By Suzanne Wood, Ph.D., University of Toronto
When David Epstein introduces us to Judy Swanson, a professor of political philosophy, in Chapter 8 of Range, she was at a conference about overspecialization in the social sciences. Epstein notes that, to him, Dr. Swanson seemed quite specialized. Of the forty-four articles and books listed on her webpage, each one had “Aristotle” in the title. Dr. Swanson, however, viewed her academic career quite differently. She is not specialized enough. Why? She teaches undergraduates. When she teaches undergraduates, she needs to think and talk and learn about more than Aristotle. “There is this feeling of frustration…that I should be doing something more specialized” Swanson explains (p. 181).
Range is not a book about pedagogy, psychology, or graduate students, so it may seem like a strange fit as an entry in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Graduate Student Teaching Association blog. However, this book could be one of the most important works you read in your graduate studies.
Academic Success Is for the Hedgehogs
In the odyssey of graduate school, you are either excitedly embarking upon this voyage, in the murky depths of it, or struggling to just finish the thing, doggy paddling ashore with a leathery sunburned face and a deflated volleyball as your companion. You succeeded as an undergraduate. You overcame the hurdles to gaining admission into grad school. Even if your plans are now to leave academia, you have spent enough time within its hallowed walls to absorb its culture. Academia tells us that narrowing in on one topic is the path to success.
And this is true. To be a successful academic today, you must be a hedgehog. Using terms coined by Philip Tetlock, a psychologist and political scientist, Epstein divides us into hedgehogs, or those who burrow deep into one field, and foxes, who wander about, learning a little about a lot (p. 221). Hedgehogs are absolutely necessary for the progression of knowledge. In psychology, we need the “methods person”, who is able to show us how to properly use our eye-tracker in conjunction with the heart rate monitor and analyze the resultant data. We need our cingulate cortex expert. Our norepinephrine aficionado. We would be nowhere without these specialists.
However, there is a danger in filling our universities and research institutions with nothing but specialists. The current incentive structure of academia does not allow room for foxes, even if, as Epstein argues throughout Range, they may be better equipped for handling problems that necessitate creative or divergent thinking. Using examples from as far afield as the development of the Nintendo Game Boy, the success of the Girl Scouts organization, the creation of Van Gogh’s lily pad series, and on, Epstein explores the making of the minds behind some of the biggest innovations of our time. Their stories share a common thread: a seemingly bizarre and unpredictable path to success. Epstein argues, though, that these stories are not at all bizarre. In fact, the longer the delay until settling upon a path in life, the more varied the initial life experiences, the greater the chance of finding a person with a true capacity for creativity and innovation.
In academics, the immediate success of a paper (typically determined by factors such as the prestige of the journal of publication, citations within the first year, etc.) can inform everything from hiring decisions to pay raises. Successful papers tend to be written by hedgehogs. If considering long-term impact of work, though, foxes seem to come out ahead:
“A separate, international team analyzed more than a half million research articles, and classified a paper as ‘novel’ if it cited two other journals that had never before appeared together. Just one in ten papers made a new combination, and only one in twenty made multiple new combinations. The group tracked the impact of research papers over time. They saw that papers with new knowledge combinations were more likely to be published in less prestigious journals, and also much more likely to be ignored upon publication. They got off to a slow start in the world, but after three years, the papers with new knowledge combos surpassed the conventional papers, and began accumulating more citations from other scientists. Fifteen years after publication, studies that made multiple new knowledge combinations were way more likely to be in the top 1 percent of most-cited papers.
“To recap: work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.” (p. 281-2)
Looking ahead in your career, if you want to make an impact outside of the realm of the handful of researchers in your specialization, you are better off being a fox. You just may not be a successful academic.
Teach Like a Fox
A few years back, colleagues and I discussed the content of each of the departmental core courses. We wanted our students to neither miss major concepts, nor learn the same less important concept three times over. A colleague of mine, concerned with academic freedom, did not want this type of curriculum in place. “Well, we should each just teach what we know.” On the surface, this makes great sense. In academia, the best teaching gig is a seminar in which you get to discuss original journal articles directly related to your own research. This is great for you; your students learn volumes from your expertise – everyone wins. Teach what you know.
Now, before students enter this seminar, they need to learn some basic principles. Someone has to teach that. My dissertation was not about every aspect of behavioral neuroscience, but I can certainly teach basic behavioral neuroscientific findings that fall outside of the amygdala and hippocampus. Moreover, if all I taught was what I already knew, I would be missing out on the layers of cortex and the underlying nuclei that went unexplored in my niche graduate school and postdoctoral research. Even though my research has addressed addiction, without teaching a first-year seminar, I may remain ignorant of the history of drug laws and the strong relationship between systemic racism and today’s American drug policies. Teaching gave me the excuse to explore these topics, which fall outside of my specific research questions. What a privilege and a treat to be able to spend my time learning fascinating new domains of work (N.B.: I may not feel this way at 1:00 am when I’m still making Keynote slides about the different motor system pathways for lecture later today, but I stand by my previous statement). I’m not saying to send a psychologist in to teach how to program in LISP (a reference to a class I took as an undergraduate that used what was, even back then, a completely outdated computer language, but whose core, logical structure I have referred to time and again when learning new coding languages), but I am saying we can actively work against the silos of overspecialization, in part, through our teaching. When considering content to teach, do not fear being foxy.
Range in Academia
Let’s return to Dr. Swanson, the political philosophy professor. Reflecting upon her frustration with teaching undergraduates about topics outside of Aristotle, Epstein surmises that “[a]cademic departments no longer merely fracture naturally into subspecialties, they elevate narrowness as an ideal.” How does Epstein view this phenomenon? “That is counterproductive” (p.181).
Have you ever wondered if there is a different way of doing things in academia, outside of what has “always” been done? Or whether what is currently being reinforced as the “best” model of an academic really is the best? Or why we have enormous mounds of research being produced, with very few paradigm-shifting findings? Range, a book neither about pedagogy nor academia, may be our spark for forging a new framework.
Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books.
Dr. Suzanne Wood is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in University of Toronto’s Psychology department. She teaches courses focused on the brain, psychopharmacology and learning. She works with undergraduate researchers on projects ranging from study drug use to resiliency and anxiety at university. She had a circuitous path leading to academia, and would like to think those skills and experiences picked up along the way continue to inform her teaching today.