Insatiable intellectual David Vampola revels in helping students grow

In this issue’s Spotlight, meet spirited teacher David Vampola, a computer science faculty member whose own hunger for knowledge and self-discovery has made him an enthusiastic proponent of cognitive science, information science and other interdisciplinary studies.

Q. When did you come to SUNY Oswego?
A. I spent much of my (early) adult life in Boston and spent some time in Europe. I followed my life partner, Dr. Jean Chambers of the philosophy department, here in 1995. The computer science people, along with our administration, were kind enough to see that I could be of some use. I taught as an adjunct until 1998, when I became full time. I’ve managed to make a life for myself here, and a wonderful life it is.

Q. What do you think about the students at SUNY Oswego?
A. I love my students. What I like about these students is that they are not at all pretentious. The motivated ones are interested in learning, interested in feedback, and they care. I have friends who teach at Ivy League universities. They complain that the students are always trying to show they know more than the professor. The dynamic here is not that teachers are on a pedestal, but the students are engaged with the learning. They just really are curious about the world. They don’t realize that they give as much to me as I could possibly give to them.

Q. What do you think about SUNY Oswego itself?
A. There’s a real momentum here, and I’m glad to continue to be a part of it. It’s exciting. It’s dynamic. All segments of the university have played a part in it. We’ve done some amazing things here. We’re doing research—and we’re doing it within the context of this being primarily a teaching institution. I try to get out one or two research articles a year. And the students want to know about my research. They like that we’re in the trenches with them. We’re all partners in the pursuit of knowledge. We’re all working together to push back frontiers as a collective.

Q. Can you share with us a basic definition of cognitive science?
A. Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary approach to the way the mind works. I’m thinking here not just of cognition—the act of thinking itself—but the role of emotions. We’re more than just reasoning creatures, so we need to analyze emotions and impulses, as well. The mind is an extraordinary entity, and it seems to me that we need to have philosophy, computer science, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, physics, mathematics—which is one my favorites—to try to understand the processes of the mind.

Q. Do you recall when you first became interested in studying the mind?
A. No, because I was so young. This is a lifelong interest. I should tell you that when I was an undergraduate—back when dirt was new (laughs)—the field of cognitive science didn’t exist. One of the reasons I think I studied so many different things was that I was in search of cognitive science. I definitely would have majored in it. I bounced around—I was interested in neuroscience, I was interested in social psychology, I was interested in mathematical logic. Fortunately, we developed a cognitive science program here in the late ‘90s, and I was a helper to professor Craig Graci in establishing that program.

Q. Is information science a subset of cognitive science?
A. No, it is its own thing. They have affinities. If you tug on one, you wind up pulling the other in. Information science takes some of the elements of computer science—most notably the way that data are processed—and specifically asks how do people use these data and how can these data be structured and presented in a way that’s most useful to people. I also teach a course “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” the use of computational, informational and cognitive tools to understand traditional disciplines such as English, history and, to some extent, philosophy. It’s fascinating. I’ve got a great group of students—they take it because they want to take it.

Q. It sounds as if you’re pretty invested in interdisciplinary studies.
A. I want to understand myself and the world I live in. I feel that no single discipline or line of inquiry can provide me with an answer to that. It’s an unanswerable question—let’s face it, we have finite lives—but if we see that happiness is trying to achieve a goal, even if you can’t achieve it, then I find that I’m happiest trying to find the answer through a lot of different means. I’ve been really involved with interdisciplinary programs on this campus. I have been director of information science in the past, and I was also director of IPAC, the Interdisciplinary Programs and Activities Center, for a couple of years. Fritz Messere and Damian Schofield and I were the first to draft the integrated health systems and health information technologies (graduate certificate) programs.  I teach in three of the four schools of the college: I teach MBA 511 (“Management Information Systems”) in business, I team-teach with Ulises Mejias and Cara Brewer Thompson in the first course in the integrated media certificate in CMA, I teach in the honors program and, of course, computer science, information science and cognitive science.

Q. How do you engage students in these complex, cross-discipline subjects?
A. Many of our students have good, inquiring minds. What I try to do is to motivate those minds. I want them, obviously, to know about a particular discipline, but also how the discipline relates to their own interests, and how they can be expanded (intellectually) by learning that discipline. For example, I have a final project in every one of my classes, and it’s something that the students define. I want them to take something of themselves away from the class. They’ll always remember it. I want them to use their time here as a base upon which they can build a lifetime of learning. (Animatedly shows several students’ scholarly posters on subjects from zombies and problems of consciousness to evolutionary psychology.) I’m like a dad—I keep my students’ work around. (Laughs.)

Q. You’ve had Challenge Grants and otherwise encouraged undergraduate research.
A. This is a special time in one’s life, this period from 18 to 24. It’s a time where you’re becoming specialized in your knowledge, but you’re not overly specialized. I like to see students grow intellectually. Involving students in independent studies, which I do a lot of, and supervising a lot of our honors theses, the most satisfying thing to me is to watch that wonderful growth process that occurs most dramatically at this age. It is such a delight to watch people, whether they’re writing a program for the first time and it works—they always light up!—or seeing a senior thesis done well and they hand you that final copy and there’s that smile and they know they’ve done something interesting.

Q. What are your own research interests?
A. Wow, they’re all over the place, and now you’ve got me thinking about all the things I should do this summer! (Laughs.) I’ve got a list of about 20 projects I’m working on.
Lately, I’ve been very involved in digital humanities—I published an article trying to define the field and I’m working on two articles on digital humanities’ emergence as a discipline. I gave a talk in Rome last summer on something I call empirical aesthetics. What I’m trying to do there is to root theories of art and beauty into a scientific framework, basically.

Q. Do you also have eclectic interests in your off-campus life?
A. I don’t have time, to be honest with you. I obviously like to read. I like to travel—I don’t do enough of that. In the summer, when the weather’s nice, I like walking around this lovely town of ours. Jean and I have no children. I tell my students, “I don’t have any kids—you’re my kids.” The only thing is, I don’t have to pay their tuition bills! (Laughs.)