Collaboration thrives among faculty

by Victoria Nelsen and Caroline Berens | 2/5/15 10:22pm

Dartmouth’s departments, programs and minors have committed to a liberal arts education, evidenced by the many interdisciplinary programs and majors, cross-listed courses and the collaboration between faculty members. Though there is a limited supply of resources, and most department chairs would prefer to have more funding, this has not led to much competition between departments.

International studies and public policy minors, for example, bring multiple departments together, such as geography, government, sociology, economics and writing.

International studies program chair and economics professor Eric Edmonds said that the minor helps support faculty from other departments, including government, geography and comparative literature. The minor poses an attractive model to a wide variety of majors and unites faculty from across the campus, he said.

Rockefeller Center director and economics professor Andrew Samwick said that he would not call the public policy minor “collaboration,” because that would imply that there is more teamwork across departments than actually exists, adding that the life of a professor is discipline-based while the experience of a student is multi-disciplinary.

Government department chair John Carey said that most collaboration happens within departments but that there are some topics that attract a variety of disciplines.

With these topics, Carey said that there are many opportunities for the “cross-fertilization of ideas.” He listed quantitative social science as an example.

While Samwick said that other departments on campus might experience more competition, there is virtually none between popular departments such as government and economics, despite the fact that the subjects may appeal to many of the same students.

Samwick said that interdepartmental politics might arise more in departments that do not have the same set of resources as economics and public policy.

Physics department chair Jim LaBelle said that his department does, in an abstract way, compete for resources, but added that the competition is indirect.

LaBelle said the lack in competition might be due to the College’s wealth, as most departments have the resources they need.

Asian and Middle Eastern studies chair Jonathan Smolin said that the College assigns funding to departments and programs, which is then divided among faculty based on need.

Most departments and programs have endowments in addition to their funding from the College, Smolin said. These endowments help allot adequate funds for both programs and departments.

“We’re very grateful for gifts and endowments,” Smolin said. “We always put those to good use.”

LaBelle said that he has seen the most interaction between departments through research, and he noted that the College encourages such collaborations. Still, there is limited money to bring departments together besides outside grants.

One major grant is a 20-year-long NASA grant that is distributed to colleges in every state. The College’s physics, engineering and earth sciences departments collaborate to keep the grant going by constantly writing proposals and spending money to benefit each department equally.

The physics, math and chemistry departments used to collaborate on a course called “Integrated Math and Physical Science,” which was geared toward first years. The class required two terms but covered the material of Chemistry 5 and 6, Physics 13 and 14 and two math classes, but the class was unsuccessful. LaBelle said that one of the reasons it might have failed was due to interdepartmental conflicts that arose from varying levels of commitment from each department.

LaBelle said that indirect competition for students also exists between various science departments, highlighting the engineering department as the most active recruiter. He said that, in order for a department to expand, it is important for it to attract students, calling students “the coins of the realm.”

LaBelle said some of the departments are fairly assertive and others more complacent, but that he has not heard of the competition for students leading to any conflict.

The engineering department is constantly offering open houses, study center help and more, all of which expose students to the department, LaBelle said.

“They’ve really honed it to a fine art,” LaBelle said. “Most other departments are not nearly as advanced in chasing majors. We aspire to do more of that kind of recruiting.”

He said that the physics department has a number of programs in place to attract majors, and the topic of increasing recruitment is covered during faculty meetings.

Other recruiting methods include liquid nitrogen ice cream parties and a compilation from alumni of the physics department, which is currently being made and will include stories from past physics majors about their experience with the major and their post-graduate pursuits.

“We hope we’re competing okay for majors, but it is a competition,” LaBelle said. “Some math majors could have been physics majors.”

Smolin said that the College provides more resources for departments than programs, which are interdisciplinary and mostly made up of faculty from other departments. Programs include environmental studies and African and African-American studies.

Smolin said that programs might be seen as being double sourced, as professors in programs also belong to departments and receive resources from both.

Several faculty members declined to comment on the nature of relationships between departments

Faculty are delineated not only by department, but also by position within their department.

The Dartmouth College Faculty Handbook describes the qualifications for adjunct professors. Administrative officers, faculty members from the graduate schools and faculty from the arts and sciences departments are considered qualified to hold adjunct professorships.

The handbook notes that these adjunct professors must have appropriate “academic qualifications” which can be understood to mean one or multiple graduate degrees.

The handbook also notes that these appointments are for less than half time, and although they can be renewed for terms of one or three years, the position does not involve the expectation or promise of tenure.

Adjuncts professors’ salaries are low compared to those of tenured and assistant professors at the same college. According to the 2012 Almanac of Higher Education, tenured Dartmouth professors have an annual salary of $162,100, and assistant professors, $89,700. The salaries of adjunct professors, though more than their counterparts at some other colleges, are still much smaller — $60,000 per year.

When professors — tenured, assistant and adjunct alike — were asked about advancement opportunities for adjunct professors at Dartmouth, many declined to comment.

It’s common to find tenured professors in one department who take on an adjunct title in another department for additional teaching opportunities and personal growth.

The number of adjuncts varies by department. In the biological sciences department, there are a total of 10 adjuncts, but eight have tenured positions in other departments. In the mathematics department, there are only two adjuncts, and they both have tenured positions at the Thayer School of Engineering and the Geisel School of Medicine, respectively. The history, English, Spanish and Portuguese departments don’t have adjuncts at all.

Professor Jonathan Winter, an assistant professor in the geography department and an adjunct professor in the earth sciences department, explained that professors often take on adjunct positions if they have a research interest in a topic outside of their own field.

As for the relationship between adjunct and tenured professors, Winter said that he has only had positive experiences collaborating with other professors, even from different disciplines.

“Dartmouth is a very collaborate and collegial place. It’s common for people submitting research or writing an idea for a research proposal to have a colleague read over it and to receive very helpful feedback,” Winter said.

Wendy Piper, a lecturer in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, similarly described her own positive experiences collaborating with other professors, regardless of their adjunct or tenured positions. Lecturers are not tenured, but like adjunct professors, but they do teach full-time.

“In the Writing and Rhetoric Department, I collaborate with other professors in formal and informal instances often. We go on retreats together, and there are numerous other opportunities for collaboration throughout the term,” Piper said.

Professor James Sargent, a tenured professor of pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine and an adjunct professor in the psychology and brain sciences department, spoke highly of his experience collaborating with professors on research during his time in the psychology department.

Although Professor Sargent has tenure, he can imagine how he would feel compared to his colleagues if his sole job were an adjunct position.

“I might feel a little insulated, left out, excluded — I might wish for advancement, if I were solely an adjunct professor,” Sargent said.