Our Graduate Assistants: Michael Tahmasian

This interview is part of a new series introducing our graduate assistants to our online community. These are some of the people you will see when you visit our space, who will greet you with a smile and a willingness to help! Say hello to Michael Tahmasian!

What is your background education and work experience?

I have Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Kansas and for a long time I had no idea what I wanted to do with that. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I moved with a friend to Chicago for “the next big adventure.” At first, I was a security guard at an art museum. Then I was a substitute teacher in the public schools. Eventually, I ended up as a CyberNavigator in two different branches of the Chicago Public Library, where I worked with patrons to help build their digital skills.

What led you to your field?

I’ve always loved teaching people things, but I struggled to see myself teaching in a traditional classroom. It just never felt right for me. When I finally realized the huge role that instruction played in librarianship—in small moments at the reference desk or through programming and workshops—everything clicked for me. I could see myself as a part of that space. There are so few places people can go to these days to get help learn new things without having to give something in return. I’m truly so excited to be a part of that.

What are your research interests?

My main area of interest is instruction, but to me that includes both those formal and informal settings; both workshops and one-off questions at a reference desk. Currently, I’m interested in how feminist theories can help us understand and improve instruction in both places. Our profession is focused on helping people get the information they need—and while I believe in that I think sometimes we lose sight of the people we’re supposed to help and focus solely on the information itself. Feminist theories allow us to challenge our field’s traditional values and focus on the people involved, patrons and librarians alike. These theories help us highlight the often-overlooked effective aspects of librarianship and the amount of emotional labor that goes into it. Not only do I think that this work should be acknowledged and celebrated, but I believe effective qualities like empathy need to be fostered within librarians through education and training. I think how we work with patrons and students is just as important as the content we’re trying to teach them and empathy is integral to that, understanding their emotional processes in using the library is integral to that. So really I’m interested in exploring how empathy and something like the ethics of care can be incorporated not only into our instruction at the desk or in the classroom, but also in the training of librarians.

What are your favorite projects you’ve worked on?

My ongoing work in the Scholarly Commons revolves around undergraduate research here at the University of Illinois, which has taught me so much about collaboration between academic libraries and other units across campus. I’ve worked a lot on managing intake of undergraduate research work into IDEALS, our institution’s digital repository, and creating education materials around that for both students and faculty.

Additionally, I was able to spend time over the year designing and piloting a workshop on editing podcasts with the software Audacity. The workshop served as a collaboration between the Scholarly Commons’ Savvy Researcher workshop series and the Media Commons in the Undergraduate Library. It was a wonderful chance to learn about designing a workshop and the challenges that come with that, especially one so focused on technology. The process challenged me to think about the availability of the technology and how we could work with what we had; the role attendees of the workshop would have in actively contributing to their own learning; the accessibility of my lesson and materials; and, how to market it all. Getting to test it out this spring was incredibly rewarding. Overall it went really well and I was excited to get feedback to help improve it for the next time around!

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend?

My favorite underutilized resource in the Scholarly Commons might be the space itself! Although this will change sometime in the future, right now we’re tucked away on the third floor of the Main Library. I think people who use the space genuinely love it—we have a lot of regulars. The space is really open for people to make what they want of it. If they need a quiet hideaway, this is great. If they need a place to work collaborate with others, there’s room for that too. Physically being in the space also allows people to see some of our other available resources—like our specialized software or our collection of books on data, programming, and research.

When you graduate, what would your ideal job position look like?

After graduation I am hoping to work as a Reference and Instruction Librarian in an academic library. I just want to be able to keep teaching people things, keep learning things myself, and be comfortable enough wherever I end up to finally adopt a dog. That’s the dream.

What is the one thing you would want people to know about your field?

You should never feel bad asking a librarian a question! I know it can feel awkward or weird, I’ve felt it too and I work in libraries. But librarians truly just want to help you with your problems, no matter how big or small. Stop by, give us a call, or chat with us online! We’re here for you

Our Graduate Assistants: Billy Tringali

This interview is part of a new series introducing our graduate assistants to our online community. These are some of the people you will see when you visit our space, who will greet you with a smile and a willingness to help! Say hello to Billy Tringali!

