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Assistant Professor Brian Dobreski Earns NASKO’s Best Paper Award Examining Aristotle’s ‘Categories’

Brian Dobreski in front of Circle ParkWhat does an ancient Greek philosopher have to do with information sciences? SIS Assistant Professor Brian Dobreski answered that in a spring 2021 special topics course, Knowledge of Organization Systems, when he had students read and discuss Aristotle’s writing, “Categories.” Not only did it provide some interesting discourse, it inspired Dobreski to write a paper, “Re-examining Aristotle’s Categories as a Knowledge Organization System,”an which earned the Best Paper Award at the recent North American Symposium on Knowledge Organization (NASKO) conference.

Spring 2021 was the first time this course was taught at SIS, and its focus is to teach students how to make and assess knowledge organization systems such as classifications, ontologies, and taxonomies.  “Categories” is Aristotle’s own creation of a system to label things that exist, and studying it was crucial because his methodologies still influence how we think about categorization today, Dobreski said.

“The course was the theory behind how we build these systems, and design them, and assess them; and to get into that, we got into how do you name something, how do different cultures decide how to name things. It started off very conceptual, which is why we started off with Aristotle,” Dobreski said. “It shows that we’ve been asking the same questions for hundreds of years, and out of this we’ve developed  an ongoing understanding of concepts and the words we use to describe them and their relationships.”

To gives students’ practical, hands-on experience in creating a knowledge organization system, Dobreski asked them to make their own taxonomies and ontologies by describing the world of a  television series.

“They went into these little mini universes and had a chance to test their skills. This skill is coming up more and more in job requirements and job postings for positions that we want to see our alums go into,” Dobreski said. “I think we had a lot of fun during the class and I think they did too from reading their evaluations.”

One of the MSIS students who took the course, Justin Blair, said his undergraduates degree focused on literary classics, so he was impressed with Dobreski’s push to engage students with writings such as Aristotle’s.

“The course was well thought-out and engaging, a perfect mix of practical activities and theoretical discussions…Dr. Dobreski has a knack for breaking down dense and complicated readings, and I always came away from his lectures with a much better understanding of the material,” Blair said. “Dr. Dobreski is masterful at giving student basic skills and concepts, then building upon them incrementally over the semester so that you end up able to tackle big projects that would otherwise seem quite intimidating.”

Dobreski said he hopes to be able to offer the course again this spring, and also hopes that his paper will aid students in the next Knowledge of Organization Systems class to better understand the throughline of what Aristotle did in his time with categorization and how that relates to contemporary knowledge organization systems.