Oral-History:Clayton Lewis (Dec 2020)
About Clayton Lewis
Clayton Lewis is Coleman-Turner Professor of Computer Science and Fellow of the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research involves technology and disability, human-computer interaction, educational technology, new approaches to programming, and representation and computation. He holds a BA from Princeton, an MS from MIT, and a PhD from Michigan. He worked for IBM prior to joining the University of Colorado. He is a member of the ACM CHI Academy and University of Colorado President’s Teaching Scholar.
In the first session, recorded in November 2020, Lewis discusses his family, upbringing, and education at Princeton, MIT, and Michigan. He discusses working for IBM, first in Cambridge, MA and then in Yorktown Heights. He discusses some of the people who were important to his development: Paul Kolers at MIT and Marvin Minsky at MIT; Nat Rochester, Jean Sammet, Dick Goldberg, John Cocke, and Fran Allen at IBM; and John Anderson and Jim Greeno at Michigan. He also discusses his brief time at University of Texas at Austin.
In this session, Lewis discusses his joining the faculty in the computer science department and the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. He discusses the interaction of these two campus units, his extensive involvement and passion for teaching, and his various areas of research in human-computer interaction broadly conceived. He also gives brief remarks about other topics related to the University of Colorado Boulder: senior administration, ATLAS Institute, and Department of Information Science.
This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE Computer Society. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the IEEE Computer Society.
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Clayton Lewis, an oral history conducted in 2020 by William Aspray, IEEE Computer Society
Oral History Interview with Clayton Lewis
Part 2 (of 2), 7 December 2020
Interviewer: William Aspray
It is the 7th of December 2020. This is the second interview with Clayton Lewis. The interviewer is William Aspray. We're doing this interview over Zoom, despite the fact that we're both in Boulder. At the end of the first session, we got you as far as Boulder. Will you tell us about your experience joining the university here?
Yes. Let's see, did we discuss how I came to apply at Boulder? Did we cover that part?
The only thing you said was that you had a friend here in town and you mentioned a name and that was [part of] the attraction.
Did I mentioned Peter Polson?
No, I don't believe so. [Actually, Lewis had mentioned Polson in the first interview.]
So, this will be a short step back. Okay. I had become active in the CHI conference community, which at that time had many psychologists in it. That's another interesting story, but anyway… Peter Polson was one of these psychologists. I don't remember, I might have mentioned to Peter that I was thinking about possibly moving to academia, or he might just have had the idea. Anyway, Peter let me know that the University of Colorado computer science department was recruiting, along with the Institute of Cognitive Science. He inquired whether I might be interested, which I was, and afterwards I learned more about what the circumstances were. This was 1984, I guess, at a time when AI was in one of its booms, and the CS department was interested in possibly getting into AI. The Institute of Cognitive Science was definitely interested in doing so because AI is, as you know, a significant piece of cognitive science, and there was nothing basically happening in AI then at CU. I was not an AI candidate, but what happened was that despite some searches that they had, they had not succeeded in recruiting an AI person, because of how competitive it was, everybody wanted to get in on AI. So, Peter said, “well, how about this guy?” Everybody was open to that. So, the department and the Institute interviewed me, sort of jointly.
The way it worked was… and again, since then, I know more about how all this happened, generically. The university has a habitual way of doing things: instead of giving positions to departments, the administration often gives positions to institutes that the institutes can't keep for their own. They have to donate them to host departments. I think that's really a good arrangement because it means that the Institute plays the role of coordinating hiring across a range of departments. (A really good example is natural language processing. CU is a leading institution in natural language processing. That's because of two Institute hires, Jim Martin and Martha Palmer. Martha was hired in linguistics as her primary appointment. She has an appointment in CS as well.) So, what had happened was that the Institute was given these positions, but on that basis.
Actually, now that I think of it, Gerhard Fischer and I were hired at the same time and on the same terms. And I was telling the story a little bit wrong. It usually is the model where the position would go to the Institute and then be placed in a department. But Gerhard and I were actually hired by computer science, but with a sort of a deal with the Institute. The startup package was provided by the Institute, but the positions are positions that were never in cognitive science. Whereas Jim Martin's position to this day is actually in the Institute, even though he's been computer science chair.
