How Robin Burke Works


Location: Wherever I happen to find myself with a little time. Train cars, waiting rooms, etc. I have three offices, if you count the one at home, but I never seem to have very much uninterrupted work time in any of them. I’m writing this in a cramped Red Line car. Very narrow seats in the new models: #fail.

Current Gig:  Professor of Computer Science, CDM Digital Humanities Liaison, Co-Director of the Web Intelligence Lab at CDM, Member of the Cross-College Collaboration Task Force.

One word that best describes how you work: Collaborative. All of my research work these days is done working with others – mostly, my colleague Bamshad Mobasher and the students in our research group. I can work reasonably well on my own, but it is easy for other priorities to interfere with research time. A live discussion brings everyone together thinking about the same problems and questions.

Current mobile device: Two-year old Nexus 5. Despite being a computer scientist, I am not an early adopter or gadget geek. I waited a long time to get a smartphone, and I would be still using my old Google G2 phone if the screen hadn’t died from taking a dive in my dog’s water dish.

Current computer: Home-built Windows 7 desktop at home, kind of wimpy actually (AMD Phenom 8450 3-core 2.1 GHz CPU, 4 GB, 1 TB disk, ASRock mobo, no fancy graphics card because who has time to play games, really), MacAir laptop, generic Dell at work (the dual monitor setup is nice, though), for research, my own Linux (Ubuntu) server for heavier computing and web site serving. Probably the MacAir gets the most keyboard time but I do a lot of work on my work computer via remote desktop.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

  • Outlook calendar. I am hopeless about remembering dates and times.
  • For other kinds of note keeping. I frequently lose paper notebooks, but not my phone.
  • Great for someone like me who loses things with regularity. If your phone is missing, the web site will tell you where it is and even make it scream so you can find it in a snowbank – true story. Best of all, when you start up the app it says “Everything is OK”. Sometimes we need all the reassurance we can get.
  • Password Safe Pro. I like a good secure password, but remembering them is another story. With this app, my memory isn’t a limitation and I don’t have to use the same password for everything. (You know that’s a bad idea, right?)
  • The ultimate text editing tool. Its control key combinations are wired into my spinal cord from 14 hour days of programming in graduate school.
  • A programming language and environment for statistical processing. Think of the Hanging Garden of Statistics, where thousands of data heads have labored for decades, cultivating their favorite algorithms. It also has some of the most inscrutable syntax known to man – you can tell it just evolved, rather than being designed by somebody.
  • iPython Notebook. Program code embedded in a web page, with documentation and execution results all in one place. This is a great environment for teaching computing and data science.
  • Remote Desktop. Lets me have my work desktop as my main machine wherever I am, saving the trouble of copying files around.

What’s your workspace setup like?  Both at home and at work – messy. I have to conduct a complete excavation about once a quarter to sort things out. Perhaps to compensate, my computer files and folders are fairly rigorously organized. I can find files going back many years from my previous institutions pretty easily.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack? Do you automate something that used to be a time sink? Being a programmer means that you think about automating things all the time. For example, I have an entire system of Perl scripts devoted to grading my C++ game programming courses. I have scripts for checking to see who has submitted the assignment, downloading each code base, compiling it and running it, filling in answers in a grading sheet. When I’m done with one, it marches on to the next student, forcing me to keep going until all the assignments are graded.

Do you relegate email to an hour a day? LOL.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager? I use Evernote and that’s good for the long-term, but sometimes I find that it is too easy to ignore what’s there, so when I have a lot to do in a short time, I go back to paper and pen. There’s something satisfying about the physical act of crossing things off when they’re done.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?  The little swiss army knife that I have on my keychain. I doubt if a day goes by when I don’t use one of its tools. I have lost 3 or 4 of these to airport security checkpoints over the years, because I keep forgetting that I have them with my keys.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?  Not really an everyday thing, but I think I am pretty good at editing our scientific papers. Graduate students often have a hard time finding the right level of detail and the right mix of theory and example to match the venue and audience. They also tend to be verbose about things that can be brief and terse about things that need explanation. Two secrets: my father owned the local small-town newspaper and I got a lot of practice editing there — in the days when cut-and-paste was not a metaphor. I am the go-to man for cutting when a paper is too long. My other secret: reading out loud. Everything I write I read to myself at least once out loud all the way through in a single sitting. (I even did this for my dissertation, multiple times. Yes, this article, too.) Your eyes can deceive you into thinking your prose is readable, but your ears – not so much.

