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HCI, STS, CAT and other three letter words

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

My CS 6724 Applied Theories in HCI class has attracted an interesting and diverse group of people, who have brought to the table some new ways of looking at HCI as a discipline.  I thought there would be a close connection among the themes, but the class has really highlighted how far we have to go…and that perhaps we’re headed in the wrong direction, at least in terms of unifying ideas.

One class session focused on STS–Science and Technology Studies, or Science, Technology, and Society (or maybe it stands for other things).  Its roots are in history, sociology, and philosophy, and has been emerging as an independent discipline since the 1970s.  I was struck by the diversity of people in the STS department at Virginia Tech–from 17th century literature to politics and technology in Russia to technology and education–to the point that it became difficult to identify the core themes of STS.

Another class session looked at themes from our new Institute for Creative Arts and Technologies, which describes itself as “at the nexus of the arts, design, science, and technology”.  Wow, what a broad endeavor, seeking to find a nexus among all of those fields!  It will be interesting to see what events the institute attracts, and whether there’s a core group of people from all four nexus disciplines that become active in the institute.  The class session looked at affect and visualization, a combination of two (three?) of the areas.  So maybe it’s not necessary to include all areas?

As an academic, I’m interested in how a curriculum for these areas will develop and evolve.  STS has two core classes that every grad student takes.  As yet, there’s no ICAT curriculum (no broad degree program, though there are sub-programs).  Yet the 0-2 “core” courses doesn’t seem that far off base, as there’s not a single required course to get the HCI Certificate from the Center for HCI, and the only required grad course in Computer Science is a seminar (though an “Intro to Grad Studies” course is strongly recommended).

So is that a problem?  Can a discipline survive, and thrive, without even pretending there’s core knowledge that’s important to the field?  It seems at some point we’ll have to answer that question, or die trying (or die not trying).