Friday, April 29, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting Number 2: Day 1, Part 1

Back in January I reported on a meeting on Interdisciplinary Computing I attended in San Diego. I am at a followup meeting in Tucson - we had our first jam packed mind stretching day today.

The group of people attending this meeting is extremely diverse which makes things interesting. We started off the day with an entire table full of people involved with creating a new area called computational journalism, and we have quite a few people at the intersection of physics and computer science. There are other interdisciplinary areas represented here as well, but perhaps one of most interesting observations I made today is that we have such a strong contingent from the arts and humanities.This has injected some fascinating perspectives into the conversation. They all soon split up and spread around, but it was impressive to walk in the door and see all the journalists and media people! I new this was going to get interesting.

We covered a lot of ground. Here are a few of the highlights from today - things that really jumped out at me:

We had several breakout sessions to discuss topics including exemplars of Interdisciplinary Computing (IC), lessons learned, what is it that motivates faculty (and industry professionals as well) to pursue IC, and given what we revealed among ourselves, what are effective supports for faculty to pursue IC? Action Items in other words.

One of the surprises for me right off the bat, was to learn that the field of Journalism (not "Computational Journalism", but "Journalism") is currently having serious discussions within the community about how to define themselves. Now, in CS, we have been having this discussion for a long time and the discussion evolves about as fast as the field. But Journalism - I would not have guessed. It is not a new field; it was an eye opener for me, and others I believe, to hear that another field is wrestling with the same question: "what does it mean to be a journalist?" ("what does it mean to be a computer scientist?"). There is something to be learned from this shared definitional wrestling for meaning.

After pondering the issue all day I asked a question about it at our end of afternoon discussion. The most interesting part of the response, for me, was when one of the faculty heavily involved in developing the area of computational journalism opined that this common "problem" was one of the reasons he felt his field and computer science were able to work together. Because (I'm paraphrasing here) both fields are working to define an identity (or redefine, or refine, choose your pov), they are able to come together and form something new and original. I took that to mean there was a fluidity and flexibility supporting interdisciplinary collaboration, in part because the disciplinary boundaries were not so rigid; those in each field who were interested in IC used the identity challenge as an opportunity to break new ground.

In another breakout session (discussing what motivates the faculty who are already doing IC) the table I was sitting at spoke about how for many people "it is in our blood" and those people will do IC whether they are new faculty, established faculty or somewhere in between. Our table at least, had universal agreement on this point, countering the point I have heard (and others have often made) that the people who do IC are either 1) those who are brand new and have nothing to lose - i.e. they want to break new ground and are full of enthusiasm or 2) those who are secure in tenured positions and feel that it is now "safe" to pursue this passion.

It was interesting to hear a table full of people focus not on funding as a primary motivator (although everyone agrees that funding is needed and critical) but on personality - passion, interest, determination, being a maverick (someone tossed out that phrase). It was nice, I have to admit, to be surrounded by a table full of people who felt as I do, that it is "in our blood" (I was not the one who popped out with that phrase but it certainly feels accurate to me).

A question of course comes from this last point: how to support those who want to pursue IC but who are not in either of the three categories: new and fearless, established and "safe", or ordained by virtue of personality. How to support those who will perform IC given an conducive environment? Because it became clear to all of us I would hazard to say, that a conducive supportive environment is absolutely vital for achieving critical mass and developing self sustaining IC initiatives and programs.

These are some of the strong impressions that lept out at me today as I left the indoors for the first time at 5:30 pm to unwind some kinks in the outdoor hotel pool. A good place to let things soak. In my next post, tomorrow hopefully, I'll talk about some of the actionable ideas we came up with.


  1. Good summary, Lisa. Sorry I couldn't be there for Day 2. I do think it's an interesting idea to consider that other disciplines being reinvented are particularly good candidates for exploring the potential of interdisciplinary computing.

    Rich Gordon

  2. Hi Rich,

    Sorry you missed it too - there was more interesting activity and conversation. I am working to catch up with some of it on here.

    I'll be in touch fairly soon.