 


What is your background education and work experience?

I graduated summa cum laude from Bridgewater State University with dual majors in Anthropology and English and dual minors in Gender Studies and U.S. Ethnic/Indigenous Studies. I was able to gain a lot of great research experience during my undergrad, completing over a half-dozen funded research projects and speaking at nearly a dozen regional, national, and international conferences, which really made me fall in love with research.

After I graduated, I started working for Ventress Memorial Library and the Osterville Village Library Reference and Children’s Departments.

What led you to your field?

I’ve been volunteering in libraries since I was in the 5th grade, starting with my hometown library back in my home state of Massachusetts. I actually co-founded my library’s first Teen Advisory Board.

As a Reference Assistant I was happy to serve the diverse populations of these different towns, and as a Children’s Assistant I was able to aid in managing and developing collections that met the needs of children from 1 to 17! They were amazing experiences, and why I moved out here to pursue my Master’s in Library and Information Science.

What are your research interests?

I adore instruction, especially working with undergrads! Teaching students from a wide variety of backgrounds and getting students engaged with library resources has been so rewarding. I love looking into how information is presented and taught. I’ve been lucky enough to teach in our Savvy Researcher Series, so I’ve been able to get a lot of great experience there.

I’m also very interested in scholarly communication and publishing, which I think ties in well with my interest in engagement! From open-access to copyright, libraries are on the front of line of getting students connected with research and making sure information is available to them. We have the opportunity to present information and make it accessible, which is such a powerful thing.

What are your favorite projects you’ve worked on?

Working with undergraduate research. Teaching classes on presentation and assisting with finding/pairing resources felt so rewarding. Part of my work includes helping undergraduates create and manage their own academic journals, which was such an incredible combination of working with undergraduates and publishing!

Libraries can and should be engaged spaces of connection across departments, and entire universities.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend?

My work in the Scholarly Commons has also extended into collection development – so I’d say our reference collection! We keep a well-updated library of works about everything from qualitative research techniques to the digital humanities.

Stop by and check it out!

When you graduate, what would your ideal job position look like? 

I’d like to continue to work in an academic library. Working for both the Main Library’s reference and instruction service and the Scholarly Commons as a specialized library has taught me that I’m most interested in positions that allow for teaching and engagement.

What is the one thing you would want people to know about your field?

Libraries are for everyone. Libraries are doing so many things that there really is something here for everyone!

Our Graduate Assistants: Kayla Abner

This interview is part of a new series introducing our graduate assistants to our online community. These are some of the people you will see when you visit our space, who will greet you with a smile and a willingness to help! Say hello to Kayla Abner!

What is your background education and work experience?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Classical Humanities and French from Wright State University in Dayton (Go Raiders!). My original plan was to teach high school French or Latin, but after completing a student teaching practicum, I decided that wasn’t for me. During undergrad and after graduation, I always wound up in a job role that involved research or customer service in some capacity, which I really enjoyed.

What led you to your field?

Knowing that I enjoyed working on research, I considered going back to school for Library Science, but wanted to be sure before taking the jump. It was always interesting to see the results of the research I helped conduct, and I enjoyed helping people find answers, whether it was a coworker or a client. After a visit to an American Library Association conference in 2016,  I fell in love with the collaborative and share-alike nature of librarianship, and was accepted to this program the next year!

What are your research interests?

Library science has so many interesting topics, it’s hard to choose one. But, I like looking at how people seek information, and how libraries can use that knowledge to enhance their services and resources. I’m a browser when it comes to book shelves, and it’s interesting to see how libraries are succeeding/failing at bringing that experience to the digital realm.

What are your favorite projects you’ve worked on?

I have two positions here in the library, one in the Scholarly Commons, and one working with our (current) Digital Humanities librarian, Dan Tracy. In both roles, I’ve worn a lot of hats, so to speak. My favorites have been creating resources like library guides, and assisting with creating content for our Savvy Researcher workshop series. Maintaining our library guides requires some experience with the software, so I enjoy learning new cool things that our programs can do. I also do a lot of graphic design work, which is a lot of fun!

