Toward A University Department of Generalists

The hard problem then is how to get specialists to credit you for advancing their field when they don’t see you as a high status one of them. (more)

Many of my most beloved colleagues, and also I, are intellectual polymaths. That is, we have published in many different areas, and usefully integrated results from diverse areas. Academia tends to neglect integration and generality, which hurts not only intellectual progress, but also myself and my colleagues. Which makes me especially interested in fixing this problem.

The key problem is that academics and their research are mostly evaluated by those who work on very similar topics and methods. To the extent that these are evaluated by folks at a larger distance, it is by those who control one of the limited number of standard “disciplines” (math, physics, literature, econ, etc.).

Thus we have a poor system for evaluating work and people that sit between disciplines, or that cover many disciplines. Making it harder to evaluate work that combines areas A and B, and maybe also C and D. You might be able to get an A person to evaluate the A parts, and then a B person for the B parts, but that is more work, and the person who knows how to pick a good A evaluator may not know how to pick a good B evaluator. Academics tend to think that interdisciplinary groups do worse work, held to lower standards, and this is a big part of why.

Furthermore, even when specialists can evaluate such things well enough, they have an incentive to say “Maybe that should be supported, but not with our resources.” That is, for people and work that combines A and B, the A folks say it should be supported by the B budget, and vice versa. Often to be accepted by people in A, you must do as much good work in A as someone who only ever works in A, regardless of how much good work you also do in B, C, etc.

Yet generality still gains substantial prestige among intellectuals, which gives me hope. For example, there are usually fights to write more general summaries, such as review articles and textbooks, fights usually won by the highest in status. And Nobel prize winners, upon winning, often famously wax philosophic and general, pontificating (usually badly) on a much wider range of topics than they did previously.

Academic disciplines and departments usually need to do two things: (1) evaluate people to say who can join and stay in them, and (2) train new candidates in a way that makes it likely that many will later be evaluated positively in part (1). I’m not sure there is a way to do part (2) well here, but I think I at least know of a way to do part (1).

I propose that one university (and eventually many) create a Department of Generalists. (Maybe there’s a better name for it.) To apply to join this department, you must first get tenure in some other department. You submit your publication record, and from that they can calculate a measure of the range of your publications. Weighted by quality of course. Folks with very high range are assumed to be shoo-ins, folks with low ranges are routinely rejected, and existing department members have discretion on borderline cases.

How could we calculate publication range? I’ve posted before on using citation data to construct maps of academia. From such maps it seems straightforward to create robust metrics describing the volume in that space encompassed by a person’s research. And something like citations could be used to weigh publications in this metric. No doubt there is room for disagreement on exact metrics, and I’m not pushing to get too mechanical here. My point is that it is feasible to evaluate generality, as we know how to mechanically get a decent first cut measure of a researcher’s range.

So what do people in Department of Generalists do exactly? Well of course they continue with their research, and can continue to serve the departments form which they came. But they are encouraged to do more general research than do folks in other departments. They can now more easily talk with other generalists, work together on more general projects, and invite outside generalist speakers.

Maybe they experiment with training or mentoring other professors at the university to be generalists, people who hope to later apply to join this generalist department. They might be preferred candidates to write those prestigious general summaries, such as review articles and textbooks, and to teach generalist courses, like big introductory courses. And especially to review more generalist work by others.

It would of course be hard work to get such a department going. And you’d need to start it at a university where there are already many generalists who could get along. But I have high hopes, again from the fact that academics so often fight to appear general, as in fighting to write summarizes and to pontificate on more general issues. Once there was a widespread perception that people in the Department of Generalists were in fact better at being generalists, as well as meeting the usual criteria of at least one regular department, they would naturally be seen as an elite. A group that others aspire to join, patrons aspire to fund, reporters aspire to interview, and students aspire to learn under.

And then academia would less neglect work on integration, synthesis, and generality, and work between existing disciplines. Oh academia would still neglect those things, don’t get me wrong, just less. And that seems a goal worth pursuing.

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