UT has recently garnered significant national accolades, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Trailblazer award for retention and graduation rate gains and the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification for outreach. These successes are due to the hard work of our innovative employees. Here’s a look at two College of Communication and Information faculty members who are trailblazers in and out of the classroom.
Whether it’s reading a favorite mystery book, watching Criminal Minds, or doing her research, Dania Bilal enjoys trying to figure out how people think and analyzing their behavior.
Bilal is a professor of information science whose research focuses on how children use information retrieval systems—like web search engines—to find information. Last summer she received a highly competitive Google Research Award to study children’s ability to read and understand Google search results.
Originally from Lebanon, Bilal received her bachelor’s degree at Lebanese University and then came to the United States on an educational visa to complete her master’s degree and doctorate at Florida State University. Although she was supposed to return to her homeland to teach after finishing her studies, war pre-empted her plans. She got permission to stay in the United States and eventually became a citizen.
Since arriving at UT in 1997, Bilal has spent much of her research time focusing on children’s information-seeking behavior and has published trailblazing research. She remains one of the most cited authors in the world on this area of study.
Mike Wirth, dean of the College of Communication and Information, said Bilal is a prolific researcher and a great teacher.
“Dania is an excellent colleague who devotes a significant amount of her time in service to the School of Information Sciences, College of Communication and Information, and to the academy.”
One of Bilal’s early studies compared how adults and children search for information on the Internet. That research showed that while adults deal with failed searches better, they are often less persistent in searching and more disappointed with their results than children.
“Today’s children are very smart, very capable of using mobile devices,” she said. But, she added, they’re not always adept at finding the precise information they need or determining how credible their search results are.
A three-part study was conducted in 2000 with Knox County seventh-graders, and it remains a foundational reference for other researchers in the field.
Bilal said she hopes her research helps computer scientists better design search tools for people of all ages. Google is currently the only search engine that allows users to sort search results by readability levels–although many parents and educators don’t know that tool exists or how to use it.
When she isn’t teaching or doing her research, Bilal enjoys working out, writing, reading and watching mysteries, and traveling.
Journalism Professor Ed Caudill doesn’t believe everything he reads. And he wants the aspiring journalists he teaches to be just as skeptical.
Caudill spent seven years in the newspaper business before moving into academia. He’s been at UT for thirty years.
“It’s easy to write a story that has two sides—the good guys and the bad guys. Nuance is tough to write about,” he said. As a result, he said, “the media warp the way we perceive people and ideas.”
From creationism vs Darwinism to the history of Sherman’s Civil War march, Caudill has spent his career studying the way popular opinion is shaped in the media—how people’s beliefs are swayed by what’s written, whether or not it’s actually true.
And he tries to teach his students that a good story isn’t always true and a true story isn’t always good.
A perfect example pulled from current events is the recent Rolling Stone account of a graphic sexual assault that allegedly occurred on the University of Virginia campus. The story sparked a mighty uproar about college behavior. But now, holes in the story have made people question how much of it was investigative reporting and how much was fiction.
“The failure of Rolling Stone is that they failed to disrupt the narrative. They told the story that everyone expected to hear,” he said.
In his most recent book, Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign against Evolution, Caudill states that evangelical Christians have built a media campaign to discredit science that runs afoul of their literal reading of scripture.
One of the reasons the “intelligent design” idea gained such widespread popularity, he said, is because its proponents—evangelical Christians—tend to be really good at talking to the public and media, while scientists typically aren’t as loquacious.
Intelligently Designed was selected as one of Choice magazine’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2014.
Peter Gross, director of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, said the award underscores Caudill’s scholarship.
“Being chosen by Choice is almost as good as a Pulitzer,” Gross said.
In the classroom, Caudill said he challenges his journalism students to question everything, to work hard, to embrace the digital world without losing touch.
“I think today’s students are brighter than ever,” he said. “But in some ways they’re less mature.”
He tries to encourage students to see the things beyond their screens.
“You can live in a silo in the digital world,” he said.