Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.
The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.
The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.
Robert F. Williams is Assistant Professor of Education at Lawrence University, a residential liberal arts college in Appleton, Wisconsin. There he teaches courses on the psychology of learning, distributed cognition, and cognitive linguistics, and is about to offer a new course on gesture studies. Before joining the Lawrence faculty, Bob earned his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at UCSD in 2004. His dissertation was an ethnographic study of cognitive artifacts and conceptual blending in time-telling instruction. His present research explores the distributed aspects of everyday cognition and the role of gestures in teaching and learning. When not at work, Bob can be found singing with the White Heron Chorale, playing with his girls, or enjoying the local culture (not just eating cheese curds and shoveling snow).
How do you think the Cognitive Science community at UCSD shaped your current outlook on research?
It fed my desire to go beyond the internal symbol processing view and to explore cognition as an intricate dance of neural, conceptual, and cultural processes. I got interested in cognitive science through my experience as a language teacher and through reading research in cognitive linguistics. Only after I arrived at UCSD did I encounter Hutchins' work on distributed cognition, which opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about questions that had long intrigued me. My work since then has combined ideas from distributed cognition and cognitive semantics, and I use cognitive ethnography to test these ideas in real discourse and activity, especially in situations where one person is teaching another. My work has also forced me to pay closer attention to gestures and the role they play in bringing distributed cognitive systems together.
More generally, I think that the way I think and do research has been shaped by the models of professors I knew at UCSD, including some who probably never realized they were influencing me. I hear their echoes in my writing and in what I say to my students. My dissertation advisors, Ed Hutchins and Gilles Fauconnier, fall most strongly into that category, but there are many others, too.
What do you remember most fondly about your experience at UCSD?
I have fond memories of the people I came to know and of their passion for their work. And while I knew that UCSD was a hub of research, I didn't fully appreciate how vibrant the research community was until I moved away. I also miss the beauty of San Diego, its cultural and recreational offerings, and‒of course‒the climate. Where I live now in the Midwest, I enjoy the change of seasons and the fantastic quality of life, even though it includes a lot of snow-shoveling and no visits to the beach.
How have you found the transition from UCSD to Lawrence? Have there been any particular challenges associated with moving from a CogSci department to an Education department?
You can imagine what a sea change it was to move from a major research university to a residential liberal arts college. Sometimes I wonder whether I'm the only cognitive scientist within a hundred miles. Here I get to teach courses on many different topics, some beyond my field, and I interact with colleagues from across the university on a daily basis. What I miss is having colleagues in my own field to talk with and sharing ideas through regular research talks and lab meetings. Going to conferences is a lifeline: it reconnects me with others in my field. The pace of research is also slower here. Because of my many teaching and service responsibilities, it takes longer to finish a project and it's harder to find time to read journals or to write.
Moving to an education department has been exciting because it gives me an applied focus and keeps me involved in the world beyond the laboratory. I teach required courses in the teacher certification program, on topics such as the psychology of learning, reading comprehension, and learners with exceptionalities, so I have had to learn more about these areas. These courses enroll students from majors across the college, including many students in the Conservatory of Music, and each course has a practicum component. I see the same students in my introductory and advanced courses, and I often mentor their student teaching, so I get to see them apply what they've been learning as they move into life beyond the university.
While being half of a two-person department forces me to pay close attention to the education side of things, it's up to me to keep the cognitive science side going. I offer a seminar once a year in one of my research areas. My cognitive linguistics course is now part of the linguistics core, and my distributed cognition course attracts a small group of students from a variety of majors. In these courses I can delve more deeply into cognitive science topics and work with students who are oriented more toward research. Several students from my seminar last spring recently had their projects accepted for presentation at the International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, so now they're continuing their research through independent study. Lawrence has a strong tradition of tutorials and independent studies beyond the standard curriculum, so even though we have no graduate students, I do find opportunities to work one-on-one with students on specialized topics. The students graduate quickly, though, making it hard to sustain a program of research.
What parts of your job now do you get most jazzed up about?
For me, it's the whole package‒the balance of different things I get to do: teaching an introductory course, leading a small seminar, mentoring a beginning teacher, working one-on-one with a student on a research project, collaborating with professors from other departments to teach Freshman Studies or conduct university business, etc. Lawrence is a small school with a close-knit community and a strong emphasis on individualized learning; I think what excites me most is the ways I personalize my students' education and the relationships I develop with colleagues and students. Beyond that, I do get jazzed whenever I have the opportunity to travel to a conference and reconnect with friends in my field. Talking about the latest work re-energizes me, and I try to maintain that excitement as I return to the flurry of teaching and service that dominates day-to-day college life.
What parts of your time at UCSD did you used to get most jazzed up about?
Frankly, I found it difficult to keep my spirits up because I returned to grad school in mid-life and had a hard time with the isolation and lack of status or influence. What kept me going was excitement about the things I learned every day, the new questions and ideas they generated, and the enthusiasm of professors and students about the work they were doing. It also helped that I made grad school a Monday-to-Friday, 8-to-5 job, so I had a life outside the university. I got more jazzed as I started my own research and began to develop a sense of identity as a cognitive scientist. Most exciting for me was my final year at UCSD: I turned 40, welcomed my first child, got a tenure-track job, and defended a dissertation I cared about.
If you could change something about the culture of Cognitive Science as a field (or academia in general), what would it be?
I think that researchers at the University of California, especially, have already done a lot to change the culture of cognitive science, moving it beyond the symbols-in-the-head view to a more expansive view of cognition as a dynamic, active, situated, embodied, distributed process. This move has opened exciting new lines of research in our field.
As for the culture of academia, I worry that the pressure to publish can become oppressive‒even counter-productive‒if what counts as a contribution is too narrowly defined, if researchers push questionable work into print or shy away from innovative projects where the outcome is uncertain, or if people feel discouraged from contributing to the field in other ways. Academia needs to value a broader range of contributions‒publishing an original study, organizing a conference on an important topic, founding a new journal, editing a volume of groundbreaking work, authoring a textbook in an emerging field, inventing ways to teach with new technologies, and so on‒and we need to recognize that the proportion of these contributions will differ from one person to another. Graduate programs presume that every student intends to be a researcher at an R1 university, and they provide few models for other forms of academic life. I knew grad students at UCSD who sought jobs in industry because they didn't want their advisors' lifestyle. They might have enjoyed an academic position with a different balance and emphasis‒teaching at a liberal arts college, for example. Here I am still expected to stay active in my field and produce high-quality work, but the range of what counts is much broader.
Finally, is there any advice you have on balancing work and non-work?
I could answer that question, but I have to go home now to play with my kids.
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.