Completing some of these tasks let me use some Python knowledge from my coursework, which is sort of like a fun puzzle (how do I get this to work??). I’m really interested in using digital methods and tools in research, like text mining and data visualization. Coming from a humanities background, it is very exciting to see the cool things humanists can do beyond traditional scholarship. Digital humanities is a really interesting field that bridges the gap between computer science and the humanities.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend?

Our people! They aren’t underutilized, but I love an opportunity to let campus know that we are an excellent point of contact between you and an expert. If you have a weird research question in one of our service areas, we can put in contact with the best person to help you.

When you graduate, what would your ideal job position look like?

I would love to work in an academic research library in a unit similar to the Scholarly Commons, where researchers can get the support they need to use digital methods and data in their research, especially in the humanities. There is a such a breadth of digital techniques that humanities researchers can utilize, that don’t necessarily replace traditional research methods. Distant reading a text puts forth different observations than traditional close reading, and both are equally useful.

What is the one thing you would want people to know about your field?

Librarians are happy to help you; don’t let a big desk intimidate you away from asking a question. That’s why we’re here!

Meet Aaron King, Scholarly Commons GIS Consultant

picture of Aaron King, GIS Consultant

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Aaron King, GIS Consultant at the Scholarly Commons. Welcome, Aaron!


What is your background and work experience?

I am from Wisconsin originally, and studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I focused on wolf and carnivore species populations in northern Wisconsin and in Yellowstone. Then my senior year, I stayed on to study Geography, which led to my career in GIS. I worked as a GIS analyst for one year while finishing up my geography degree. Afterwards, I worked at National Geographic in Washington D.C. Then, I worked as a GIS Analyst and Consultant for Intalytics in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while going to school for a Master’s in GIS and Bachelor of Science in Physics at Eastern Michigan University. I did a stint for Department of Defense in Madison, Wisconsin. Afterwards, I took time off to become a kayak guide, and decided to finish my schooling here at the University of Illinois.

Currently I work with Remote Sensing of the environment and geostatistics.

What led you to your field?

My background in environmental and climate science, as well as my love for geography led me into this field. I believe satellite data can be used a tool to expand this research and hopefully contribute to science and helping the world as a whole.

What is your research agenda?

I plan doing research on phenology, using a variety of data science methods. Additionally, I want to explore wildfire risk, and possibly look into health characteristics of greenspaces. Currently I am pursuing my Master’s, and I hope to continue my PhD here as well.

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

When you get into research or your field, your knowledge blinders become very focused on what you are doing. Being in a position like this allows me to think past what I know, and explore areas of GIS that I normally do not think about, reflecting the endless possibilities of GIS. Plus, I just find it fascinating what other people are working on, and I love being part of it.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend?

Programs for GIS outside of ESRI. There are a wealth of programs, free and open-source, that work just as well but are different than the standard ESRI programs. ESRI is a great option, but the amount of data and programs out there to help you with your problem is staggering. The other resource I would recommend in taking some coding lessons like through DataCamp, codeacademy, SoloLearn, or Lynda, because having that underlying knowledge of how programs work helps you understand.

If you could recommend only one book to researchers starting out in the GIS field, what would it be?

There are many great books about GIS. But the book you need to read to get into geography, which is the foundation of GIS, is How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier.

Honorable mention: The Nature of Maps by Arthur Robinson and Barbara Bartz Petchenik.

Note: both books are available through the University Library, here and here.

What fields can use GIS research methods?

I had a professor, in my first class, ask us this same question. His answer was, “There is not a science or business that can’t utilize GIS in some way. Your job is to find it.”

Are there any big names in your field that people should know about?

Dr. Mei-Po Kwan (she works here, tell her I say hi), Dr. Waldo Tobler, Dr. Mathew Zook, William Morris Davis, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Robinson, Michael Jordan (seriously he studied geography, look it up!).

To schedule a consultation with Aaron, contact sc@library.illinois.edu.

Meet Dan Tracy, Information Sciences and Digital Humanities Librarian

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Dan Tracy, Information Sciences and Digital Humanities Librarian.


What is your background and work experience?

