Lois Elfman
Lois Elfman
Education Writer

Once you make a commitment to doing interdisciplinary work you have to hope that what an institution states in principle bears out in practice: that value is placed on interdisciplinarity.

While interdisciplinary majors such as Africana Studies have been on a steady rise for the past 25 years, at many schools such majors still exist as programs and not departments. Even when such interdisciplinary programs become actual departments, faculty often pull double duty and must be sure to keep home departments fully satisfied while also showing their commitment to the interdisciplinary department.175138090_311516293_311516296_256224451 (1).jpg

What about when faculty are called to be chairs of an interdisciplinary department? In most situations, this is a prestigious, albeit time-consuming, appointment at which most people would jump. But it’s not so simple when the department a faculty member is being asked to chair isn’t the department that controls tenure and promotion.

From program to department

“I do caution people who are not at full professor [to become chairs] because it can definitely delay your scholarly output. It’s a lot of administrative work,” said Dr. Tina

Campt, professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Africana Studies at Barnard

College NY. (Barnard is the women’s college of Columbia University NY).

Campt, who taught at Duke University NC before joining the Barnard faculty in 2010, was the director of Barnard’s Africana Studies program for three years, during which she oversaw its recognition as a department, and then served as department chair for the 2013–14 academic year. She has now stepped down as chair.

Overseeing the transition of Barnard’s Africana Studies from a program to a department was not easy. Making it that much harder was the fact that similar transitions had only happened a couple of times previously at the college, and neither the current president nor provost was at Barnard when it last occurred.

On the upside, Campt said going through the process allowed her to have direct input in shaping the college’s future. Shaping the overall educational vision of a school appealed to Campt, but she understands other people are more interested in staying focused on teaching and writing.

When faculty are called to serve as chair

“I don’t encourage non-tenured faculty to chair or direct an interdisciplinary department or program,” Campt said. “There’s enough tenured faculty in every institution to do that work.”

She said associate professors are frequently dynamic people that have a vision to build a program, but interdisciplinary programs, particularly ones evolving, can be quite complex.

Campt said anyone taking on such an appointment needs to be very organized and committed to carving out space to do her own research. For associate professors aiming to become full professors, scholarly production cannot lag, so it’s essential to not let administrative details take over one’s life.

For those who do take on chairing, there is potential for recognition as well as an increase in public profile.

Interdisciplinary work

Dr. Kaiama L. Glover, associate professor of French at Barnard, will be co-chairing the Africana Studies department during the 2014–15 year with Dr. Celia E. Naylor, associate professor of History and Africana Studies. Although both are tenured, the balancing act is more delicate for Glover because her official affiliation is with the French department. Naylor’s affiliation is with both departments; she was a double hire in 2010.

“Although in all of my personal correspondence and the way I identify myself as a professor it’s French and Africana Studies, that isn’t actually reflected in my contract with the college. I will remain a French department professor who is co-chairing Africana Studies,” said Glover.

“I have to make sure I meet all of the requirements and fulfill all the professional obligations in the French department,” Glover said. “It’s a balancing act certainly.” Glover said that once you make a commitment to doing interdisciplinary work you have to hope that what an institution states in principle bears out in practice: That value is placed on interdisciplinarity.

Still, the possibility of being taken off-course from one’s own research is very real.

“You have to figure out ways to make the interdisciplinary program or department dovetail with the thing that keeps you on course with respect to your home department,” said Glover. “For me, that means figuring out ways to make my contributions to Africana Studies in some way resonate with my work in Francophone studies.”

Fortunately, the French-speaking world includes parts of the Caribbean and West Africa, so points of intersection are readily identifiable.

A word of advice to future chairs

If Glover can offer one suggestion to others it’s to find mentors who can help you navigate the interdisciplinary landscape and to do it early in a career. Learning how others have done a successful juggling act provides much needed guidance.

For example, at the time she took on being co-chair of Africana Studies, Glover was on eight college or university committees. A senior faculty member told Glover she had to pull back to make space for herself and not lose sight of her own research.

“Especially as a woman, as a person of color, we have a tendency to say yes to a lot of things, to be service oriented,” said Glover. “It does take mentors who can help you strategize ways to keep that from happening to you. That, to me, is the single most important thing as an upcoming faculty member.”

Also, see a bigger picture despite the challenges. Glover is genuinely excited to co-chair Africana Studies over the next year because it gives her a different range of opportunities—from having the attention of senior administration to creating possibilities for collaboration with people outside of the college. Having taken a look at the possible benefits, it should be well worth the extra effort.

This article is republished with permission from Women in HIgher Education.

Image Credit/Source: Getty images/Wiley/NA