What do you listen to while you work?  Usually I listen to jazz: from Louis Armstrong to Robert Glasper and most everything in between. I have a number of favorite Songza playlists or when I’m home, my iTunes collection. I have soft spots for Sun Ra, Miles Davis’s fusion albums, Thelonius Monk, Teddy Wilson and Sonny Rollins, all for different reasons. For massive grading sessions, nothing beats the Lord of Rings movie soundtracks and / or Mahler’s symphonies.

What do you do to stay inspired? Who are some of your favorite artists?  Collaboration is essential to staying inspired. People from different disciplines ask different questions and look for different kinds of answers. I think shifting gears is also important. I have been studying jazz piano for about 5 years now, and playing and practicing are good for recharging. Other favorite breaks are spending time outdoors (preferably with the family and/or the dog) and cooking.

My favorite artists are those that create their own worlds, and manage to make them totally compelling, where each work is like a glimpse into an alternate universe. Thelonius Monk, Salvador Dali, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon and Chris Ware are all examples.

What sort of work are you up to now?  My overall research area is recommender systems and my biggest project right now is studying how to use the data found in online social networks to enhance recommendation. I just started on three years of NSF funding for this work, supporting two PhD students and an undergraduate at the moment. I am also working on recommendation for out-of-school time activities for middle and high school students in collaboration with Nichole Pinkard and the Chicago City of Learning project. I am also working with John Shanahan on a project in association with the Chicago Public Library to do data mining on data associated with the One Book, One Chicago initiative. I also have various course ideas in the works: in robotics, in computational advertising, and in social network analysis.

What are you currently reading?  I am usually reading several books at the same time and generally make only slow progress on them because of time constraints. Right now I’m in the middle of Phantasmal Media by D. Fox Harrell. It’s an interesting way of thinking about computer systems, especially interactive ones. Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, by Chuck Klosterman. Don’t read this on the quiet car on the Metra, because people give you dirty looks when you burst out laughing. I’m also reading A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media by Mikolaj Jan Piskorski. It’s not the kind of thing I usually read (a business strategy book) but he has some good examples I plan to steal and use in my courses.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Maybe both?  Introvert. Do you really need to ask this?

What’s your sleep routine like?  My circadian rhythm is very resistant to change, so I wake up at the same time every morning (around 6:30 – 7 am), whether I want to or not. That kind of determines when I need to go to bed: 10:30 – 11:00, but depending on what needs doing, it is sometimes later. If I’ve had a late night, I’ll sometimes take a nap at the office.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.  Why?  Bamshad Mobasher. Because he seems to have twice as many balls in the air as I do, and I don’t know how he gets everything done.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?  My father was fond of saying “Beware of what you want, you might get it.” It seemed very paradoxical when I was a kid: of course, obtaining the things we want is the goal, right? But, as an adult, I know that often the things we want (or think we want) come with unexpected costs, particularly opportunity costs. This advice is a reminder to focus oneself on those goals that are worth having and whose consequences you can live with. In a world that bombards us with things that we are supposed to want, this injunction is a useful counterweight.

The How I Work series featured on the re/search blog is shamelessly stolen from Life Hacker’s How I Work series.   The SSRC’s version asks DePaul’s heroes, experts, and individuals of note to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Jessi Bishop-Royse at jbishopr [at]

How Robyn Brown Works


Location: Right now, I’m in my office on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus.

Current Gig: Assistant professor of sociology and director of our graduate program.

One word that best describes how you work: Intentionally.

Current mobile device: iPhone 5

Current computer: I have two –  a Dell Inspiron desktop computer and a Dell Inspiron laptop. Not very sexy, I know, but they’re the best for data crunchers like me.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Technology has kind of surpassed me and I’m not a big app person. I do love the Dark Sky weather app. I don’t know that I need weather forecasts down to the minute, which is what it provides, but I like that it’s more specific to your current location. I also think it’s more accurate than most weather sites and it’s so much nicer to look at. The weather maps they provide are beautiful. In terms of software, I use the statistical programs MPlus and Stata 13 all the time and can’t imagine life without them.

