Friday, November 21, 2008

Can graduate school be funny?

"Funny" does not come from graduate school itself, but comes from a kind of attitude to life, even if life is not easy.

                                                  -- Wendy Xie

This is my office for the first year at IST@PSU.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Survival in a graduate school

Ronald T. Azuma, Alice Domurat Dreger, and Marie desJardins provided a bunch of valuable advice in surviving and flourishing in a graduate school. I personally like the marathon metaphor: the Ph.D. life is more like a marathon rather than a sprint. “You have to pace yourself” so that you can keep yourself until you reach the finish line. I used to work too long time every week in my last job, eating irregularly and almost giving up all exercises. Though I liked my job, I ended up with chronic stomach inflammation, neck/shoulder muscle pain, and exhausted energy. These downsides are still exerting their power in my life and it seems they have brought me into a vicious circle. E.g. When I am under a big stress for the sake of workload, my stomach pain could become so severe that I cannot work, which further pushes me into a bigger stress. I have been struggling to change this situation but it is still a long way to go.

I think Dr. Azuma, Dreger, and desJardins are really wise in advising us to look outside of the “ivory tower”. This would benefit us at least in two aspects. First, as Ronald mentioned, surrounded by a cohort of smart, hard working people, it is not easy for us to hold self-esteem and confidence. Looking into the real world would help us find back self-confidence since we have already shown our excellence and potentials that won us a position at a graduate school. Secondly, keeping in touch with the real world would help us choose and evaluate the research line we would take. Personal interest serves as a good motivation to start a long-term research topic, but marketability contributes a lot to the sustainable development of this research topic, the related research line, and even the whole personal research career. 

As a supplement of their advice, I would share something I learned from my experience. First, I found the best way to reduce the extreme pressure generated by work is to start working immediately. Even if I just get a little progress in work, I will get a lot of pressure released. This does not mean you have to work ten hours without a tea break; it simply means we should get a big task started as soon as possible so that we won’t feel a bad headache whenever we think of the big task approaching to its deadline day after day. The second experience is that we do not try to make everything perfect. Well, I would say I am kind of a perfectionist person. I would probably feel uncomfortable even if a tiny piece of work is not done well. This is more or less infected from my previous Japanese coworkers to whom perfectionism seems as a kind of culture of work. But I am very clear that every “perfectionist” piece of work needs a great deal of time investing. There is too much work that is not allowed us to do so. It is necessary to differentiate which is more important and should be more time-invested and which is acceptable to be ended up with a so-so result. I have been learning to be more comfortable with those so-so endings. 

Friday, November 7, 2008

Find a group: out of my academic work

As I mentioned in the first blog, I love playing volleyball. It is a great way for me to find friendship, fun, and relax. I launched the PSU Happy Volley group, which is an informal group with 34 members. Most of the members play volleyball in the IM building regularly (almost every Friday evening and often Wednesday evening too). This semester we have organized a BBQ at the Whipple Dam where there is a pretty good sand volleyball court. We currently are planning on designing and ordering our group T-shirt with the group logo, individual’s name and a unique number on it. Quite a few group members are active in various leagues or tournaments on campus or off campus. This Tuesday our Happy Volley team just got our successive third win in the IM tournament.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Future publication venues

I suspect researchers working on the broad sense of human-computer interaction or human-centered computing, including me, all once dreamed of having papers published in the CHI conference some day – a few of them have made this dream come to true, but most of them have not yet. Organized by ACM SIGCHI, the annual CHI conference is one of the top-tier conferences in the broad HCI field. Though ACM SIGCHI also hosts other conferences, THE CHI conference usually refers only to the conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. If a graduate student can put his or her name in the proceedings of the CHI conference as the first author of a full paper, I guess it should be not hard for him or her to find a satisfactory job in academia upon graduation.

