Our iSchool Elevator Stories
We asked iSchool faculty for their "elevator stories" about the school -- "the short, informal explanation you give to friends, colleagues, or your Aunt Estelle, who look at you blankly when you tell them you teach at the 'school of information.'" Given the vagueness of the task (not to mention differences in attention span, no doubt, among our respective Aunt Estelles), it isn't surprising that the responses varied a lot in tone and length: some people responded with a brief phrase, others with longer explanation (As Paul Duguid said, "I usually need a tall building for my elevator.") Taken together, though, the stories are interesting both for their convergence on some points and their divergence on others. Here they are, in no particular order, except that I left a couple of the longer ones for the end. Thanks to all who contributed.
Bob Glushko: If I'm not talking to a librarian, I say: We're a 21st century library school. Library schools prepare people to work in the public sector to deliver a conventional set of information services to captive or semi-captive traditional customer segments. Our school prepares people to work in the private sector, to invent new information services, and deliver them to people who can choose services in the marketplace.
Or else I say: We teach people to design, build, and deploy information-intensive systems and services that matter to people and that actually work. This contrasts us with computer science and business; the former doesn't care that much about people, and the latter doesn't care whether things work as long as they make money.
Eric Wilde: Information Engineering is concerned with the study of phenomena, technologies, and tools in information-intensive settings. Looking at information from a variety of perspectives such as society, culture, technology, law and policy, and economics, it enables people to analyze, design and build in these settings, always starting from a thorough understanding of the options and constraints that are created by all of these perspectives. The specific value created by that approach lies in the scope that goes beyond any of the individual perspectives, which allows people to more completely understand the context in which they analyze, design and build. (See Dretblog for more.)
Pam Samuelson: I analogize the iSchool to a public policy school; just as someone who is going to be an effective public policy wonk needs to know a little about political science, economics, law, and administration, people who want to be effective IT professionals need to know a range of things including information organization and retrieval, HCI, usability, information law and policy, information economics, project management, and quality and information assurance.
John Chuang: The School of Information is a multidisciplinary program that sits at the intersection of computer science, social science, business and policy. We have a very diverse set of faculty, with degrees in law, economics, sociology, computer science, engineering, etc. I enjoy being at the ischool because I get to do research and teaching that cuts across traditional disciplines, and I get to work with colleagues and students who are well-versed in and passionate about information technology even if they are not computer scientists by training.
Yale Braunstein: A technology management program with a focus on IT and its social and policy setting.
Hal Varian: We are all drowning in a sea of information. The goal of the iSchool is to develop the understanding, the knowledge and the tools to help us navigate that sea.
Kimiko Ryokai: We are concerned with issues at the intersection of information, technology, and people. We study the history, examine the current status, and innovate the future of those issues.
Nancy Van House: We're partly computer science and partly social science. Whereas computer science is concerned with designing cool technology, we're interested in understanding how people use information and information technology, and then designing systems that people will actually find useful. We make sure our students understand both technology, and social and legal issues. Some students have CS backgrounds and need to learn about social, legal, and organizational issues; some come from the social sciences and improve their tech skills while they're with us.
Our master's students go out and do IT-type work of many kinds in a variety of places. A lot of them end up in major internet companies like Google and Yahoo, or similar smaller companies. Some of them do information systems-type work in other kinds of organizations, like banks and hospitals. And some do project management for IT companies. Our students are particularly good at bridging between IT designers and users, and IT designers and the rest of the organization.
Marti Hearst: It's where social science and technology meet, focused on information.
Michael Buckland: When the School broadened its scope and changed its name from School of Librarianship to Library and Information Studies in the late 1970s we often said that the School was concerned with "the marking and parking of documents and data to use in whatsoever context."
Being slightly jocular, it worked quite well.
The phrase "marking and parking" was coined by Robert Fairthorne and goes over quite well.
Jenna Burrell: I tell people that we all study some aspect of technology and come from many different disciplines - political science, sociology, computer science (those are the fields I usually remember to mention). No one (including faculty in other departments) seems to understand what 'information' is but when I mention technology it seems to clear things up.
Anno Saxenian: Digital technology is changing how we produce and share information; it is even changing how we think about information and communication. When I grew up we knew we could find information in print and stored in libraries; now we produce and store information on-line as video, audio, texts, and data and we distribute it real-time around the world. The School of Information is educating students to understand the social and institutional as well as the technological aspects of this transformation. We believe quality research and design of information systems requires understanding of the institutional and social context as well as the technology.
