Bridge professors, assistant professors innovate across diverse disciplines

Kareem Khubchandani, a Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor, speaks at, 'A Conversation with Nao Bustamante and La Chica Boom' at University of Texas-Austin on Feb. 19, 2016. Courtesy Kareem Khubchandani

As a liberal arts school, Tufts prides itself on its ability to provide students with the opportunity to pursue a diverse range of scholarly interests across disciplines. Since fall 2013, Tufts has been working to hire professors with multiple areas of expertise through both its Bridge Professorships Program and Mellon Bridge Assistant Professorships Program, both run by the Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President.

While there are currently four Mellon Bridge Assistant Professors at Tufts funded by a 2014 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, there is so far only one Bridge Professor, Jan P. de Ruiter in the psychology department, according to Vice Provost Kevin Dunn.

Dunn explained that the Bridge Professors Program is funded in part by the Provost’s Office itself and that these professors are full-time and tenured. One-third of the funding for these hires comes from each school the professor will join, with the last third coming from the Provost’s Office, to encourage the schools to get behind the program and help with the initial overhead costs.

Dunn is in charge of hiring the Bridge Professors. Part of the impetus behind the program stems from the fact that when individual departments hire professors, according to Dunn, they do no always see the value of an interdisciplinary background. He hopes this program will challenge that assumption.

“Departments will often say, ‘Well, they aren’t just a computer scientist,’ I say, ‘Well, that’s the point,’” Dunn said.

He said that a candidate for a Bridge Professorship must be uniquely qualified, not only by their expertise in multiple fields, but also by their commitment to the benefits of an interdisciplinary education. Professor of Psychology Jan P. de Ruiter, the first official Bridge Professor, fits the innovative profile necessary for a Bridge Professor, also teaching courses in the Department of Computer Science.

De Ruiter said that the program has offered him the opportunity to keep his interests and research varied and unique.

“I once applied to a professorship in the UK and the Dean said ‘Well, we like your research, but you do so many different things that we can’t figure out what it is that you really want,'” de Ruiter told the Daily in an email. “I can’t limit myself to one square nanometer in one field, because I don’t really believe in specialization in science. Science is much more interesting if we cross the boundaries of disciplines.”

The specific focus of each Bridge Professorship that the Provost’s Office funds comes from individual proposals from the office as well as Tufts faculty throughout the university, who are asked each year to come up with interdisciplinary ideas for professorships.

The plan to hire the next Bridge Professor is already underway, Dunn said, as the Provost’s Office is looking for a candidate to teach students about cybersecurity. Though three proposals for Bridge Professorships have already been funded, including the cybersecurity proposal, a second one on water security has not yet been filled.

According to Dunn, the professors hired for the Bridge programs have some free reign on how they carry out the goals of the program.

“There’s no set formula in creating classes for the bridge program— it’s part of the agreement,” he said.

De Ruiter said that teaching classes cross-listed in both of his disciplines is an easy way to combine both of his fields.

“What I am doing now is actually another way in which I try to be take the bridge professorship seriously: I teach computer programming for psychologists and experimental methods for computer scientists,” he wrote. “I plan at some point to also teach courses that are of interest for students from both disciplines.”

Drama and Dance Professor Kareem Khubchandani, a first-year Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor who is also part of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Program, takes a different approach to his Bridge Professorship. He teaches Introduction to Queer Studies in WGSS in the fall and a graduate seminar in Performance Arts in the spring.

However, he has plans to create classes that bridge these two topics directly in the future.

“Next year, I’ll be teaching a graduate seminar on queer, feminist and trans performance so it definitely bridges that, as well as a gender and race performance class for undergraduates,” Khubchandani said. “That’ll be an opportunity to bring those worlds together, and that’s precisely the point — my expertise is in multiple fields, and so to always bring them to the table in each class that I teach is very important.”

The Mellon Bridge program serves a different role than the Bridge Professors program, Khubchandani explained. While the latter mostly serves an enriching role by focusing on teaching students how to solve global issues, the Mellon Bridge program can serve a very practical purpose by creating more permanent roles for assistant professors.

“Part of what this allows is for some more permanent programs to be taught in areas that don’t have tenure lines — WGSS doesn’t have a tenure line, but I’m brought in as someone who can teach Introduction to Queer Studies every year,” Khubchandani said.

Both programs are interdisciplinary in nature not only by combining fields that students are interested in but also by encouraging teachers and students from different disciplines to get to know each other.

“I’m getting to know more students than I would were I just in teaching drama and dance. I taught Intro to Queer Studies and I got to know students in American studies, students who are pre-med, students in IR,” Khubchandani said. “Those probably wouldn’t be the people who took my performance seminar, right?”

He also spoke about how the program has allowed him to help expand the drama and dance departments.

“Drama and dance is specifically committed to diversifying their course offerings and to meeting students’ demands for greater inclusion and questions of social justice. I think that a hire like mine that specifically wants someone who works in gender and sexuality and performance is a way of meeting students’ demands to offer more within the department,” Khubchandani said.

Khubchandani stressed the importance of interdisciplinary initiatives such as the Bridge Professorships and Mellon Bridge Assistant Professorships programs.

“I do think that fostering an interdisciplinary community across a campus, whether it’s through a Bridge hire or just encouraging and making space for people to meet and connect across disciplines, is important,” he said.