I might have applied to Boulder, without Peter telling me about this, because I was looking; but it certainly made a difference that Peter was able to assure me that it was really a good place to be and blah, blah, blah, blah, all of which turned out to be correct. So, I guess I was sort of a consolation prize for the department. Gerhard was more of an AI person than I am, but neither of us was really an AI person. Gerhard did significantly more AI, but both of us were at least partly HCI people and in my case, a lot more an HCI person than AI. So, I got hired, and from the beginning the department showed itself very hospitable to me, as somebody with a psychology PhD. Plenty of departments would never have considered me for a computer science appointment. Actually, that was something that was more in the air back then than now, a lot of departments just didn't think this kind of thing was anything they wanted to do. I would say it's been resolved now by growth and proliferation, where, for example, at CMU [Carnegie Mellon], they've got this whole HCI Institute thing. So, the computer science department doesn't have to consider having HCI people in it. Not because they don't have them, they have a huge number of them, but they're just not organizationally in the CS department. But in Boulder, the CS department was very open to the idea of having people with this kind of background.
The relationship with the Institute was very good. Walter Kintsch was the founding director of the Institute and was still director at that time. Do you know Walter? He's a very prominent experimental psychologist, best known for his work on reading, but also one of the world's wonderful, nice people. So, with him leading the Institute, it made for really easy Institute-department relations, which are by no means always easy. I don't think there's ever been a really bad time of Institute-department relations in our case.
I remember a couple of things. As I've demonstrated in the story so far, I was pretty out of it with respect to a lot of what's going on and what I should be thinking about. But I had enough clue to realize that there could be some issues with the tenure process. Oh, I should say I was hired without tenure. I was hired as an untenured associate, which I think was perfectly appropriate. I had some publications, but I've never been a strong publisher. I remember Walter, when I was interviewing, saying, you need to publish. I'll also comment, as I mentioned in the earlier part of the story, that I had a close-up look at the tenure process when I was a visiting instructor at Texas. So, I came into this encounter on the basis that I hoped it would work out; but if it didn't, it wouldn't be the end of the world for me. I knew I'd been successful at IBM, and I knew I could go back and do that if I needed to. So, I hoped it would work out, but I wasn't going to lose any sleep over it, which I think was true. I'm glad it worked out that way because I'd seen that it isn't always that way. I'm sure there are people for whom it's really awful. I feel for people whose career has been kind of a straight academic career because they tend to feel that if something goes wrong in their academic career, they're doomed as people. That's a bad, bad way to feel. Plus, in academia more than most other areas, you don't really control your fate.
I do remember wondering, who will they get letters from? I asked the chair at the time, might've been Lloyd Fosdick, who was a wonderful person who had been founding chair of the department, and I think was chair again when I was hired. Bobby Schnabel chaired the search committee. I think it was Lloyd [Actually it was Lee Osterweil]. He told me, we'll figure out who the leading people in your field are and we'll ask them, not worrying that these would be psychologists. It helped that, for example, Allen Newell was a psychologist, but was also a prominent computer scientist. I know that he is one of the people that they asked for letters, but they asked for letters from other people who were straight psychologists, and they were okay with that. I didn't worry about it, and it worked out okay. I don't remember how long it was before I got reviewed for tenure. I'd have to check my vita on that.
Then there was another thing that happened. Again, I'd have to check the relative timing on this, but completely out of the blue, from my point of view, I received the most prestigious teaching award that the university offers. I don't know that I would even be eligible to get it nowadays because, over the years, the eligibility criteria have been adjusted. But at any rate, this was the President’s Teaching Scholars program, which is a system-wide program. It's kind of a combination of an award and a service program. The expectation is that you don't just get the award and then that's that, but you become a member of a group that then does things to promote teaching. That's been very important to me over many years. I was very fortunate to be in the inaugural group of that. There was a bunch of us from all campuses. I can't remember if I was already tenured when that happened or whether that's one of the things that might've made the tenure process easier. I just don't remember. I'd have to check that.
