Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nature of the Beast: iSchools

If I were to use the term "iSchool" in conversation with my parents or most of my friends, they would have no idea what I meant. Possibly some of them might conjure a mental image of a school administered by Apple, which at least reflects a technological aspect, but it is highly unlikely that they'd get at the heart of the matter. Even referring to my college as an "Information School" or "Information Sciences and Technology" program awards me with blank, confused, and befuddled expressions from many people, many of whom go to the same university that I do. They usually associate my work with engineering or computer science. From what I hear, this reaction is hardly unique.

According to the iSchools Caucus website, the researchers at iSchools study the interactions between people, information, and technology. Indeed, this is immediately recognizable to my graduate colleagues as the Great Triangle of our field. Our core courses center upon its three sides. The names of its vertices are abbreviated simply to "I, T, and P" in conversation, which is particularly confounding given that the abbreviation for our college is "IST."

As we discussed thoroughly in IST 503, Philosophy of Science, IST's development as a field of study has been rather unconventional, and it continues to follow an unusual path. Our identity is not like that of many disciplines, which can be summed up quickly and fairly concretely (i.e., biology is the study of life), because the phenomena we study are disparate, often novel, and difficult to classify. Information science is really a menagerie of disciplines, viewpoints, methods, and theories. It mixes library science, psychology, computer science, business, human factors, sociology, education, geography, and other fields, and attempts to study information, technology, and people.

Not all iSchools were created in the same way. As John Leslie King wrote in his article "Identity in the I-School Movement," there have been three ways that institutions have developed iSchools: "from the re-purposing of pre-existing schools; from the merging of pre-existing but disparate academic programs; and from the creation of altogether new programs by hiring faculty primarily from outside the institution." One can easily see how these three methods would result in quite different environments. My experience is limited to the latter choice, so I'm not especially equipped to comment upon the first two.

Being at a college that was deliberately formed as a completely new entity, comprised primarily of faculty who were trained in other disciplines, is an intriguing yet sometimes disconcerting experience. It can feel unnatural, especially in contrast to studying in well-established departments whose faculty were all trained in the same way. I think that one advantage to Penn State's model of creating a completely new program and attracting faculty from all over is that the faculty who came here undoubtedly knew what they were getting themselves into, and presumably welcomed the opportunity. Repurposed schools may be too strongly influenced by library science, computer science, business -- whatever they have been repurposed from. The Penn State model enables the scholars here to purpose IST together, so it is likely that our college will continue to pursue diverse interests in concert.

IST strives to be interdisciplinary and not simply multidisciplinary. Do we achieve this? My best answer would be that sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't. It's easier said than done to interact across disciplines and incorporate ideas from various fields. When it does occur, it can be fascinating and inspiring. But despite the grandiose, sweeping frame of our academic home, IST, like any academic department, is not an ivory tower. Academia is a tough place. At a Research I institution like Penn State, faculty members know that they must acquire grants, conduct impressive research, and publish prolifically, all while educating students. These requirements demand a standard of rigor that cannot always accommodate the time, energy, and thought needed to form cross-disciplinary connections.

When I chose Computer Information Systems as my undergraduate major, I did not anticipate that my baccalaureate degree would lead me naturally into a graduate program that accommodated students like me who have a mosaic of interests. I discovered IST serendipitously as my husband (then fiancé) and I searched for graduate programs during our last year of college. Our journey did not follow a straight and simple path. I first looked exclusively at library science schools. After further investigation, I realized that librarianship was not my calling. Given our desire to stay within a good driving distance of our hometown (3-4 hours maximum) and our dual academic needs (Colin is a Ph.D. candidate in physics) we finally settled upon the universities to which we would apply. In the end, my being here is not entirely a function of my preferring IST to the other colleges that accepted me. Coming to Penn State was a decision that Colin and I made together because it worked the best for us as a couple. In some ways, the iSchool ideal of combining multiple disciplines reflects my own academic persona. I have always been a person of diverse interests.

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