a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: interdisciplinary inspirations

Rutgers, with its gigantic size and promotion of diversity, offers various opportunities for interaction between multiple disciplines, and my experience this morning serves as a prime example. In the Graduate Student Lounge here at Rutgers, there was a talk by Kathleen McKeown, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, on “Natural Language Applications Across Genres: From News to Novels” (see the link below for an abstract).


In a collaborative project with a professor of comparative literature, Kathy’s research team is beginning to test literary theories on computers capable of detecting, summarizing, and analyzing certain features of textual input. It was exciting to interact with computer scientists and information scientists sharing similar interests.

Interdisciplinary communication extends to my experience at Plangere. Backgrounds ranging from English literature, comparative literature, and filmmaking/screenwriting to psycholinguistics are represented in the corps of ELL tutors at the writing center.

My research – I’m the psycholinguist – is on text comprehension/discourse processing. I conduct behavioral experiments in a lab, but experimental tasks inherently share the problem of limited ‘ecological validity’ – in other words, experimental psychologists do their best to make their lab setting reflect the real-life situation and phenomenon they are interested in, but the approximation is never perfect. For anyone interested in generalizing their lab results to the real world, it’s important to ‘come down to earth’ once in a while and do a reality check by observing and reflecting on people’s behavior in a naturalistic setting, namely in real-life situations.

Tutoring at Plangere with fellow ELL tutors allows me to think about how to address ELL students’ reading and writing issues from a multidisciplinary perspective and also observe students’ reading and writing processes firsthand, rather than just build theories and models. Of course, my students aren’t just my lab rats or case studies; it’s been exciting and enjoyable to help fellow Korean students with their writing and grammar and also interact with the wonderful staff.

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