I originally come from a humanities background and completed a PhD in literature specializing in 20th century American literature, followed by teaching as a lecturer for two years. I had worked a lot with librarians during that time with my research and teaching. When you’re a PhD student in English, you teach a lot of rhetoric, and I also taught some literature classes. As a rhetoric instructor I worked closely with the Undergraduate Library’s instruction services, which exposed me to the work librarians do with instruction.

Then I did a Master’s in Library and Information Science here, knowing that I was interested in being an academic librarian, probably something in the area of being a subject librarian in the humanities. And then I began this job about five years ago. So I’ve been here about five years now in this role. And just began doing Digital Humanities over the summer. I had previously done some liaison work related to digital humanities, especially related to digital publishing, and I had been doing some research related to user experience and digital publishing as related to DH publishing tools.

What led you to this field?

A number of things. One was having known quite a number of people who went into librarianship who really liked it and talked about their work. Another was my experience working with librarians in terms of their instruction capacity. I was interested in working in an academic environment and I was interested in academic librarianship and teaching. And also, especially as things evolved, after I went back for the degree in library and information science, I also found a lot of other things to be interested in as well, including things like digital humanities and data issues.

What is your research agenda?

My research looks at user experience in digital publishing. Primarily in the context of both ebook formats and newer experimental forms of publication such as web and multi-modal publishing with tools like Scalar, especially from the reader side, but also from the creator side of these platforms.

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

As I mentioned before, instruction was an initial draw to librarianship. I like anytime I can teach and work with students, or faculty for that matter, and help them learn new things. That would probably be a top thing. And I think increasingly the chances I get to work with digital collections issues as well. I think there’s a lot of exciting work to do there in terms of delivering our digital collections to scholars to complete both traditional and new forms of research projects.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

I think there’s a lot. I think researchers are already aware of digital primary sources in general, but I do think there’s a lot more for people to explore in terms of collections we’ve digitized and things we can do with those through our digital library, and through other digital library platforms, like DPLA (Digital Public Library of America).

I think that a lot of our digital image collections are especially underutilized. I think people are more aware that we have digitized text sources, but not aware of our digitized primary sources that are images that have value of research objects, including analyzed computational analysis. We also have more and more access to the text data behind our various vendor platforms, which is a resource various researchers on campus increasingly need but don’t always know is available.

If you could recommend one book to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

If you’re just getting started, I think a good place to look is at the Debates in the Digital Humanities books, which are collections of essays that touch on a variety of critical issues in digital humanities research and teaching. This is a good place to start if you want to get a taste of the ongoing debates and issues. There are open access copies of them available online, so they are easy to get to.

Dan Tracy can be reached at dtracy@illinois.edu.

Introducing Megan Ozeran, Data Analytics and Visualization Resident Librarian

Photograph of Megan Ozeran

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Megan Ozeran, the Data Analytics and Visualization Resident Librarian at the Scholarly Commons.Welcome, Megan!


What is your background and work experience?

I received a BA in Media Studies with an English minor from Pomona College (in sunny southern California). After graduating I couldn’t justify going to grad school for Cultural Studies, as much as the subject area fascinated me. The obvious career path with that degree is to become a professor, which I didn’t want to do. After some time unemployed I started a job as a worker’s compensation claims adjuster, which taught me a lot about our broken healthcare system and was generally dissatisfying. My father, a former surgeon and active in health policy, started a health information technology company so I quit insurance and started working for him.

This job is where I learned about computer programming, user interface design, business intelligence, strategic planning, and attending industry conferences. After a couple of years I decided to go to library school. I enrolled at San Jose State University and started volunteering for a local independent LGBTQ library to gain real-world experience. (Check out California’s wonderful Lavender Library). After a semester I started a part time job at a small community college library and quit the health IT business. The community college library ended up being too small for me to gain as much experience as I hoped, so I took a summer internship at California State University Northridge where I explored three different aspects of digital services: the institutional repository, digitization of special collections, and electronic resources management. After receiving my MLIS this past May, I applied for a dozen jobs and eventually moved 2000 miles to be Illinois’ Data Analytics and Visualization Resident Librarian.

What led you to this field?

