An exploration of life as a graduate student in Information Sciences and Technology
Saturday, September 13, 2008
You eat what you like, and I'll eat what I like.
Every entity, no matter how big or small, has a "flavor." YSU does, Penn State does, my high school does, Dunkin Donuts does. IST's flavor is largely related to its mission, composition, and raison d'etre.
IST's mission is to "change the world with inspired solutions, humanized technologies, and informed people" (the mission statement can be found here). It seeks to do this through studying people, technology, and information in context. You can see each "side" of the Great Triangle reflected in that mission: inspired solutions require technology and information; humanized technologies are designed by considering both people and technology; informed people have not just any information, but the right information, delivered the best way possible to help them make effective decisions.
The IST college is comprised of faculty, researchers, and students from a great variety of fields, many of whom never would have imagined they would end up here. But, somehow or other, their field of origin led them to a new discipline.
Graduate students know all about defenses -- perhaps more than we'd like sometimes. After toiling tirelessly over our work, be it a candidacy paper, master's thesis, or doctoral dissertation, we must be able to defend it to more advanced researchers, who analyze it with a critical eye. In a way, IST must defend itself too. Work is accomplished here day in and day out, faculty and students are recruited, papers are published, grants are awarded -- but unless we are able to move research forward and solve problems that cannot or will not be solved by anyone else, IST has no reason to exist.
So, what does this mean for our "flavor"? Well, we're new, we're trying something new, and I think we're very much aware of that. IST may have a fresh taste, but it is not very seasoned just yet. While members of the IST college (in any capacity) may take pride in the accolades we've earned thus far, there is a (mostly) tacit awareness that we are still an experiment.
However, despite that understanding, IST is still producing world-class research through the work of both prominent and new scholars. The amazing work that is done in human-computer interaction, information retrieval, privacy, and information fusion, among other fields, all lends strong credence to the value and necessity of IST.
Our college's structure reflects IST's ardent desire to be different, to truly integrate. We have no departments, so at first glance, every professor and student appears to be part of one, big, happy IST family. However, we do have labs and centers, each of which performs research that is very different from the others. Although this structure seems necessary for work to be accomplished -- it seems we must have some sort of group affiliation to be able to take on specific projects in specific domains -- I think that it does isolate faculty and students from one another. There is some "cross-talk," but not a lot. The system isn't perfect, and I think it is one of the most obvious flaws that reflects the inescapable reality that IST is still in its infancy. We want to be interdisciplinary, but we haven't figured out quite yet how to do that.
One might wonder if perhaps the less-than-ideal degree of integration in IST is a result of its faculty makeup. After all, very few faculty members within IST come from the IST discipline and worldview. Most were trained in traditional disciplines. Personally, I'm not sure. It's tempting to say that, perhaps in twenty years, an influx of iSchool-trained researchers into iSchools will transform them into settings that better reflect their mission. But, I know that I personally am drawn to one area within IST, and I've noticed that I'm not alone among my contemporaries.
I am part of Jack Carroll's and Mary Beth Rosson's human-computer interaction (HCI) lab. HCI grew out of computer science, and its strong basis in psychology makes it a great candidate for an interdisciplinary technology school like IST. But there are other labs and centers in IST in which I am not interested, despite my admiration for their work. Does this mean I am a single-discipline girl, and not a true iSchool patriot? I don't necessarily think so. Probably nobody is going to be passionate about every area that IST encompasses and every project that IST researchers undertake. The spirit of IST isn't that we all work on the same stuff, but that we all learn from and contribute to each other's work through a shared understanding that despite their many dissimilarities, all of our projects are complementary and turned toward the same goal.
IST is different from other colleges. We have a name that most people (even we) can't really explain; we don't have departments; the majority of our professors have degrees in other fields. Especially considering our origins as a from-scratch initiative, IST is a misfit at Penn State. But, much as that might make the "so what do you do?" conversation a bit more difficult at parties, and much as we might just want to throw in the towel and create more firm delineations so that administration is easier, and much as we might struggle with sharp learning curves as we struggle to understand scholars with backgrounds worlds away from ours -- I think we like being different. Not for the sake of being different, but because we like what we are and what we're trying to become. We may be different from the rest -- but that's perfectly okay with us.