MobileHCI is another annual conference where I hope to publish papers some day. The whole name of MobileHCI is the ACM Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services.  Hosted by ACM SIGCHI and ACM SIGMOBILE, it is generally considered the most prestigious in the field of mobile HCI. I am interested in and have been exploring how to leverage mobile technologies to empower communities, so this conference should be a good place to publish the research outcomes.

The ACM CSCW conference has been held biennially since 1986. It is a leading forum to discuss diverse topics, methods and technologies that support collaborative activities. Within the broad HCI field, I am more interested in designing systems to enhance social interaction and social outcomes (i.e. the social aspect), rather than exploring the individual use of systems (especially the traditional cognitive aspect). So this conference should also be appropriate for me.

Before closing this post, I would like to share these two links that I found VERY useful to those who work on the HCI field: this page shows a bunch of most important HCI conferences, and this one shows some most important HCI journals. Both of them link to tables of content and further detailed records.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mr. Hao Jiang

Hao is one of the fourth year Ph.D. students in IST and one of my best friends. We both work at the CSCL, with different research lines though. I am glad getting to know more about him in the academic aspect after a tiny interview.

Currently Hao is doing research to explore the relation between social capital and information technology in community setttings. He is drafting a proposal for his dissertation and will be defensing it very soon.

Hao has attended the HCI Consortium (HCIC) as an invited student in February 2008 and volunteered in Design Interactive System (DIS) in 2006. In this incoming November, we both, as well as another two lab mates, will be volunteering in CSCW2008 that will be helding in the beautiful city San Diego. Hao has three papers published or in press, including a journal (Int. J. Technology Management) paper and two conference (CHASE2008, HCIC2008) papers. He also wrote a chapter on the digital case library for the second edition of Encyclopedia of Multimedia Technology and Networking (Idea Group Publishing).

Hao likes research very much, and is interested in many topics, especially social, psychological and educational issues, with regard to information technology. He tries to train himself "to be a knowledge user as well as a knowledge producer". To him, information technology is much more than instruments that assist human tasks; they can and indeed do fundamentally change human and the environment in which we live. That is why he thinks a certain degree of sociological awareness and knowledge is necesseary for him, as a scientific researcher, to address issues about technology, which I totally agree on. "However," He said, "so far, I am not well prepared for this long journey, so have a lot to learn."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Who is my advisor: academic life and career

My advisor John M. Carroll is one of the biggest names in the HCI field. He is actually a founder of this field.

Dr. Carroll received his B.A. degree in mathematics from Lehigh University and Ph.D. degree in psychology from Columbia University. When he was still a Ph.D. student, he published a paper in the world-widely well-known academic journal “Science”, which is a rare thing for a graduate student since the journal usually requires very high quality papers. This paper helped him get a research job in IBM upon graduation.

Dr. Carroll worked for the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center for around 18 years (1976-1994) and founded the User Interface Institute at IBM in 1984. During this period, he also did research work at MIT, Yale University, Columbia University, University of Twente, and Xerox Research Center Europe as a visiting scholar. It is kind of amazing that he worked with Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, at MIT in 1980-1981. However, this experience did not drive him to devote himself into linguistics research; instead, it made him clear that he would not like to be a linguist. Dr. Carroll joined the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech in 1994. He was a professor there for 10 years, including 5 years as the head of the department. He came to Penn State in 2003, where he directs the Center for Human-Computer Interaction and the Computer-Supported Collaboration and Learning (CSCL) lab.

Dr. Carroll has written or edited 15 books, published more than 400 articles, serves on 12 editorial and advisory boards, and is the editor-in-chief of the ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interactions. He has received both the Rigo Career Achievement Award and the CHI Lifetime Achievement Award from the ACM SIGDOC and SIGCHI respectively, received the Goldsmith Award from IEEE and the Silver Core Award from the IFIP. He is a Fellow of the ACM, IEEE, and Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

Dr. Carroll received a great renown in 1980’s for his theory of Minimalism in computer instruction, training and technical communication. He is also well-known for his later work in scenario-based design, community networking, participatory design, collaborative learning, and HCI theories.

