia, but particularly in federal initiatives, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's lunar program. In the last few decades, many senior scholars have engaged in interdisciplinary work involving the integration of existing knowledge, or the creation of new knowledge, at the interface among the disciplines. As the web of scholars interested in interdisciplinary approaches to specific problems grew, such senior researchers established horizontal linkages with faculty in other departments and institutions.

In "At the Crossings: Making the case for New Interdisciplinary Programs," an article published in the May-June 1990 issue of Change, Margaret A. Miller and Anne-Marie McCartan chronicled the growth of interdisciplinary programs to that point and described the obstacles facing such programs, including funding and organizational challenges. Although the number of interdisciplinary programs has continued to grow, little progress has been made in overcoming these hurdles during the last decade. It is against this backdrop that the new generation of scholars, with the support of their mentors, is coming to the fore. …

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