Faculty candidate talks in Cornell InfoSci

Last and this academic year, Cornell Information Science Department has been trying to find a faculty candidate for a tenured-tracked position in Policy subfield. In general, Policy is not my interest, and I was rather lukewarm about going to the talks and participating in the discussions. Recently, I became more active in going to these talks and joining the discussions as I became interested in learning the hiring process in an academic institute. Currently, two candidates have been invited: Katie Shilton and Laura DeNardis. It was very interesting to attend these two talks as I always appreciate good female presenters. I also learned a lot about interviewing techniques from them even though their topics have nothing to do with what I do. Interestingly, they were strong in different ways. Laura had numerous books that she’s written, variety of research contacts. Katie had an admirable presentation skill. I especially learned a lot from her question answering skills. While I do not remember details of Katie’s talk other than the general topic and some snippets of my personal interest, I took notes on Laura’s talk, which made me reflect about her research topics and candidate talks in general.

The title of Laura’s talk was “Arrangement of technical architecture is an arrangement of political influence and power”. Laura started her talk by giving us a general picture of what “Internet Governance” (Protocols, Critical Internet Resources, Communication Rights, Intellectual Property Rights, Internet Security & Infrastructure management) is. I really appreciated how she started her talk. She gave the audience a very nice reference frame to understand the rest of her talk. This made me realize that in my current presentation deck (for my will-it-happen? interview), I do not have any slide that gives an overview of my field (HCI) or subfield (devices and interaction techniques) to the general audience.

Then she narrowed down to the first topic, protocols, and gave out three protocol examples: ODF, IPv6, MAC addresses. While talking about these examples, issues such as open source licenses, commercial versus non-commercial standards, socio-economic constraints to participation (thx Karin), was raised. She spent a lot of her time talking about IPv6 versus IPv4. She argued that it is a moral imperative for US to quickly upgrade to IPv6 to maintain dominance in global internet market. It was very evident that she knew her topic and her field very well. Comparatively, I still strive to show such confidence in giving out talks and I struggle.

It is always debatable whether an academic should also pursue popularity. This is the question that I raised for the rest of the day. Laura’s main example, political power play in transition between IPv4 and IPv6, is not as hot these days as Katie’s main topic, personal privacy in designing sensor networks. P raised a question that made me think about this issue even longer. When Laura talked about MAC addresses invading privacy issues, he asked why we should care about MAC addresses when our cell phone is more intrusive. In my personal opinion, privacy implications of MAC addresses and that of sensors (e.g., GPS) are orthogonal topics. Hence, when this question was raised, I personally felt that the popularity of the topic (IPv6 vs Sensors in a mobile phone) was more in question than anything else. This was actually a sad realization because my research topic is also considered a fading star. Market size of the digital pens has shrunk so much thanks to Apple and Steve Jobs. When people from industry ask me questions, they ask “We do not have any plan to support styluses, if so, how do you plan to make your research useful to us?”.

Lastly, attending these policy topic talks are really new experiences for me because I find it very difficult to internalize the basic premises of these work. I am a strong believer in “regulations make things slow”. The entire time Katie was advocating how we should impose security concerns to the designers, I sincerely wanted to ask, “Did you observe any scenarios where the security concerns limited how much cellular network applications can innovate?”. Thankfully I didn’t really have to raise these “I don’t believe your research” questions because someone else always did. It was a sincerely fruitful experience to see how the speakers respond to these questions. Some candidates become very defensive and try to convince the opponent, which usually does more harm to the speaker than anything else. Some candidates politically avoid the touchy topic and beat around the bushes and show that “maybe you and I can agree that we disagree?”. From the observations, the former seemed to make the speaker more satisfied. The latter seemed to make the rest of the crowd happier.

4 Comments on “Faculty candidate talks in Cornell InfoSci”

  1. Adam says:

    Doing a Ph.D is not about finding a singular topic to dedicate the rest of your life to. It’s about acquiring the skills necessary for doing original research. Working with pens for the rest of your life would be a waste of your talents, but luckily you have the ability to pick up any new field and make contributions to it. Don’t be worried about selling what you’ve done when you can be selling what you can do.

    I don’t buy that IPv6 addresses present any greater privacy concerns than v4. What was her argument?

  2. Monkey says:

    I agree with you that PhD is more about developing debugging skills to *find* and *solve* a research problem. When candidates get invited, I think they’ve already shown that they have this *solving skills* (shown in your publication list, etc). After that, it seems that the *finding skills in the past* get questioned a lot.
    Of course, demonstrating *what I will find or where I will find in the future part*, is something that is of more importance and something I can work on.

    The speaker mentioned that MAC addresses present privacy concerns (not IPv6 or IPv4) because MAC addresses can make your computer traceable.

  3. David Smith says:

    The speaker never made an argument that IPv6 addresses present any greater privacy concerns. She was simply recounting the interesting history about how engineers weighed the embedding of a MAC address into an IPv6 address as a design consideration. Had they done this, there would be privacy implications. The history is important and interesting.

  4. eunkyoung says:

    I always enjoy going to job talks and listening to what the speakers have to say. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the two job talks you’ve been to. I asked one of the senior professors here about what’s the best way to answer the scary questions that pick on something that cannot be fixed (e.g., a big methodological flaw, a different view from the opposite epistemology, etc.). His answer was pretty insightful; now that he’s been to so many job talks, he has observed three types of people–1) not understanding the question–which means that the person has not thought about that at all–this is really bad. 2) understanding the question but the answer is very defensive–better than the first one, but still not a good answer. 3) understanding the question, acknowledging the other opinion, method, or epistemology, and explain the tradeoff, and then explain why he/she had to make the decision.

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