Latest Faculty of Information News

Back to school with the new Dean, Javed Mostafa

Submitted on Friday, September 01, 2023

Javed Mostafa

“I don’t want our field to be just a problem/solution field,” says Javed Mostafa, the new Faculty of Information Dean. (Photo by Polina Teif)

The Faculty of Information’s new dean, Javed Mostafa, officially took up his position on September 1. Professor Mostafa comes to U of T from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he served, among other things, as the leader of an interdisciplinary informatics training program called the Carolina Health Informatics Program (CHIP). Previously, he was Associate Dean of Academics and Associate Dean of Research at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Professor Mostafa completed his PhD in information science at the University of Texas at Austin in 1994, with a focus on developing information query models and search interfaces for video information.

In this interview, he discusses the state of the information field, his research work, his favourite cuisine and much more.

How did you end up in the information field?

I’ve always been very interested in the intersection of computing and human behavior and human activities and tasks. I started with a degree in computer science. And then, while I was a Master’s student, I discovered the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. That journal was crucial in shaping my thinking about the field, what the information field is, and where it started. I became more of an information researcher and information aficionado, if you will. And so for my PhD, I targeted information PhD programs and those were my foundational years in terms of forming a love affair with information and the information field.

One of the questions we get asked a lot at the Faculty of information is, “What on earth is the Faculty of information?” Do you have an elevator pitch answer to that?

Information is essentially everywhere. We as a field primarily tend to focus on information that is formal in nature – documents and books and even information embedded in our cultural artifacts. Traditionally, at least, our field has had a focus on how we curate, track, monitor, organize and disseminate information. This applies especially to information for scholarly, creative and cultural purposes. And, of course, computing now plays a major role because computing happens to be a way to organize and display and share information. At its core, our field is about information itself as a phenomenon and organizing it, understanding it, curating it as well as provisioning and servicing it.

When you were named Dean, you were quoted as saying that for every challenge, you see an opportunity to grow and expand the field. Can you elaborate a bit on what those challenges and opportunities are?

As someone who aspires to leading other scholars and researchers in the field, I am always torn between the theoretical and conceptual framing of the information field and its applied and translational aspects. Most people outside the field relate to it better if you talk about the applied and translational aspects because that touches them directly. But as a researcher, as a faculty member, and as a professor, I have a duty to think about the conceptual and theoretical framing and the long-term evolution of the field.

Information as a phenomenon doesn’t always have to be studied as a way to create an information tool or a technology or a new solution. Information can be studied on its own terms and that’s where the theoretical and conceptual work happens. Information can be studied in terms of its organization, its schemes, and its possible representations.

Often, though, we get more excited about the translational and applied aspects of the information field. And I would say it’s in the translational and applied aspects where many of the challenges are emerging – in the modality of dissemination, the modality of sharing and capturing and storing of information – because we are very dependent on computing as platforms.

The challenges are quite well known and have to do especially with the complete reliance and dependence on computing platformsfor example, how information can be manipulated very easily for various nefarious purposes. Development and use of information systems, approached uncritically, may also lead to widening of the digital divide. What we adopt, as a potentially very efficient, very powerful and effective way of storing and sharing information, may unintentionally end up creating obstacles for people. And such barriers may have major implications on learning and education, and on health care, for example. 

What I would like to point out is that computing is a modality, a technology, and a way to mediate, but it is not our field. Long ago, books were considered a very advanced modality and technology to mediate information. But that was not our field. Our field is about the content, the information content, be it on tablets, on books, or on computer systems, and we cannot lose sight of that.

There are numerous areas of study demanding the attention of information scholars that go beyond the mediating artifacts or technologies. We need to continue to focus on theory and the conceptual framing as important and lively areas of work for our scholars. And I very much want to encourage that as well. I don’t want us to just get caught up in the excitement about the challenges and say, that is how we are going to grow our field. That is one way. But there are other ways we have to attend to.

While it’s relatively easy to think about problems, I don’t want our field to be just a problem/solution field. No field or important initiative can survive by just solving problems.

Can you explain some of your own personal research projects?

One of the areas that I have worked on is a neurophysiological way to understand how we process information. And because I was working in a medical imaging center, I had access to MRI machines and CT machines that are typically used to understand brain degeneration or brain trauma. I was using them to understand how, at a neurophysiological level, people process information. I actually had people do Google searches inside MRI machines.

For my Toronto version of that research – and I’ve already started working on it – I would like to connect addiction, or addictive behavior, and depression, or potential depression, to barriers to information finding and information searching. I want to use neurophysiological methodologies to understand addictive behavior with technology and try to understand potential emerging depression, and then be able to link that to barriers to information search.

The vision I have is to build a lab that assembles a group of experts – researchers visiting researchers, scholars, faculty members – as well as some of the affordable and portable neurophysiological equipment that is emerging and doesn’t require as much investment as having an MRI machine in the building.

What are your plans for your first fall semester as Dean?

My work here is, first, to get settled and understand the operational aspects of the school. I’d like us to be a predictable, transparent, trustworthy organization. And, slowly but surely, I’d like to begin to put in place some research foundations as well. I need to develop my relationships with the tri-Council agencies* [that fund research].

I will also do my very best to connect with as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. I look forward to meeting with all of the staff and the faculty including colleagues at the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses. I’d also like to hear from as many students as possible, but I know this will all take a bit of time.

*The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)

Have you asked any questions to ChatGPT recently?

No, I love the fact that these technologies have created a lot of excitement for sure. But I prefer relying on my brain and to write my own prose. I’ve worked in search and information retrieval and text mining for a long time. It’s given me a certain degree of deference for the way humans come up with text.

Did you have a favourite class at university?

My first year, first semester, when I was at the University of Texas at Austin, my doctoral advisor was Francis Miksa. He still remains a massive influence on me although, unfortunately, he has now passed away. He was an information and classification scholar with a very strong grasp of the history of the field. He used to be a priest and he would not just lecture but provide sermons. It was a performance every time and a really fun class for everyone entering the information school at UT.

What was the last great academic book you read?

I’m reading this brilliant AC Grayling book, For the Good of the World. I wouldn’t say it’s a hardcore, academic book, it’s more a survey analysis of three big challenges that society today is facing.

Last great non-academic book?

As far as fun books go, I’m going back and reading Agatha Christie’s books, especially the ones with Hercule Poirot. I’m also re-reading Satyajit Ray’s detective books featuring the beloved Feluda

Favourite vacation spot?

For me, my birth country is always the best place to go back to. So Bangladesh, going to the beaches on the Bay of Bengal. But I also grew up in the Mediterranean area so any place in the Mediterranean zone, places like Morocco and the south of Italy would be fantastic.

Favourite cuisine?

I love Asian food broadly. If I were to pick, I would say Vietnamese would be first. I’m a vegetarian so I have some restrictions. The next type of food would be Italian. They have a wide set of options that are non-meat. So that works really well.

Barbie or Oppenheimer?

I plan to see both of them, but the last movie I saw was the with my son and my nephew, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible.

Cats or dogs?

Dogs for sure. I have a dog. He’s a mix of Golden Retriever and Labrador. His name is Julius

Biggest difference you’ve noticed between Canada and the US so far?

Maybe because of my Asian subcontinent background, I’ve noticed some historical and cultural connections – I don’t know why – back to the Commonwealth way of thinking and doing things.

I am also very enamoured of the University of Toronto campus. I am living now on the campus. And I love the duality of the city and academia and the mixing of the two, that people from outside can come and intermingle, and that we can go easily into the city and downtown.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.