The role of contigent faculty in interdisciplinary work

St. Olaf values interdisciplinary learning as one of the central elements of the liberal arts. With over four conversation programs and a number of interdisciplinary learning communities, cross-departmental learning provides students with unique experiences away from their primary fields of interest. The bulk of these courses are taught by non-tenure track (NTT) faculty. This situation creates a double-edged sword for many NTT professors, as the preparation and coursework for their interdisciplinary classes takes time away from their personal field of research.

“For many of us, [interdisciplinary work] is the reason we got into higher education. It can be tricky, due to sub-fields taking different paths, but it’s like what you are doing as undergraduates, but what we do as jobs,” Assistant Professor of Religion Trish Beckman said. “It has a great parallel because I am curious about a lot of things. It’s just fun.”

Beckman teaches multiple courses in religion and also teaches in the Great Conversation. She has been an NTT faculty member at St. Olaf for over nine years and is an avid believer in interdisciplinary teaching and study. But she acknowledges that her work takes away from her personal research.

“Without question, I read really deeply into materials that are not in any way part of my research. If you spend six hours prepping for a book that has nothing to do with your research those are six hours you are not writing on your own work,” Beckman said.

Visiting Instructor of Asian Studies Caleb Boteilho is also a passionate believer in interdisciplinary teaching but understands why others may find problems stepping away from their comfort zone.

“My specialty is linguistics and education, so I have always found interdisciplinary teaching valuable. But, as someone in academia, I definitely see friction between professors and interdisciplinary work since they find it harder when they are in their niches,” Boteilho said. “Academia by its nature pushes you towards something small and esoteric. You first get your masters, then Ph.D., which pushes you further and further down the rabbit hole of that specific field. So by the time you come out, that is what you are most comfortable with.”

This is not the only issue that interdisciplinary work presents for professors.

“St. Olaf has a number of strong and promising interdisciplinary programs. But that challenge of providing resources and staffing these programs creates a persistent tension,” Associate Professor of History and American Conversation instructor Eric Fure-Slocum said. “Many of the interdisciplinary programs, and especially the conversations programs, rely on NTTs to keep these up and running. That’s certainly been the case for American Conversation and the Great Conversation.”

He also emphasized that interdisciplinary work is necessary for many NTT faculty members. By working in interdisciplinary programs, NTT professors have the opportunity to extend their contracts.

“A number of NTTs have considerable experience teaching these programs. Many NTTs are able, somewhat ironically, to offer continuity in these programs,” Fure-Slocum said.

Beckman echoed this idea.

“I think NTT professors are pressured into teaching any course they can get. But, interdisciplinary courses have trouble staffing, so they do not have the ability to say no because they need the job,” she said.

Beckman stressed, however, that she is passionate about the Great Conversation program.

“I am not doing this because of [the pressure], but because I love the Great Con program. I get to learn from different fields that I can find connections to my own. I am lucky in that, and it starts conversations about multi-year contracts.”

Fure-Slocum had similar feelings.

“I’ve enjoyed teaching in American Conversations and American Studies. Both prove to be an opportunity to work with great students and colleagues. And in both cases, I get to stretch myself as a teacher,” he said.

For professors, interdisciplinary work can add immense challenges, both in terms of time management and for NTT’s finding time for invaluable personal research. But at the same time, many of those professors find a passion for the programs at St. Olaf, even those outside of their comfort zone.

“The conversations programs or new interdisciplinary courses do take a good deal of time to teach. Since these courses often reach outside my main areas of training and research, I have to do additional reading, planning, etc.,” Fure-Slocum said. “But this is a welcome and often quite enjoyable challenge. I learn as much, if not more than the students do in these courses.”