Advantages of the ‘Interdisciplinary Dilemma’

“You are very unique.”

“Yes, I’ve often been called the weird kid.”

[Laughter]

This week I arrived in Malta for the second half of my Fulbright Schuman experience.  The Fulbright Schuman is a unique program because it is jointly supported by the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission. It is also one of the few Fulbright awards that requires its recipients to do empirical (that’s experience-based, for all you non-academics) and transnational work.  An applicant must present a topic that is of interest to both the US and EU and justify why they need to live in two member states to conduct the research.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also the type of program that attracts, and thankfully welcomes, interdisciplinary people like me.

If you know me, or have read my CV, you know that I have training in a variety of fields.  I hold degrees in language, history, and political science, but rather than this representing a set of unrelated and flighty interests, all these areas fit together, complement the other, and reinforce weaknesses.  It makes it very difficult to check a box that describes who you are and what you do.

This has presented some difficulties in my career.   Multidisciplinary people are praised for their ability to understand the inter-tangled perspectives of many actors and issues, but there’s also suspicion as to how much of an ‘expert’ they can be in any one of them.  [I am the first one to admit that interdisciplinary work needs a focus, by the way.]  However, there is a minority of actual support (in my experience) that sees interdisciplinarianism  as a desirable trait- events don’t fit into neat packages, organized by discipline, department, or theory.

Any institution with a bureaucracy relies on box-checking.  If you fall between those boxes or check more of them then necessary they don’t know what to do with you.  People like neat packages even though intellectually they know reality isn’t that simple.  Does this mean that we should abandon interdisciplinary work?  No.  Understand that there are people who do appreciate it, but it may take a bit longer to find them, and your niche among them. I know my niche, but I am still searching for that place.

Yet, dwelling in those “between-the-box niches” can be advantageous.  As a historian and political scientist who understands global governance and examines finance, data protection and privacy in the international economy and national security (whew),  I work among, with, in between disciplines, because my research topics lay among, with, and in between professional worlds.  I have to learn a different jargon to interact with politicians, the financial services, and the technology enthusiasts.

Needless to say, my time here has been extremely productive, but professionally I’ve never felt more in my element.

EU officials were incredibly generous with their views, and I found the business community to be similarly engaged.   I have been able to use my understanding of  interstate politics, law, finance, and IT extensively, but I have learned much as well.  It’s been wonderful to switch those pieces of my brain back and forth, to compare and contrast, to test and retest what I know and try to make all the pieces of the research puzzle fit.  (Incidentally, all of the pieces will never fit.)

A few weeks ago someone explained the role of academics from the perspective of these groups – they perceive us as nontoxic neutrals (my phrase).  Academics can bring up subjects that are considered taboo, and this is the role researchers are expected to play. Academics are expected to ask those questions and draw attention to known and unknown issues.  They make those subjects somehow more palatable by forcing commentary from the outside. Academics don’t have to consider their electorates, or the shareholders, they are outsiders without an agenda.

I consider myself one of those neutral catalysts, and my multidisciplinary training allows me to play this role from a variety of perspectives.  As part of the ones “without an agenda” I can gently prompt more discussions on topics that are too sensitive for members of several circles to engage, but conversations that even they believe are necessary to have – even if they don’t realize it themselves.  As I do, I learn from them, and I (hopefully) see how their interests conflict, or better yet, work together.  That’s what they want – research that engages them, that they can use, and is not divorced from their realities.

I began this entry with a comment received from more than a few of my interviewees, which was given and received as a compliment.  I’ll say what I’ve always said  – it’s good to be the weird kid.  There’s some great niches there.

Mentorship

As I write this post, the International Studies Association just wrapped up its annual conference.  I usually attend, but I could not do so because of my commitments as a Fulbright-Schuman Scholar.  This year I had the honor and pleasure of serving as Chair of the International Political Economy  (IPE) section award for Mentorship.  The Society for Women in International Political Economy (SWIPE) Mentor Award goes to an individual who has “who have invested in the professional success of women in the IPE field”.  I had a great committee with enthusiastic members, and I got to virtually (through email) meet some really interesting people – which is the point of this academic thing, eh?

The committee was important to me because my career, and my life, have been influenced by a few individuals who have helped me along because they believed in me.  Earning a PhD is daunting for a number of reasons, and the profession is not easy or glamorous. You need to be a strong person on your own, and you need a good sherpa.

Patricia Weitsman, one of my strongest sherpas, changed my life.   In her first semester at Ohio University Patty pulled me aside, a history MA student, and said “you should be doing International Relations Theory.”  I was the only person to get an A in her class, and it was the first IR theory course I’d ever taken.  She got me funded in the department.  When I insisted on completing my history MA alongside the political science MA, she cut through red tape like a Highland warrior wielding a clamor (an analogy of which she cheerfully approved).  From there I went to Texas A&M and met others who became mentors and friends like Bill Brands.  Patty continued to be there – writing letters, a visiting position at OU, my first tenure-track job, and too many pieces of advice to count regarding publishing, writing, and life.  I was her first graduate student to finish the PhD and she was fiercely protective, and proud, of me.

Over those years, the relationship shifted from one of teacher-student to colleagues.  I was happy to be there for her too and offer perspectives when she needed it.   And, in a sign of how close that friendship had become – we could also argue and challenge each other.  There was that kind of honesty.

Mentors do more than show you how to get through the system or cultivate your abilities, they show you that success, failure, and perseverance is about character.  Mentors give you the tools to overcome obstacles (either made in your own head or roadblocks put there by others) and find that courage to make things happen.  Patty led by example.  My teaching was influenced by her, a woman who had such a rocky start her first year in the classroom that she worked to become a two-time winner of OU’s presidential teaching award.   Anything she did she had to “own” she told me once.  She worked out 6 times a week and taught kickboxing.  When she was diagnosed with leukemia and was in for her bone marrow transplant she had a treadmill in the hospital ward.  During her two year remission she wrote a book on war and alliances, chaired the largest section of ISA, the International Security Studies group, was the director of the War and Peace Studies Institute at OU, campaigned for bone marrow donation, and raised two kids with her loving husband.  All of this she did with tenacity, strength, and love.

Patty’s battle with leukemia ended today.  We began and closed every conversation we had in the past few years with “I love you.”

I had been working on this blog post about mentorship for over a week but now it’s something more.  In these early hours of learning this news, I have been trying to come to grips with what has happened.   A friend of mine said there is “no point to get out of it all.  Someone dies and they are un-replacable.”  There’s nothing to understand.  And she cannot be replaced, no.  Because I cannot get her back to feel better, the only thing I can do is to maintain Patty in my life with what she has always given me – love.

“Sending love. xoxo”