Myths and mismatches, part 4

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 11, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 4: Structural Faults?

Continuing my weeklong blogging escapade of commentary, today’s “Mismatch” from Jo and Julie is one that relates quite directly to my own research project on governance of universities…

“Mismatch #2: Mismatch of Structure”

Structure relates to the functioning and ultimately to the purpose of the university. Jo and Julie write that the purpose of the university is to “transmit the best that has been thought and spoken (i.e., maintain tradition) and advance the state of human knowledge through novel research (i.e., innovation)”. And they rightly point out that there’s something of an inherent contradiction between those two things, one that is dealt with in different ways depending on things like disciplinary context.

With the changing context of the university as institution comes changes to the way academics are expected to do their jobs, including how they work with colleagues, where their funding comes from and how it’s allocated, how teaching appointments may work, what’s expected in terms of research and “engagement” with scholarly work and life, and so on. Jo and Julie cite the example of interdisciplinary work and the (lack of) institutional structures designed to facilitate it, and one of the ways in which even the best candidates in graduate school can “fall through the structural cracks”.

In spite of what looks like an obvious topic of study (post-secondary education), I’ve found that my own work seems to be pretty interdisciplinary–probably because of my background in multiple areas of study, which in turn is feeding (I think) an existing intellectual tendency. I follow paths that interest me and I’m usually focussed on some specific kind of “problem” or issue. If there’s an answer to my questions in another discipline, then I tend to start extending myself and sniffing around that territory in search of something useful for my purposes. And in the process of this, I’ve realised that interdisciplinary/”innovative” work is or can be fairly unsafe, depending (again) on the environment in which you’re working and on what your goals are. It’s hard to build an academic career in an environment rooted in disciplinary distinctions when you’re not sure which conferences to apply to, which scholarly associations to join, and (my own current problem) which journals would be appropriate venues for your research.

My tactic thus far has been to take “slices” of things and relate them to specific disciplinary areas, e.g. if a particular paper or presentation topic relates more heavily to Communication Studies, then I take that into account and try to tailor it to that perspective. It doesn’t always work, but it gives me something to start with. My hope is that knowing the norms and expectations of this environment will help me to find ways to work within the existing/evolving structure, even as I’d like to be a part of changing it–though as Jo and Julie note, “the university has a lot more inertia than you do” so to expect to make your own “place” within it is to take on a complicated (though obviously not impossible) task.

You may not feel like you really “fit” anywhere, but this feeling can have different causes and implications. It could signify that you’re on the “cutting edge” and doing work that will in time have an important place, but it’ll be a place you’ll have to carve out for yourself. Or it could just as easily mean that you should be looking for a career in some other arena that better accommodates your interests and needs–and as I’ve discussed previously in this series, there’s no reason why academe needs to be the only environment in which you can write, think, and produce scholarly work.