Pretending to be interdisciplinary

So the U of M grad school’s policy on dissertation committees is this: you need 3 people from inside your own department and then one person from a “related field.” This “related field” requirement is a huge headache for many, many graduate students.

It sounds like a great idea. Who doesn’t think that disciplinary boundaries are problematic and that we should strive to cross boundaries and work with those in other areas? Isn’t this sort of intellectual diversity just what we need to broaden the horizons of our graduate students? You can totally picture a bunch of administrators sitting around a table getting all excited about what a great idea this in. And in principle, it seems like they’re right.

However, in practice, the problems are numerous:

Of course, I wouldn’t be taking the time to write this if I hadn’t had my own frustrations with this system. My old outside committee member is on sabbatical and travelling this year, so I’ve been trying to find a new one. It’s not gone so well. I’ve contacted outside people “just to chat,” diplomatically avoiding the committee question up front and had them simply reply, “I cannot commit to any new committees right now.” Not even giving me time to ask! What kind of “interdisciplinary” system is this where faculty who get contacted by grad students outside their field have to instantly go on the defensive?

And it gets better. This morning I persuaded a professor I knew in Political Science to be on my committee, though I can tell he’s not too excited about it, he’s basically doing it as a favor. Then, get this, I find out that since my advisor has some affiliation with the History department here, he can be my “outside” person. Now that is cheating, but apparently it’s okay with grad school and has been done before. Anyway, I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet — I’ve got to talk to my advisor before anything else happens, but I’m just fed up with this whole process.