Paul Kei Matsuda

Disciplinary Multicompetence

As I was thinking about future hiring plans for our linguistics program (broadly defined to include applied linguistics and TESOL), I stumbled upon a document at the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) website that provided job interview tips to job skeekers in linguistics.

The tips are rather generic, but they can be helpful for people who don't have mentors who can provide much help with their job search. But what struck me the most is the introductory paragraph:

At present academic jobs are scarce and they are likely to remain scarce for the remainder of the decade. On top of this, some people think that linguistics has been hit particularly hard. Getting even one job offer these days is an achievement. Do not allow academic elitism to deter you from taking a job that you feel fairly good about, or to make you dissatisfied with such a job. (You can increase your chances of getting job offers if you have done significant work within more than one subfield, within related disciplines, in more applied areas of linguistics and/or in an internship in a non-academic setting).
In the current institutional and intellectual climate, it's becoming increasingly important to have more than one subfield, developing multiple specializations in several related disciplines, and having some real application.

At the same time, most fields, if they are making any progress, are becoming increasingly complex and specialized, and it's often difficult to find people who are well-prepared and genuinely committed to multiple subfields or disciplines, or to "applied fields."

In a sense, I have made a career out of being an interdisciplinary researcher who insists on being a bona fide member of multiple disciplines. Even as a graduate student, I regularly presented at conferences in multiple areas, and I've published in multiple fields and subareas.

When I was on the job market, having all of these qualities were certainly helpful--I was able to find many positions that fit my areas of expertise in applied linguistics, TESOL, and rhetoric/composition, and to receive job offers in all of those fields. And I've actually held positions that involve working with graduate students in all three fields. (In fact, my current job entails all three of them.)

It's not always been easy because disciplines have a way of defining their members not only by what they are but also by what they are not. When I was just starting out, it was challenging because if I said I specialized in second language writing, writing specialists tended to see me as a second language person, and second language specialists tended see me as a writing person.

As a result, educating people that second language writing is both (and more) became one of my major research and professional priorities. Now that second language writing is a well-recognized (and coveted) subfield of both rhetoric/composition and applied linguistics/TESOL, I don't feel the need to explain or justify what I do or who I am.

Interdisciplinarity is also not easy because of the increasing tendency for specialization that make it increasingly difficult for people to keep up with multiple fields. Some of the things I do to keep myself up-to-date include:
  • accepting requests to review manuscripts and proposals on a wide range of topics in various fields
  • teaching graduate courses on various topics
  • buying all the books that are related to my subfields--even when I don't have the time to read them (Yes, I did that even when I was a graduate student.)
  • attending conference presentations on topics I am interested in but not familiar with
  • conducting research in various disciplinary contexts (It's writing-to-learn principles in action.)
  • reviewing the tables of contents of major journals periodically and reading interesting articles that are not directly related to my own research
Even with all the difficulties, I hope current and future graduate students will make conscientious effort to develop multiple specializations and actually be a committed member of multiple fields--instead of making a multidisciplinary gesture as a way of getting a job (and end up feeling like a misfit for the rest of their careers).

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Blogger Susan said...

What a useful post, Paul! Thanks for sharing your tips--you have made the prospect of becoming/remaining multidisciplinary seem more feasible. Of course, it also helps if one has a photographic memory such as yours. :)


Sunday, March 09, 2008 9:12:00 PM  

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