What’s your work space setup like? Here at the office, I have a classic u-shaped desk with loads of bookshelves and as many plants as I can keep alive, which is an ever-reducing number. I’ve really personalized the space, too, with family photos and paintings by my grandma and great-aunt. It’s very comfy. My computer screen is decorated with notes I make to myself which are kind of like “to-don’t” lists. Rather than reminding myself of all the things I think I should be doing, I like to remind myself to breathe, to slow down and think, or that new projects are just works in progress and don’t have to be perfect. It may sound kind of new agey, and it probably is. But, I think a lot of newer faculty like me get to thinking they have to be busy, busy, busy all the time, and that is very anxiety-producing. I try to stay away from that mindset and I think it makes me more efficient, actually.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack? I’ll offer one work-related hack and one work-life balance hack that work for me. The work hack is to do an unsubscribe purge every few months. It only takes a minute or two and I think it saves me so much time from sorting through junk e-mail every morning. It’s also just aesthetically nice to not be inundated with spam every morning. To do this, search for ‘unsubscribe’ in your e-mail inbox. This pulls up all of the e-mail that you probably want to unsubscribe from, and you can quickly go down the list and click to unsubscribe in each e-mail. The work-life-balance hack I suggest is to prioritize personal relationships the same way you prioritize work relationships, even if this means you sometimes have to schedule time with close family members. Time is a feminist issue because the work/life balance is a feminist issue, and I think we have to move away from feeling guilty that we’re unavailable for a work function when we’ve already prioritized that time to spend with a partner, child or friend.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager? I still find that nothing beats a hardcover date book. I get a new Moleskine date book every year and think I will forever.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?  My Kindle! I’ve only had it a month but I already know this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I commute by train from Evanston and it makes it so easy to read, work, whatever. Truthfully, I’ve only entirely used it to read, but I read all the time and love its versatility. I’ve also installed Evernote and have big plans to use it to take notes on journal articles and student work. We shall see about that.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? Secretly judging people. This is probably true, but perhaps a better answer is that I am the queen bee of sniffing out grammatical mistakes and typos in others’ work. Earlier in my career, I worked in magazine publishing and an appreciation of precision in the written word is something I’ve carried with me. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure those two answers are mutually exclusive.

What do you listen to while you work? The sweet sound of silence. We hosted the sociologist Eric Klinenberg in the fall and one of the things he talked about is how, for members of the Gen X age cohort, the norm was to have your own bedroom and personal space as a child; he suggests this has had numerous consequences for us in adulthood, such as having trouble sharing living space, savoring quiet and, more generally, expecting quiet or noise as you prefer it. I really related to this, because I like to have conditions just as I prefer them (quiet) when I work, when I sleep, etc.

What do you do to stay inspired? Coffee talk. Whenever I’m feeling rudderless, I load up my calendar with coffee dates with friends, colleagues and students.

What sort of work are you up to now? I’m fascinated by how stigmas associated with various social statuses shape our psychological experience, and how the stigmas associated with certain statuses are similar to or different from those associated with other statuses. This has been a major focus of my work for the past 7-8 years and I don’t see that changing soon. For the past five years, I’ve also been working closely with two incredible senior scholars at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Judy Richman and Kathy Rospenda, to explore the psychological and behavioral consequences of the recent recession. What I’d like to do next is bring these two threads together and consider how macro-level economic conditions affect us in ways that are fundamentally different because of the psychological advantages and disadvantages associated with the various statuses we occupy.

What are you currently reading? I’m nearly finished with Americanah by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s so wonderful and worth all of the accolades it’s received. I love reading fiction and try to theoretically group the fiction I read. So, this month I first read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which follows an American family who decide to move to Africa, and partnered that with Americanah, which details the experiences of a Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? I think of myself as an introvert who can play the part of an extrovert pretty well. I savor time to myself, though, which I imagine you’ll find to be pretty typical among academic types like me.

What’s your sleep routine like? Right now, I like to sleep as much as I can, when I can. I have a toddler, so sleep is never a guarantee.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see Doug Bruno or Oliver Purnell answer these same questions.  Why? There’s such a silo effect in academia as it is and even more of a divide between the academic and non-academic sides of university life. I realize I have actually no idea how those on the entirely non-academic side spend their days.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Avoid cliches entirely. This is a writing tip I received from an old editor years ago and it’s solid advice for a young writer. You can also take the meaning on a deeper level if you feel like being deep.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans? You can immediately file this under unsolicited advice: Allow yourself at least one vice. Maybe this is a piece of advice I wish I had received. My vices have changed over the years, but I always have at least one and I think I’m happier (if not healthier) for it.

The How I Work series featured on the re/search blog is shamelessly stolen from Life Hacker’s How I Work series.   The SSRC’s version asks DePaul’s heroes, experts, and individuals of note to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? 