When I was struggling to decide on a career path, I stumbled across the library sector and dug deeper. I saw that there were so many different kinds of jobs working in libraries, in large part because of social and technological shifts, and many of these jobs intrigued me. Around the time of my internship I created a personal career mission: to use current and emerging technologies to enhance access to information and resources. It’s all about harnessing the power of technology to empower people.

What is your research agenda?

I’m exploring the ethics of data analysis and data visualization. We have tools to analyze an astonishing amount and variety of data, but how many people critically evaluate their assumptions and decisions when performing these analyses? How many people are taught to consider ethical principles when they are taught software and algorithms? How many people consider ethical principles when they design data visualizations? Algorithms and analytics are increasingly running people’s lives, so we need to ensure that we deploy them ethically.

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

I’m still very new so I’m constantly learning, which is both challenging and exciting. My favorite part has been connecting with researchers (whether students, faculty or staff) to learn about the great research projects they are doing on campus.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

I’m not sure how many researchers know that the Scholarly Commons lab is a great place to come and explore your data if you’re not set on a specific analysis process. Our computers have an extensive collection of software that you can use to analyze either quantitative or qualitative data. Importantly, you can come try out software that might otherwise be very expensive.

Also, I am an underutilized resource! I’m still learning, but if you have data analytics or visualization questions, stop by Scholarly Commons or shoot me an email and we can set up a time to chat.

If you could recommend only one book to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

Doing Data Science by Rachel Schutt and Cathy O’Neil is a great primer to all things data science (we have the ebook version in the catalog). I’m still learning myself, so I’m open to recommendations, too!

Meet Carissa Phillips, Data Discovery and Business Librarian

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Carissa Phillips, Data Discovery and Business Librarian.


What is your background education and work experience?

I earned a BS in physics and astronomy and an MBA with concentrations in finance and statistics, both from the University of Iowa. After receiving my MBA, I worked for the State of Iowa for 2.5 years in the newly-created position of “performance auditor” within the Office of the Auditor of State. After that, I moved to Chicago and worked for Ernst & Young (now EY). For my first 1.5 years there, I was in a newly-created auditing position within Internal Audit Services; for my last 3.5 years, I was an analyst in the Mergers and Acquisitions Due Diligence group (later renamed Transaction Advisory Services).

I joined GSLIS (now the iSchool) in 2002, and worked as a graduate assistant in the Physics Library (since closed) until I graduated in May 2004. I worked as an academic professional in the Library until 2005, when I was hired as the Business and Finance Information Librarian in the Business and Economics Library (since closed). I earned tenure in 2012, and moved to the Scholarly Commons (SC) that same year. I moved again in 2015, this time to Research and Information Services (RIS), and was the interim unit head for a year. This past January, my title changed to Data Discovery and Business Librarian, and I now split my time between RIS and SC.

What led you to this field?

Events were converging that made me stop and reassess my career and life direction. I started to think about what I loved to do. There was a common thread of research and investigation running through every job I had ever held, and I realized that was the part I enjoyed most. So I started to look around at professions and careers that would let me develop and formalize my skills in that area, and I stumbled across librarianship. Once I learned that the top-ranked program was in my home state, it was an easy decision.

What is your research agenda, if you have one?

When I was working toward tenure, I studied the approaches students took in gathering information during experiential consulting projects and their perceptions of the research process. Now, as part of my transition into my new role of Data Discovery and Business Librarian, I’m exploring research areas that will inform my activities.

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

I love working with researchers to help them identify resources from which they can acquire or derive the data they need. My favorite situations are the ones that seem impossible, when it’s so unlikely that anyone ever collected that data… and then I find it.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

It really depends on the context, but I love any opportunity to recommend Hathi Trust for social science data. This is one of the best places to hunt for that “impossible” data I mentioned earlier, the data you can’t believe anyone ever collected.

Meet Helenmary Sheridan, Repository Services Coordinator

Picture of Helenmary Sheridan

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Helenmary Sheridan, the Repository Services Coordinator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library. Helenmary manages the Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship (IDEALS), a digital archive of scholarship produced by researchers, students, and staff at Illinois. She also conducts outreach with scholars interested in using Illinois’ other public repository, the Illinois Data Bank.


What is your background and work experience?