In the last few years, Dr. Carroll taught graduate courses in “Theories and Frameworks for Human-Computer Interaction” and “Current Issues in HCI”, and upper level undergraduate courses “Usability Engineering” and “Community Informatics”.

* The image is from Jack's website

Friday, September 26, 2008

Who is my advisor: personal life and background

My advisor John Carroll likes people to call him Jack. He was born in Bethlehem, PA, but in terms of decent, he is Irish, Welsh, and Schwaebish. Upon graduation from Columbia University with a Ph.D. degree in Experimental Psychology, he worked for IBM for around 18 years, where he met and got married with Mary Beth Rosson, a pretty elegant lady who has a very good taste and concern about her dresses and accessories J.

Jack and Mary Beth are now both professors in IST at Penn State. They live in the beautiful university town State College, with their adorable daughter Erin and friendly Lab Kerby. Before they came to State College, they lived in Blacksburg, another university town and were both professors for the department of computer science at Virginia Tech. One of the luckiest things to Jack and Mary Beth is that they can always find satisfying jobs in the same place, from IBM, to Virginia Tech, to Penn State. They are not only a couple, but also best work partners. This is very rare for renowned couples. Erin is a Penn State junior in sociology. She once said to her dad, “I don’t wanna be like you.” So when she later decided to apply for the graduate school to stay in academia, Jack was really surprised. This might be the biggest impact Jack has on his daughter.

In his spare time, Jack brews beer and hikes with Kerby. He also likes music, especially Bob Dylan’s. He played folk guitar since he was 13 years old till his first five years at IBM and had his own band. This old photo portrays an aspect of his band life. I actually froze when seeing it for the first time; it is not an easy thing to link this punk-style youngster to a debonair but prestigious scholar.

Jack is not the kind of person who needs a bunch of friends. He is enjoying the easy life, multicultural climate, plus a little excitement in State College.

*Both images are from Jack's personal web page.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What is IST?

IST, opened in 1999, is an I-School housed in the Penn State. When I started looking for an appropriate Ph.D. program to apply for in early 2006, it was still a school; but when I actually applied for the Ph.D. program at IST in the end of 2006, it had been upgraded into a college. To outsiders, the most impressive thing about IST is probably its state-of-the-art building, rather than its academic aspect. The building was inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and has become a Penn State landmark.

Different from many other I-Schools which are transformed from other traditional programs such as computer science, business, or library science, IST is a totally brand-new institution. And because of this, it seems IST does not have a dominant research area much outweighing other areas. Instead, it gets more balanced in developing various areas. This is one of the reasons why I chose IST for a Ph.D. study – I prefer to locate myself in the pretty much middle point of the line with the social research as one end and the technical research as the other end, and I would have more flexibility to move toward either end of the line.

One of the characteristics of IST is that it has no departments! It is structured into five research centers and ten research labs. This structure helps people get connected with colleagues more easily, which is important to sustain interdisciplinary research. In fact, people in different research centers or research labs have a lot of collaborations, from applying for project grants to coauthoring papers. This can be seen from these two diagrams. Here is the overall collaboration network diagram with regard to funding, each node representing a specific faculty member in IST. And this is the collaboration network diagram with regard to coauthoring, each node also representing a faculty member. These two diagrams were made in the 2007 fall semester.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What is an I-School?

When we talk about the history of I-Schools, it is hard to ignore the I-School movement. I-Schools are basically a result of this movement. They are those academic institutions with a mission and commitment to understand, create and use information and information technology in human endeavors.

The I-School movement seems to be a revolution in the traditional LIS field. In 1996, the School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan first changed the name into the School of Information (Cronin, 2005). But the real outset as a movement seems to be the small meeting among the deans of seven leading LIS institutions held in November 2003 (Cronin, 2005). The science crisis in the LIS field to a large degree is due to the incapability of the traditional LIS theories in confronting the new characteristics of this age – information is generated overwhelming, information technology develops rapidly, and human’s information behavior changes intensively. Scientists need new paradigm to guide their work.

