Computer Science(?)

The more literature I read from the HCI corpus of scholarship (if it can be called as much), the more I become convinced that HCI–as an academic field–is plagued by pseudoscholars. Whether I am reading papers for my own research or reviewing conference submissions, I find myself repeatedly shocked at the lack of academic rigor, the poor writing skills, the misappropriation or misunderstanding of concepts (especially those borrowed from other fields), and most shockingly, the general blas√© attitude with which we as an academic community sweep these issues under the rug.

My initial training in academia was in music. I first studied music theory and composition and later, musicology. When I begana Ph.D. program in music, it was perplexing to me how work in music composition would fit the mold of a research degree. Plenty of people were doing it though, and as I continued to steep in the scholarship, I came to understand that while scholars in the arts granted each other a certain degree of latitude (for instance, when expressing opinions with regard to a composer’s motivations in structuring a work in a certain fashion.) In other respects, if a scholar’s work didn’t hold water with regard to researchable, irrefutable facts, it would be torn to shreds by other scholars as a pack of starved dogs lays into their first meal in days. I have witnessed Master’s students and well-respected scholars alike brutalized in shouting matches after paper presentations at conferences, and read ruthless, vicious responses to articles. In many instances, while I may have chosen a different approach or tone in correcting the work of another, I now recognize that their intentions were–in many cases, though certainly not in others–rooted in a general endeavor for an academic rigor able to weather the attacks of skeptics.

When we started to dig into the critical theory literature around music theory and musicology, things got a little strange for me. If I’m being completely honest, there was a great deal of work that I dismissed outright, thinking that these writers just had an axe to grind, and found musicology as a venue just hippy enough to do so. It wasn’t until I took a course, Homosexuality in Music, offered by a now good friend of mine, Byron Adams, that I began to see things differently. Over the course of that class, I came to realize that, for the most part, the work of these scholars was grounded in rigorous research. I began to develop an appreciation for two different strains of scholarship, the border between which fell roughly along the dividing line between the arts and sciences.

Even so, while my opinion of scholarship in the arts had begun to change, my understanding of research in the sciences was the same as it always had been: the incremental accumulation of knowledge drawing from and building on previous advances and discoveries through methodical, measured scientific inquiry. This was, after all, what we’d always learned in school–the scientific method. We come to an understanding of the world based on the discoveries of those that have gone before us, form new ideas about how things may work based on our own observations, and build environments in which to test these ideas. So, when I moved into computer science–specifically, human-computer interaction (or whatever you’d like to call it these days)–I came with the battery of expectations I had held all along about just what scientific inquiry was, and how I should expect to see it exercised in a field that called itself a science.

In my reading of Yvonne Roger’s HCI Theory this week, I came across this quote: “HCI has emerged as an eclectic interdiscipline rather than a well-defined science.” That’s all well and good, but in further exploring the explosion of theories that have come to bear on scholars’ work in HCI that Rogers describes, coupled with all of my own reading of the literature, I’ve grown very skeptical of statements such as these, and very cynical of the quality of a great deal of work produced by fellow academics in computer science–specifically HCI. Time after time, I read articles or papers that fill space with a great new idea, throw in a dash of cognitive theory, fold in a p-value here and there, frost with a delicious acceptance to CHI, and voil√†–scholarship is born.

I don’t buy it.

The problem as I see it is that more and more often academics take license in interdisciplinarity to skimp on rigor. Don’t really know what’s behind the statistics your throwing around? Only read a summary or two of a theory that seems to fit the bill for your work and would give it a little extra spice? No problem, because hey, creativity and innovation in the name of interdisciplinarity and interdepartmental collaboration trump all. Even better, find a post in an interdisciplinary research center, and you can get by without having to worry yourself over rigor ever again.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying this to wag a finger at others. The reason that I find this terrifyingly uncomfortable is that lately I find myself falling into the same trap more and more often. My own research crosses the boundaries of computer science/HCI, electrical engineering, psychology, and (still) music. When push comes to shove, there aren’t enough hours in the day to absorb and synthesize all of the literature with which I’m working. I often find myself writing an article or paper and skimping on the details because I just don’t know enough, or I’m simply not confident enough in a particular area to open myself up to the embarrassment of being shown that I’ve made a mistake. Nonetheless, at the end of the day I’m expected to produce, and in order to do so, I sweep it all under the rug, too.

Are we really okay with this? Or, am I simply just mistaken? There’s a big part of me that wants to be convinced that I am mistaken. I want to see the abundance of recent scholarship that proves me wrong. More than that, I want to know about and read the work of creative, innovative scholars bearing the banner of interdisciplinarity while nevertheless producing unquestionably rigorous scholarship. Until then, I’m tired of being surrounded by people who unashamedly label themselves scholars in spite of the schlock the serve up regularly, and more importantly, I’m tired of being one of those people.