GSC Fellow Joseph Cunanan on Bike Culture and Gentrification in Chicago

Having been a resident of Humboldt Park for 9 months now, I occasionally commute to work and class by bike and despite the 35-40 minute ride to downtown and getting used to the hustle and bustle of biking the streets (I am a transplant from a suburban city where biking to commute is seen as a last desperate option), I absolutely adore riding through my neighborhood. I find it thrilling to riding through the business district on Division Street under the giant Puerto Rican flag arches that border of that area and thanks to the widely marked bike lane, it feels safe to me. It always hasn’t been this bike friendly here, in fact, these bike lanes were newly built two years ago.

The Girls Bike Club (a bike club within West Town Bikes) in Humboldt Park is changing the perceptions of biking in their communities. Bike co-ops and collectives like West Town Bikes, a non-profit, are helping to grow the rate and diversity of people who ride bikes.

Even with the growth of these lanes, there have been perceptions, or I should say, misperceptions about bike use in the South and West sides. Why is it spawning so much controversy? To discover why, we need to recognize that there are cultural dynamics about cycling that is different in these neighborhoods, biking is often perceived over there as something poor people do when they don’t have access to a car.  Jamal Julien, one of the co-founder of the Slow Roll Chicago bike movement, also points out that in these neighborhoods, biking is often “perceived as an activity for children or something affluent Northsiders do”.

Even though African-Americans are the fastest growing demographic of bicyclists, a rate that doubled in size from 2001 to 2009 according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, despite those statistics, there has been a lack of education about biking and equitable bike infrastructure in these neighborhoods because the people in those neighborhood simply don’t want it. Bill Lindeke, a bike advocate blogger from the Twin Cities, calls it the “gentrification paradox”, when citizens oppose improving infrastructure such as bike lanes, out of fear that they will be priced out of the neighborhood. Debates about gentrification often focus on the surface while not addressing more concealed issues of economic inequality, which is the hidden root of the controversy.

In the midst of the growing bike culture in the city, community engagement is essential when planning new bike-friendly infrastructure in these neighborhoods. During the 2013 Summit on Bike Lanes & Equity at Austin, TX, transportation leaders and participants from six cities identified six common themes to create better bike lanes in low-income and minority communities. Most of these themes revolved around considering the wants and needs of the existing community and addressing the inequitable issues associated with biking.  Despite, the growing bike users among minorities, the interest and demand seems to be stifled by a lack of equitable distribution of bike infrastructure and culturally sensitive outreach.

The Girls Bike Club (a bike club within West Town Bikes) in Humboldt Park is changing the perceptions of biking in their communities. Bike co-ops and collectives like West Town Bikes, a non-profit, are helping to grow the rate and diversity of people who ride bikes.

Where do researchers and planners fall into this? They can start by breaking down the barriers of these misperceptions and research on groups that have historically unrepresented in bike infrastructure planning and seek for more innovations in the decision-making processes that will lead to more equitable neighborhoods.

JosephCunanan_bJoseph Cunanan has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Florida. He is currently a 2nd year graduate student from the School of Public Service, pursuing an M.S. in Public Service Management with a concentration in Metropolitan Planning and Urban Affairs. His most recent study abroad trip was to Curitiba, Brazil on behalf of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute to evaluate the city’s civic policies and innovative transit system that has made it a highly livable urban area into the 21st century. He is currently an intern for the Congress for the New Urbanism, a non-profit that works with multi-disciplinary professionals to promote walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. His current research interests are urban greenways and their effects on community and economic development.

How Zach Ostrowski Works


Location: On it and in it

Current Gig:  Artist and musician, Co-founder of sUPERIORbelly and Co-Founder of Wild American Dogs, Assistant Professor and Graphic Art Area Head (Art, Media & Design, DePaul University) 

One word that best describes how you work: H.A.R.D

Current mobile device:  Just got a smart phone it says its a LG

Current computer: Old Mac desktop with outdated adobe suite and a borrowed mac laptop from my wife’s work cuz I can’t afford the nu stuff

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? I can live w/o all apps and software but I like PhotoShop and my favorite hardware is my handheld digital recorder, also I use a pencil or good pen or marker on paper a lot.

What’s your workspace setup like? A door on two sawhorses in the back room with a cabinet full of supplies where I work on 2d, video and audio.  I do most of my thinking when I drive and make most of my work in small towns on the outskirts of the Midwest.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack? Try to stay quite and avoid the masses.

Do you automate something that used to be a time sink? I don’t think so.

Do you relegate email to an hour a day? That’s a good idea.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager? Back of a bill envelope and a pen.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why? Back of a bill envelope and a pen is really the most necessary but the gadget I use most is probably my handheld digital audio recorder.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret? !KICKIN A$$! I can share with anyone who wants to know for a 10-pound sack of that paper cash.