If the movement had just been an innovation of the traditional LIS field, things would have looked simpler. But indeed the situation is more complicated. The institutions without a LIS background also participate in this movement. For example, the I-School of University of California, Irvine comes from computing science tradition. And the I-School of the Penn State (IST) is even a brand-new program that did not evolve from a pre-existing program; the faculty members are drawn from various programs. The members of the I-School caucus can be found on, including 19 colleges/schools in American Universities, 1 in Singapore and 1 in Canada. Even just from the names of these colleges/schools, we can easily guess their different flavors, such as education, management, computing, etc. Such a complicated situation makes the current period more like a pre-paradigm phase than a revolutionary phase, from the perspective of Kuhn (Godfrey-Smith, 2003).

Though this looks like a pre-paradigm phase, there is something that has seemed to be common among most of the I-Schools. The first is the interdisciplinary climate and the encouragement of plurality and diversity. This is also the central spirit of the I-School movement. When we try to seek the laws that make an IT initiative successful in the real world, we have to consider inter-related aspects that might have been addressed in different research fields before. For example, CSE (Computer Science and Engineering) addressed technical design and development; MIS (Management information System) addressed information system management in organizations; and sociologists or social psychologists studied ordinary people’s intention to system use. All these aspects could contribute to the answer about the factors leading to success or failure of an IT initiative, but none of them alone can totally account for it. The I-Schools draw researchers from different perspectives to work together on complex socio-technical issues. This would help scientists jump from the constriction of the assumptions they hold on for a long time, if they are willing to listen to different voices. If they can do so, an I-School could become a free realm of creativity and imaginary.

Another aspect in common is that most I-Schools agree on the ITP (Information, Technology, and People) triangle as a research interest focus and framework. But the triangle seems too vague and too empty at least up to now, which makes it kind of hard to really guide the field. For example, is ITP able to tell us what puzzles are important and what are not and the answers can generally be agreed on by the scientists in this movement? It seems we cannot say yes unhesitatedly. In a class of IST590 last year, which is required to be taken by all graduates in IST at PSU, students are asked to label themselves as I, T, or P. The result is interesting: most of the students gave themselves two labels, say I-T, T-P, or I-P, and several students gave themselves only one label, but very few students label themselves as I-T-P. This is by large in line with the current status of the research in IST, and it also drives us to think about the feasibility of the ITP as the guiding paradigm.

An interesting thing is that compared with other traditional academic institutions, the IST is more like practical problem-solving oriented. That people with different backgrounds come together to solve practical problem is a typical characteristic in an industrial organization, but not in an academic institution. This characteristic makes the IST, and other I-Schools, seem hard to establish an identity that is important in current academia. This does bring inconvenience. However, the advantage is also prominent: faculty members have more chance to exchange opinions with people outside their areas, and students probably would be more open-minded.

I chose to do my graduate education at an I-School basically because my academic interests are falling in the human-centered computing, that is, concerned both with human aspect and computing aspect. These interests do not gain a space within, or at best just stand on the periphery of, traditional colleges or departments. Whereas, an I-School is a suitable niche for them and provides more resources and freedom for relevant research.

Cronin, B. (2005). An Identity crisis? The information schools movement. International Journal of Information Management 25: 363–365.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and reality: an introduction to the philosophy of science Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What drives me

During my years of work for one of China’s leading companies pioneering e-learning and later a supplier of technical solutions for multimedia communications, I increasingly realized the professional software engineer is not the most suitable position to me. I do like design and develop computer/communication software, but as a professional software engineer to develop consumer-oriented products, most of my time had to be devoted into the process of making a prototype into a true product, rather than the process to design and work out a prototype. I would say both of these two processes are challenging, but the latter has much more fun to me since it involves more creative activities. Based on this, I think to work in an advanced research center, whether in industry (such as the legendary PARC) or in academia, would be a better choice to meet my interests. I believe that study of creative theories and methods and further academic training are necessary for me to acquire more insightful perspectives and develop a qualified competence to conduct in-depth research work. This is why I chose return to a university to pursue my Ph.D. degree.