I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from the iSchool at Illinois in 2015. I earned my degree through the LEEP program and worked at Northwestern University as a metadata and digital curation assistant while I was in school, which was a wonderful experience. Before that, I worked in visual resources, primarily with the digital collections at Northwestern and prior to that at the University of Chicago where I did my undergrad. At U Chicago, I majored in art history and took significant coursework in geophysics, which was originally my major.

What led you to this field?

I came into this role primarily from a strong interest in metadata. I was creating metadata for digital objects at Northwestern. I had been working with an art historian, and the role developed into project management, working with software developers to build a repository. So I got into working with software developers, and my interest in metadata led me to being a sort of translator between librarians and developers. This led to my being interested in technical infrastructure, without being a programmer myself. But I do have some programming experience, which allows me to communicate more easily about what I’m doing.

What is your research agenda?

In general I’m interested in service management. I’m presenting at DLF (Digital Library Federation) in a couple of months on what it means to be a service manager in a library, museum, or archive setting when a lot of management systems are built for an IT environment. We often have people coming into service manager roles from something else, and I’m interested in seeing how this gets done practically.

I’m also interested in interfaces and how designers of technical systems conceptualize our users and how, through technology, it’s really easy to abuse users.

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

I do! I love communicating with people and patrons outside of the university. At many academic libraries, you think of your patrons as being just part of the university. Running IDEALS, I communicate with lots of people all over the world, which is really satisfying. That is, both helping people here, and communicating with all sorts of people to spread Illinois scholarship worldwide.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

I think that a lot of people don’t look outside of their disciplines, which makes a lot of sense. As a researcher, you develop your most efficient ways to find information. But as a student, it can be really productive to go to sources outside of your own discipline. When I was an art history major as an undergrad, I wrote my thesis on scientific illustration and scientific representation through art. Can you trust an artist who has no scientific knowledge to represent what they see? I was consulting lots of scientific work and lots of technology studies stuff, as well as lots of art image databases.

The way these resources are organized is totally different. It broadened my horizons to see what a wealth of resources is out there. Stuff that isn’t necessarily in the libguide for art history, or science and technology studies.

That’s another satisfying part of my work. A diversity of stuff comes into IDEALS, so when I can’t help a patron directly, I can help them find a related resource that might be useful to them.

If you could recommend one book to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

Something I was thinking about the other day is Clifford Lynch’s 2003-2004 papers and talks on institutional repositories, about how they are going to help solve the crisis of scholarly communication. He suggested that they would become tools to provide researchers with alternative sources for dissemination of their work, or even a platform for new forms of scholarly communication, and he imagines this future where there’s a robust system of interconnected repositories that can all communicate with one another.

Contrast those with his 2016 updates, in which he addresses a trend of saying that the institutional repository has failed. He thinks it’s true that institutional repositories and the places that run them haven’t fulfilled all of these promises and that it might not be worth an institution’s time to develop a repository. But you can use repositories in different ways, and different ways of using them have emerged. He rejects the claim that IRs have proven to be a failure. So instead of seeing institutional repositories and other repositories as a solution that failed to solve a problem, Lynch’s work helped me think of them as solutions to problems that weren’t foreseen.

For instance, you’ll have family members who are looking up their great aunt’s thesis to have something to remember her by. This problem falls outside the traditional scope of academia, but institutional repositories prove very beneficial for people in these sorts of ways. This helps me think about digital libraries in general. We’re not just trying to solve a problem, but to help people. We should be user focused, rather than problem focused.

Helenmary Sheridan can be reached at hsherid2@illinois.edu.

Introducing Clay Alsup, Scholarly Commons Intern

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Clay Alsup, Scholarly Commons Intern. Clay started working at the Scholarly Commons in August 2017.


What is your background education and work experience?

I started out in community college, and got my BA at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, majoring in Philosophy. After that, I received an MA in Philosophy from Louisiana State University. I did a year in AmeriCorps working for Hospitality Homes, a wonderful not-for-profit in Boston that provides free volunteer host housing for people who travel to Boston for medical care. I spent another year in Boston working at Eureka!, a puzzle and game store, which was an enormous amount of fun. I came to the University of Illinois in 2012 to enter the PhD program in Philosophy.

What led you to this field?

