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Anne Dalke's picture

In risks there are risks

Last Thursday, Marissa Golden described her recent experiment in shifting academic fields, and the questions that have arisen for her in finding new directions for her scholarly work. Our discussion focused on the generalizable dimensions of her tale: what are we doing collectively that might have resulted in--and might now address--the concerns Marissa described? Much of her frustration has centered on her inability to be in dialogue with those who are pursuing the same issues she is. Given the narrowness of each of our disciplines, how hard it is to switch among them, and how necessary, in doing so, to have the support of a network?

Our attention turned to the question of our own internal organization @ Bryn Mawr: which of our policies and practices militate against faculty members exploring outside the narrow fields in which we were hired? How much are we encouraged to be public intellectuals, in conversation with those beyond our own "protected territories"? How important is it that our teaching be tied to the research we are doing? Can we find ways of effectually evaluating new work that might not meet traditional benchmarks for productivity?

Many of us share a discomfort with current forms of academic organization, and its current shared sense of what is valued. Much vibrancy is lost; much more new work could occur, if our attempts to construct new knowledge were better supported. Academic institutions seem narrow because of the ways in which tenure and promotion review is now conducted. We have a model of the intellectual life that assumes that people stay in their fields. We need to create structures that recognize creativity, that acknowledge that people change fields--in both senses: that they shift their disciplinary focus, and that in doing so the fields themselves can usefully be altered. There are risks in taking such risks, and Bryn Mawr might better support them.

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