The first issue of the new Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences is out and available here. The JESS is the journal of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, which is meeting this week at the University of Vermont in Burlington (where I live and work, so I’ll be there).

The first issue includes an article on the “Professional development of interdisciplinary environmental scholars,” which includes some excellent advice for aspiring environmental interdisciplinarians, including on graduate study options, job prospects, strengths and weaknesses of interdisciplinary work as opposed to more traditional disciplinarity, and much else.

Here are a few excerpts:

“As noted more than 40 years ago [note the date -ai], many people “are beginning to acknowledge the indispensable place of the integrator, mediator, and go-between … [who] perceives himself as an integrator of knowledge and action, hence a specialist …. He is a mediator between those who specialize in specific areas of knowledge and those who make commitments in public and private life” (Lasswell 1970, pp. 13–14). It is not surprising then that an interdisciplinary approach is being advanced widely today as the most practical means to aid society’s many and growing environmental problems. We in the environmental studies and sciences program movement are in a unique position to lead this effort. First, our capacity is large already and growing. Today more than a thousand programs exist at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Second, we are unified by a common interest in ameliorating environmental problems through empirical enquiry and analytic judgment (Clark et al. 2011a, b).”

Has that much changed in forty years? Environmental studies scholarship ebbs and flows in waves — two large ones since that first one of the late 1960s and early 1970s — and calls for interdisciplinarity haven’t always resulted in much institutional change.

Among the pifalls:

“The cultural, historical, and institutional context of disciplinary scholarship leaves interdisciplinary scholars without a firm footing. When questioned by administrators and disciplinarian colleagues, interdisciplinary scholars must be able to explain the intellectual foundation, methods, validity, and significance of their work. They often must fight for identity, recognition, roles, legitimacy, and standing. The challenges they face are often subtle and hidden in the social dynamics and culture of colleges and universities, but may also be starkly visible and blunt, making genuine interdisciplinary engagement with disciplinarians difficult.”

And some advice:

“Building a successful career path requires interdisciplinary scholars to walk a fine line, carefully and mindfully. An awareness of the extent and limits of their knowledge, disciplinary and interdisciplinary, must guide this path. Professional credibility requires scholars to contribute in realms where their training and expertise merit it, balanced by discretion to step back when the question is beyond their knowledge area (e.g., Pfirman and Martin 2010). Likewise, they need to be cognizant of real-world contexts that are often dominated by skeptical or hostile disciplinarians. In the worst case, they may have to argue their cases repeatedly, to several different disciplines, while simultaneously admitting publicly that they may not be expert in any one discipline. One successful strategy used by some interdisciplinary scholars is to maintain standing in one or more disciplines while working interdisciplinarily.

[. . .]

“In summary, because graduate school lays the foundation to a career, we recommend that aspiring environmental scholars carefully and systematically consider several factors in order to identify the best prospective programs and graduate advisors. They should structure their graduate studies to define an academic and professional identity, cultivate recognition, and establish an institutional and academic network. They should work to develop integrative problem-solving skills, specifically a framework that can be broadly applied to problems beyond those typically examined in graduate school. It is also important to build a foundation of focused knowledge and skills in relevant disciplines that will serve as an academic anchor to the problem-solving framework. A professional network will include the advisor, who plays a central role, but also committee members and fellow students, many of whom will become colleagues and even co-authors and project partners in future years, as well as external colleagues met through joint projects and professional meetings. A large, strong network is very important for both collaboration and for recognition.”

Much of this advice echoes the kinds of things I have always told my grad students, which could be summarized as follows:

  • Cultivate your academic identity strategically, building up a versatile profile that’s can’t get locked into a single corner (no matter how cutting-edge that corner), and a flexible and open-ended network that extends into a few well-chosen disciplinary fields as well as out to the transdisciplinary and applied edges.
  • Don’t expect interdisciplinarity to be valued (beyond lip service) or even understood. Support your own interdisciplinary breadth with one or more disciplinary (but not narrow) foci. Part of what makes a good interdisciplinarian is the ability to “read” disciplinary landscapes. Don’t tread into intra-disciplinary debates blindly; gain some understanding of the internal dynamics of that discipline — or be prepared to rely on others for that and to acknowledge your ignorance when necessary.
  • Learn to manage your time and energy: it takes effort to stay abreast of the multiple fields you may be intersecting with, so become a good scanner of horizons.

To be a good interdisciplinarian requires training and praactice, but it’s practice that will pay off in a rapidly changing world.


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