I’d say that I didn’t really have a choice; I was never all that good at anything else, and I was always quite good at philosophy. Neither of my parents were surprised with where I ended up. I love reading and teaching philosophy and just never really get tired of it.

What is your research agenda?

My project has to do with what conspiracy theories are and why we find them so compelling. There’s a small literature on what a conspiracy theory is and whether anything is wrong with them in philosophy. In most of the work, however, very little (if any) empirical evidence is given for why a particular definition is settled upon, and little focus is given to what is so compelling about them. In psychological and sociological literature, a definition of “conspiracy theory” is normally imposed without much questioning, though lots of work is done on why people believe them. My hope is to use empirical evidence to support a particular definition of conspiracy theory (or distinguish between different types), so that a more satisfactory account can be given about their epistemic adequacy and psychological appeal. In order to do this, I am working through a comprehensive collection of conspiracy theories with a couple undergraduates and determining what features tend to be present. In addition, I will be analyzing the text using various tools in R in order to uncover other, less obvious features about conspiracy theories in order to work out which are most typical.

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

I just started, so I haven’t had an opportunity to do a whole lot yet. Working on my project is one of my duties, though, and I’m enjoying that very much!

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

I’m not sure I have much to say about this. Certainly, I think that philosophers often make unsupported empirical claims in support of their arguments, and instead of waiting for a study to be conducted on the matter, it’s not a bad idea for philosophers to learn about experimental design and pursue the question themselves.

If you could recommend only one book to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

Yikes! I don’t think there’s any hope of picking a single philosophy text. For an example of an endlessly dissatisfied intellect that is always looking for a deeper understanding of various phenomena, it’s hard to outdo Nietzsche, so perhaps his On the Genealogy of Morals.

Want to get in touch with Clay? Send him an email or come visit him at the Scholarly Commons!

Introducing Matthew Pitchford, Scholarly Commons Intern

Matthew Pitchford, Scholarly Commons Intern

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Matthew Pitchford, Scholarly Commons Intern. Matt started working at the Scholarly Commons in August 2017.


What is your background education and work experience?

I would call myself a rhetorician. I earned my Bachelor’s degree from Willamette University in Oregon before coming to U of I for my Master’s in Communication, which I received in 2014. I am currently working toward my PhD in Communication. I’ve taught introduction to public speaking and writing, argumentation, and communicating public policy. The courses I teach tend to focus on thinking about how rhetoric intersects with contemporary political discourse and how people use rhetoric to make arguments in that arena.

What led you to this field?

My interest in communication began back in high school in Washington State, where I competed in speech and debate. I also worked for a few college newspapers, where I discovered I was interested in political communications. When I entered college I originally set out to be political science major, but I quickly realized that the ways of thinking about political communication in the field of rhetoric interested me more.

What is your research agenda?

I study the rhetoric of digital spaces. I’m interested in what changes and what stays the same when we start to think about rhetorical theories in the context of new media and social media. How should our theories change when we think about rhetoric in a digital space? My research here at the Scholarly Commons is about Twitter responses to terrorist events. Some of the questions I’m asking are: How do people on Twitter talk about these events? What are the political communities they’re imagining when they speak about these events? What are the ways of articulating one’s political views in this context?

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

My favorite work-related duty is talking to the subject specialists at Scholarly Commons. It’s fun to gain insight and new ways of seeing my research by discussing the problems I’m facing to my colleagues. They’re a great resource because their diversity helps me conceptualize my research in new ways.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

Savvy Researcher Workshops. The workshops for some of the more obscure topics aren’t heavily attended, but they helped me get a gauge on how other people were working on their projects and showed me what tools I should be using.

If you could recommend only one book to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

I’m cheating and choosing two books, one for rhetoric and one for digital humanities. For rhetoric I’d recommend Still Life with Rhetoric by Laurie Gries. It’s about the digital circulation of images and represents a way of thinking about distributed rhetorical activity in digital contexts. And for digital humanities I’d recommend Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism by Stephen Ramsay. It makes a broader call for “algorithmic criticism” that uses computation as a productive constraint under which humanistic inquiry can take place.

Want to get in touch with Matthew? Send him an email or come visit him at the Scholarly Commons!