Of Academic Sociability and Disastrous Storms

Reflecting on this past school year, it is clear to me that the social aspect of being a graduate student is nearly as important as academic production.  While research is often a monastic endeavor, the occasions in which we do get a chance to socialize with other academics allows us the opportunity to form new connections with key players in our disciplines, as well as to further solidify existing relationships.  Leaving the cloister of solitary scholarship also has the benefit of opening you up to unexpected adventures, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters.  Last October, during Super Storm Sandy, I realized how sociability and disaster can work together to form valuable, multi-faceted life experiences.

Academic conferences are typically social events that provide a venue to have a few cocktails and banquet meals, show off your research, and perhaps, most importantly, make the necessary connections that will one day (hopefully!) land you that nice tenure-track job at a top-tier research university.  My experience at the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) conference Baltimore last October is perhaps an outlier in this regard, particularly because much of the conference was overshadowed by the most significant natural disaster to befall New Jersey in recent memory.  This conference just happened to take place precisely as Super Storm Sandy was hitting the East Coast.  I had decided to stay in Baltimore for the duration of the conference, figuring that a large conference hall likely had generators and would be safer than returning to my home in Jersey City.  In fact, the storm barely disturbed Baltimore, with a broken umbrella the extent of my personal loss of property.  And, after the storm’s passing, the local brew pub was up and running again and things were just fine.  The New Jersey and New York coastline was not so lucky, of course, and finding transportation back to the New York metropolitan area with train service suspended became a challenge for me.  My solution was to rent one of the last cars at the nearby Hertz rental agency, and accompanied with another stranded Rutgers friend, make our way north, as quickly as possible, on I-95.  The landscape seemed virtually untouched, but when night began to fall and we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge into NJ, all lights remained dark.  We did not see a single street lamp glowing on our entire journey up the Jersey Turnpike.

Driving across the arched span of the Newark Bay Bridge into Bayonne, which normally provides an unobstructed view of the New York Bay area, revealed only a ghostly archipelago of darkened landmasses, with the opulent glow of midtown Manhattan and its radiant Empire State as the sole beacons of visible illumination on the horizon.  Driving through the darkened streets of Jersey City, we encountered dazed and lumbering storm-survivors, seeking out food, water, and perhaps most importantly, electricity with which to charge their digital devices.  This surreal environment resembled a scene from the zombie-serial, The Walking Dead, with city streets abnormally darkened, and slow-moving pedestrians lurching into oncoming traffic.  Fortunately, everyone maintained peace and civility, and surprisingly little crime occurred during this ordeal.  And when I finally returned to my apartment, my girlfriend was fine, cooking up some excellent stir-fry and sipping wine with friends.  So, thankfully, my fears of a zombie apocalypse turned out to be unfounded, but it would be about six days before we saw our electricity fully restored.

The experience of my trip down to the ASIST conference was clearly instructive as life experience on multiple accounts.  I was able to show off and discuss my academic research, and socialize with new professors, established luminaries, and friends just entering the job market.  Okay, so maybe a calamitous weather event that precipitated loss of life and billions of dollars in damage was not the ideal background for such an experience, but it did prove that traveling away from home and expanding one’s horizons does make the return home an entirely new experience.

Post Script:  Having just returned from a weekend at the Jersey Shore, I can report that there has been considerable work done on moving towards recovery from the damage wrought by Sandy.  There is still much work to be done, especially for private residences, but it is heartening to see how much has already been accomplished.  Even the Pinball Museum in Asbury Park, which is precipitously positioned right on the boardwalk is back in business!

Jargon: Demarcating Disciplinary Territory

As suggested in earlier posts, the term jargon often indicates the terminology that individuals and institutions within a given area of research use to communicate.  Mastery of a field’s jargon is critical for achieving (and maintaining) standing within a discipline, effectively creating a barrier between disciplines, scholars and the general public.  For example, working within the field of Library and Information Science (LIS), my success in the field depends upon my assimilation and mastery of a whole range of terms and their particular technical specifications.

A few common terms that have special meaning within the LIS field include: Document, documentation, record, bibliography, information, information seeking, information behavior, information need, information retrieval, authority control, thesaurus, ontology, taxonomy, relevance, precision, recall, etc.

In scientific pursuits, terminology could be seen as constituting the linguistic tissue that links observational percepts (measurements) to theoretical concepts (relationships between measurements and phenomena, and higher level understandings of systems of phenomena).  In LIS, a wide variety of phenomena are studied, many variables are operationalized, many methods are employed, and many theories have been developed.  To further complicate matters, LIS has historically maintained an important professional component, which operates under a variety of lexicons of specialized terminology.  For instance, library catalogers utilize a plethora of terms that are not always clear to researchers in other LIS areas.

The boundaries of a discipline, which delimit the region of disciplinary jurisdiction/control (imagine the areas controlled by pieces on a Go board), seem to rely, to some extent, on a specialized language to differentiate between insiders and outsiders.  Which begs the question:  Is jargon truly an instrument for effectively communicating ideas within a discipline, or is its primary purpose that of “bouncer” or “gatekeeper,” preserving the security of the academy from invasion from outsiders and staving off internal assaults from other disciplines?  Like language, more generally speaking, it seems as though jargon functions both as an intellectual instrument and as a mechanism of social cohesion/control.

What do we study in Library and Information Science?

Library and Information Science (LIS) owes a considerable portion of its genesis to the concept of the document and to the process of organizing these unwieldy creatures.  The relationship between a document and the concept of information (the all-knowing “I” within “LIS”) is difficult to fully articulate.  Philosophers, such as Mikel Dufrenne have tried to distinguish between aesthetic objects and signifying objects, with signifying objects, first and foremost, responsible for dispensing knowledge, even if they “engage us in an activity” (Buckland, 1997, p. 807).  It seems that this definition could be combined with the semiotic understanding of signs as artificial constructs with the result being that our designation and understanding of a document depends both on a process of social construction (framing the object as a document and arranging it within a context of other objects), and on the whole range of its evidence-bearing properties (text, watermarks, images, etc.) relevant to the mode of inquiry.  What is at stake with this definitional argument is not just the scope of “acceptable” phenomena of study within this field, but by extension, the other human activities that are appropriate areas for LIS-brand inquisition.  For instance, if deer tracks could be considered a document, then it would be quite appropriate to study the information seeking activities and cognitive processes that allow a hunter to track an animal.  I imagine few hunters would be impressed by the results of this study, but given a broad definition of document, our discipline could extrapolate from these results additional insights into human information behavior, generally speaking.  In this sense, our fundamental assumptions about the types of phenomena to be studied helps to determine the possible avenues of research that we might consider as researchers within the field of Library and Information Science.

One of the important lessons to be learned from this discussion is that understanding a discipline’s initial assumptions is critical to understanding what one is, in fact, studying, and why scholars make the decisions that they do when select topics and methodologies.  Indeed, it becomes ever clearer that the LIS field cannot be completely unified, theoretically or methodologically, because a plethora of different types of researchers are coming to the field with very different metatheoretical assumptions.  Considering the field’s multidisciplinary pedigree (ranging from linguistics, to cognitive science, to computer science, to psychology, to the humanities, and on and on), it is not surprising that scholars working in LIS are carrying a diverse array of metatheoretical assumptions.  Thus, within the methods of this field, we should really not be that surprised to see an eclectic mix of quantitative, qualitative and interpretive approaches at work.

Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a “document”? Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48(9), 804-809.