Michael Schaffer: I teach at the iSchool, one of the graduate schools at Berkeley. It's not the Engineering school, nor an outgrowth of the Hass School of Business ... we exist "in the middle" between all the various players that contribute to the design and development of systems. We teach how to design and develop systems from the user's perspective.
Paul Duguid: I usually need a tall building for my elevator. I begin with the dubious assertion that i-schools were a response to a perceived need of the "information age": we knew we had to have them, but what it was we had to have we weren't so sure about. Consequently, it's not surprising that they are still searching for an identity a decade later, particularly as ideas of what the information age is have changed. One assumption, conventional in its way, was that i-schools had to be multi-disciplinary. Like the i-school assumption itself, that's easy on the surface, tougher in the details. (Many an multi-disciplinary advocate really believes that the endeavour entails everybody else coming to understand my discipline.) The devil in those details involved, primarily computer science, business, economics, and some social sciences. That was a narrow beginning.
But, as I see it, the great virtue of i-schools is that if they don't know what it is they are, at least they are still asking. They have some idea of the topics that they need to look at, but a remarkably catholic approach to how to go about the tasks. Students surprise (and terrify) me every week with a new body of work that they think is essential to the field, their research, and (worst of all) my discussions with them. For their part, the range and diversity of "central" journals which the faculty produced (and the disciplinary backgrounds that they assume) dilated my pupils a good deal, but it gave them and me insight into the possibility of doing work here that could be done nowhere else.
Geoff Nunberg: In the 90's the future was all going to be about computers and software -- not a week went by that somebody at Xerox PARC or the Media Lab wasn't demoing some gangbusters information visualization system that ran in VR or on a five-foot high interactive screen so that we could navigate this sea of information that the Internet was going to put at our disposal. Well, ten years some of those systems are coming to fruition, but most of the landmark developments of the last decade or so -- YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, MySpace, Flikr, Craigslist, blogs, the meet-ups, and so forth -- have less to do with seminal technological breakthroughs than with new ways of deploying technology as a social and economic resource. For that matter, when you think about the issues that everyone is worried about now -- universal access, privacy and security, online porn and racism, child predators, rampant incivility, piracy and plagiarism, or simply how hard it is to find reliable information on the Web -- they aren't the sorts of problems that are going to yield to purely technological solutions, either. One way or the other, it's clear that you have to understand the technology in its social, legal, and political contexts.
Which is what we do at the iSchool. There are people here working on essentially technological problems, but the thrust is toward understanding and building technology with insights from economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, legal theory, business, linguistics, and history, to name just some of the fields our faculty is drawn from.
Coye Cheshire: For fun, I actually went ahead and asked my Aunt Estelle (read: my mom and dad) what they *thought* we did here, based solely on what I have said in the past-- they were instructed not to use google or read any website material. I figured that what they 'heard' from my explanations might lead to some interesting insights...
In any case, the words that seemed to stick with my parents were "multi-disciplinary program", "examine art and science of communications and information exchange and its effects on societies". They also believed that we explore, "changes in information systems and information exchange processes as new methods, tools and ideas are introduced to society."
Not too bad....So, that's what they seem to take away from my explanation of our program (which is annually repeated during the holidays). I thought it was interesting to see how they interpreted it...this is close to my actual elevator speech:
The Ischool focuses on understanding and solving problems that surround the complex topic of information. Obviously "information" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people in different contexts, which is why we simply must be multi-disciplinary...we have professors of economics, law, computer science, sociology, to name a few-- and we keep expanding that list. This arrangement gives our program some clear advantages over many individual academic disciplines (e.g., the 'ologies'). I say this because one of the drawbacks of many 'traditional' disciplines is that their publishing norms/venues and the lack of interdisciplinary collaborations are often counter-productive to researching timely events. Furthermore, because we are not tied to any one theoretical or methodological tradition, our students get a more well-rounded education--but it is also an education that stresses a degree of independence and a willingness to carve out one's own space (especially in our PhD program).
Our students are required to understand the technical side of information systems, as well as some of the socio-legal and policy issues. At the end of the day, we try to ensure that students (and faculty!) have a range of skills (technical, social, design, etc) so that we are equipped to solve real-world problems of information.