What do you listen to while you work? For the past few months I’ve been listening to myself rehearse because I’m trying to memorize 40 minutes of new material. Other than that at the moment a lot of Hank III, Moistboyz, Michael Franks, Harry Smith’s Folk Anthology, the George Mitchell collection of field recordings, John Northwright, Hall and Oates, Charlie Feathers, Hasil Adkins, BATHTUB SONGS soundtrack, Tevin Campbell, New Edition, Keith Sweat, old Kid Rock, Andrew Dice Clay, Greg Giraldo, Mr. Show dvd commentary, Spice 1, Esham, Natas, Vincent Gallo, nervous norvus, Napoleon XIV, Dion McGregor…

What do you do to stay inspired? Who are some of your favorite artists? It’s harder for me to put a hold on the inspirations so I can focus on a few things at a time. I’m mostly attracted to things outside the field of art and design. At the moment I’ve been looking into and thinking a lot about: job training videos, y2k (books, dvds, merchandise etc), bodybuilders, inventing conceptual recipes for non edible foods with G$, inventing interior design schemes for conceptual residential spaces with DOAK X, attorneys and law offices with commercials, the use of humor in local furniture and car sales commercials, OPRAH, raw food enthusiasts, song poems, religious gangsta rappers, creative business ventures, mascots, new types of teeth, vhs, horror, outside, tap dance and my biggest obsession at the movement is strong children

What sort of work are you up to now? I have a solo exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum of Art opening in February called BEVERLY FRESH PRESENTS MR MDWST A REAL GOOD TIME. It’ll be the biggest show I’ve ever done. I’m building 3 large-scale stage sets / sculptures that make up a big environment which will host four new performances. Then I’ll be trying to find money to bring that to Chicago.

Also the experimental feature film I made with DePaul SSRC crew called BATHTUB SONGS just premiered in LA and we will be submitting that to festivals soon. Also workin on some new movie ideas.

What are you currently reading? Karate is a Thing of the Spirit by Harry Crews

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? I’m a mellow extrovert inverted outsider all rusty tryin to stay golden

What’s your sleep routine like? All over the place

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see (fill in the blank)Payton (the mascot from BATHTUB SONGS).

Why? Because I never heard him talk.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? “You don’t want a job that needs you there all the time.” – Calvin Lee Reeder

Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?I really wish I could sing and make music like Michael Franks, and I try my hardest but it just comes out the wrong way.

The How I Work series featured on the re/search blog is shamelessly stolen from Life Hacker’s How I Work series.   The SSRC’s version asks DePaul’s heroes, experts, and individuals of note to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? 

Dark Sky Retreat 2015

Dark Sky poster image-summer

UPDATE: We’ve decided to reschedule the retreat for July 12 – 16 (with travel on the 12th & 16th). Hopefully the summer schedule will make it easier for more people to attend.

Inspired by UNESCO’s International Year of Light in 2015, the SSRC is initiating programming for the year that deals with the concepts of light, broadly speaking. Programs will touch on light in both literal and abstract ways, engaging scholars from around the University.  As a part of this programming, the SSRC is working with the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Emmet County, Michigan to host a retreat for DePaul scholars (faculty, staff, and students) to discuss and explore issues of light and darkness from the perspective of a variety of fields. The retreat will begin on the Spring Solstice–a time when light and darkness fill our day equally. Participants will share expertise and ideas, work on projects, and explore light and the darkness preserved at the park.

A select group of faculty members will form the core of the group. Each invited faculty member will offer a short presentation to the group over the course of the week–a talk, performance, lead an activity, etc. At the end of the retreat, the group will offer a public presentation developed over the course of the week at the Dark Sky park. Aside from these short daily events, the time at the retreat will be largely unstructured, leaving participants to make of it what they will.

We are extending an invitation to you to join this group to explore ideas in your field related to light and darkness, whether metaphorically (e.g., transparency in government) or concretely (e.g., light pollution). The retreat will take place from March 19 to the 26th, with the 19th and 26th as travel days. Transportation to and from the park will be provided, as well as food and lodging.

About the Location

The Headlands International Dark Sky Park is one of twenty such parks around the world, designed to meet standards put in place by the International Dark Sky Association. The park is designed to limit the amount of light pollution, preserving a clear view of the night sky. The Headlands is located in northern Michigan, near Mackinaw City, just across from the Upper Peninsula. The park offers programs on astronomy and ecology year-round.

If you are interested in participating in the Dark Sky Retreat, send an email to

Please spread the word to faculty, staff, and students who may be interested in participating!