My current research concentrates on community-oriented wireless applications that are expected to help enhance civic engagement, support civic interactions and facilitate resource coordination. There are two major motivations for this research. First, many American communities have been investing or will consider investing in municipal wireless networking infrastructures, but what are the civic rationales and effective application paradigms for developing these public wireless infrastructures has not been made clear. My coworkers and I try to seek the answers and some useful suggestions to these questions through this research. Second, the current computing industry aims largely at entertainment, personal information management, and business/government computing. We hope our outcomes in developing community informatics application models will provide a beneficial reference for the computing industry to pay more attention and endeavor in community applications.

Who am I academically

I am a second year Ph.D. student in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) at the Pennsylvania State University. My intellectual interests focus on incorporating contextual, social and cultural factors into system design to create innovative social interaction and learning experience. More specifically, I am interested in the following areas: 

-    Social computing and community computing
-    Design and usability of communication technologies 
-    Unified Communications
-    Computer-supported collaboration
-    Learning environments and tools

I am currently working with a team of researchers led by Dr. John Carroll at the Computer Supported Collaboration and Learning Lab to design and develop community-oriented wireless applications. We have developed location-based event and blog service for the Central County Art Festival held in this July. You can get more information from here. Our next step is to introduce team/logistic tracing services for this year’s United Way Day of Caring in October. Lately I also have put some efforts on exploring the design space for enhancing engagement in community-oriented activities. 

I received my M.A. degree in communication and B.A. degree in Chinese language and literature from Tsinghua University in China. Before I became a Ph.D. student, I had been a professional software engineer for a couple of years basically focusing on designing and developing components or devices for unified communications, such as SIP-based IP-PBXs, PSTN/ISDN/ITSP gateways, Wi-Fi mobile phones, and so on. It seems my academic/professional trajectory has changed a lot, but I would say this does help prepare me for IST, a truly interdisciplinary field concerning the intersection of information, technology, and people.

Who am I personally

I am Xiaoyan Xie from China. The two Chinese characters of ‘Xiaoyan’ mean a colorful sky. I do like this name, but since it is really hard for foreigners to pronounce correctly, I would like you to just call me ‘Wendy’ which I have been used since 1994. 

My hometown is Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian province in the southeast of China. The city is warm and humid, kind of like the weather of San Diego, CA. It is a leisurely and comfortable place, famous for jasmine, banyan, lacquer ware, horn combs, and stone carving. The history of this city can probably date back to before 306 B.C. 

At the age of 18, I left my hometown and went to Beijing for college. I still remember that fall how I sat on a hard wooden seat in a train for 43 hours to get to Beijing for the first time on my own. Since the time I stepped off the train, Beijing has become my second hometown, where I finished my college and worked for a couple of years. 

I came to State College, PA last year for my Ph.D study. This is my first experience to live in a small town. Though big cities have much more fun and good restaurants, I do like the current simple and peaceful life here.

I have a bunch of personal interests. I like traveling around the world to experience different cultures and natural beauties. I have been to Japan, India, Singapore, Malaysia, and a couple of cities in the United States. I am preparing my second-time trip to San Diego as a CSCW’08 volunteer. I really hope to have a look in Europe and Australia someday. Besides traveling, I also like music, especially the New Age genre with very peaceful, gentle, spiritual, or sometimes mystical music. I am also a volleyball lover. I play it every week in the IM building. This helps me make a lot of friends. I created the PSU Happy Volley group on Facebook and there are 33 members now.

One of my good friends has been leading me to Jesus, which my grandmother was always trying to do before she passed away. I have to say it is not easy to change the ingrained views about the world and values, but I am considering it seriously.