By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

Today’s information field practitioners are early adopters in bridging the world’s social, cultural, economic and technological divides, and their people-oriented, technology-led approaches to authentic communication and meaningful collaboration can increase public good efforts with lasting social impacts, according to Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor.

The Chancellor presented a keynote address, “Scholarship in Action and the Connected Community,” at the 2013 iSchools Annual Conference last week. Her talk was enthusiastically received by the audience of students, faculty members and information business partners there, according to Syracuse University School of Information Studies Dean Elizabeth D. Liddy.

Chancellor Cantor “garnered tremendous respect for Syracuse, and inspired other iSchools and universities to adopt a ‘Scholarship in Action’ approach,” Dean Liddy noted.  

Cantor’s address highlighted how several “public good” initiatives at Syracuse have connected the people of the University with many sectors of the community’s citizenry in collective, collaborative ways that have produced prospering civic initiatives. These have included iSchool projects such as the Little Free Libraries book-borrowing program, and IT Girls, a program that introduces young women to the potential of careers in the science, technology, engineering and math.

She described the information field as a natural space for intertwining academia with community, and as a place where new models of cooperation are taking shape in “inclusive, innovation ecosystem” environments. Online collaboratories and Big Data and Big Science projects all employ technologies with the potential to help us move beyond the passive transmission of ideas and, instead, facilitate authentic communication and meaningful collaboration on an unprecedented scale,” Cantor said. “And yet, it also is crystal clear that you in the iSchool movement get that the success or failure to realize that potential lies not so much in the technology as in the people who use it, and that getting people to genuinely collaborate across boundaries can be very hard work.”

Cantor said she shares with the iSchool audience “the DNA of activism that characterizes iSchool faculty, staff, students and professionals.” She said those in the iField are “big thinkers” who are “not intimidated by big challenges, whether that means taking on entrenched ways of thinking, entrenched disciplinary boundaries, or entrenched academic, professional, or government bureaucracies.” 

Given that perspective, information field professionals are perfect candidates for forming the types of collaborations needed to address many of the world’s complex problems, the chancellor noted. Despite the explosion in the storage and transmission of data in the Information Age, however, society’s issues “seem only to be growing in breadth and intensity,” evading simple solutions, she said. Within that scenario, she posed, “We can’t help but wonder: What good is all of this information doing us? Or perhaps more appropriately, What good are we making of it?”   

Higher education has “a central role to play in taking on the challenges of the world,” however, and the iSchool movement, together with higher education, has great capacities for problem-solving, Cantor said. That effort involves a model where universities that attempt to do public work tap into and engage “the civic agency, talents, and capacities of everyone, inside and outside the academy.”  

Since society’s big issues “are rooted in entrenched ways of thinking and doing things,” efforts to address them will require both “sweeping change” and “a movement on a global scale” that is “defined by nuance, place-based movements in many locales with different landscapes, norms and practice.” That is a job that “sounds like a mobilization effort ripe for the likes of talented iSchoolers,” the chancellor said. That is because the information field “can help bring people together in deep ways that mobilize active and collective problem-solving.” Such efforts will require a collaborative and collective model well beyond the customary one, using “a diverse set of ‘experts’ from across many sectors, inside and especially outside the academy, together, on the ground connected via i-technology, but in ways that fully utilize the full range of different voices, facing down the differences, in a group process that maximizes the quality of the problem solving,” Cantor added.  

The Chancellor concluded by saying that putting scholarship into action is something best done by recognizing common causes, forging strong ties across differences, and striding forward together…”as the great leaders of the most powerful social  movements throughout history have shown us it must be done.” 

Dean Liddy, who is chair of the iCaucus organization, noted that the Syracuse University-Near Westside neighborhood projects cited in Cantor’s talk “inspired several other iSchools and universities present to adopt the ‘Scholarship in Action’ theme for themselves.”

The iCaucus is composed of 39 information schools across the United States and around the world. Also presenting keynote addresses at the conference were V. Lane Rawlins, president, University of North Texas; and Ruth West, associate professor, University of North Texas. 

Chancellor Cantor's iConference address can be downloaded as a PDF.