The department was, and is, very, very accepting of people with different backgrounds. Mike Mozer, as you might know, is another person with a PhD in psychology hired sometime after I was. So, it wasn't just a fluke. The department took a broad view of what the field is about. I'd done teaching in psych - a certain amount of it actually - by the time I ended up here because I had had that visiting instructorship for a year or two, at Texas. But I had never taught anything in computer science, but everybody was okay with that. I taught only graduate courses. I did teach an AI course. And I taught a grad course in user interface design. For a long time, my teaching was basically those graduate courses. I'd have to check the timing. I also ended up teaching the undergraduate programming languages course many times. I guess, thinking about that as a sort of an on-the-job trained computer scientist, I felt reasonably well prepared for doing those things, you know? I enjoyed teaching those courses. Staying with the teaching thing for a bit, through the Teaching Scholars program, somebody gave a talk there. The group has retreats twice a year. Somebody gave a talk at one of those, arguing that departments should have their senior faculty teaching their introductory courses, which, as you know, is not usually what people do. That seemed to me to be right, and still seems to me to be right. I said, I should teach “intro”. So, I started teaching intro and did that for many years. I remember that when I first taught it, the language in use was C, and I'd never done anything with C. I remember the summer before, as the beginning of the semester approached, being more and more uneasy, because I was aware that there was no way that, by the beginning of the semester, I could have a competency in that language. But then I had an epiphany that I was thinking about it wrong. I was thinking that in order to teach this, I needed to pretend to be a C programmer, and not only would it be a disastrous mistake to try to maintain this pretense, but it was wrong anyway. So, I taught on the basis of telling the class, I'm learning this along with you. I remember my notes included my first versions of programs and the error messages I got. I did say, I know other languages. My notes were like thinking aloud about learning a new programming language. I said, you want to think about, how do you work with this kind of data in this language, and how do you work with that kind of data in this language, and so on. I think actually that the feedback at the time that I had from that initial offering of the course was some of the best that I've had. You can't really do it more than once, because once you know it, you can't pretend you don't know it.
Anyway, that was a good experience. I enjoyed teaching intro, but I stopped doing it not so long ago. Several years ago, I was on leave doing something and then came back, and then worked kind of jointly on Intro with Dirk Grunwald, a colleague who's a real computer scientist. I really enjoyed that partnership. I think we complemented one another. Later, the department shifted towards putting all the large, lower division courses in the hands of instructors. Many of them are excellent teachers, but I still think that there's value in the notion of having senior faculty on these things. Anyway, that was clearly being phased out. I’ve had trouble putting across some of the things that are most important to me about teaching. In particular, I think it's extremely important to provide students with the opportunity to work on things that they are interested in. This is one of the things I may write about in retirement, because it's an issue I am still wrestling with. There's a very strong tendency among most teachers, I believe, towards prescriptivism, that they feel somehow they're not doing their job unless they're telling people what to do. I don't agree with that. I've tried to create opportunities when I can, in my classes, for people to work on things that they are interested in. I would argue that there are many benefits, to doing that. But, as the course sort of morphed and also the department changed its teaching assignments (probably necessarily, given its huge scale up over the last several years), it wanted more uniformity across its course offerings. So, it became less convenient for me to fit in with the way other people were offering it. So, that's the teaching thread.
Actually, I'll mention something else. How did this start? I guess an outgrowth of my involvement with the President's Teaching Scholars project was a long-term working relationship with a person named Mary Ann Shea who, to this day, is the director of that program (although she's stepping aside more or less as we speak). Mary Ann had lots of ideas about things that might be good to do to promote teaching on the campus. One of the ideas she had, and I don't remember how it happened to come up between us, led to something called “Educational Technology House”. This was a project course in which CS undergrads would write software for CU faculty. For example, there was a guy named Mark Dubin, who was a neuroscientist. The students and I - I was pretty involved in this stuff - wrote a simulator of the Hubel and Wiesel experiments on the cat’s visual system. You have a light stimulus that you're projecting onto the cat’s retina, and you're recording what's happening there. You're trying to map the receptive fields by doing that. So, we wrote a simulator for that.
Many of these things never really got finished, but we worked on them. Another example was Mike Klymkowsky, who is a developmental biologist interested in a simulated biochemistry lab that would allow students to do things in a simulation that are too expensive or too dangerous for them to do for real. We did some work on that, and Mary Ann provided space over at Norlin Library. We had a small group of pretty dedicated students who worked on that stuff.
When the Discovery Learning Center building (a part of the engineering complex) was being built, the university had formed its connection with Bill Coleman, one of the co-founders of the Coleman Institute. Enid Ablowitz, who was kind of the development person associated with the Institute, was also a development person for the college of engineering. When the DLC was being built, they realized that if they could raise a comparatively modest sum, like a quarter million or something, they could build a basement, but the plans were about to close out without any basement. The cost per square foot of a basement is very, very attractive. I'd been mentioning this student project work to Bill Coleman. I'd been an observer in some of the meetings that were being held when the Institute was being set up, which I wasn't so much involved in, but I was in some of the meetings. I could tell that Bill was really interested in this idea of project learning for students. So, he wrote a check to create a basement for the Discovery Learning Center. We moved the lab from Norlin down there, and we operated there for a while. Then somebody needed to have sensitive apparatus mounted on the bedrock. So, we were pushed out of the basement and went upstairs. We operated there for a while. Then, the Educational Technology House merged with a broader kind of professional development focus. So, the project work dropped into the background, but students getting together to talk about career plans or to explore their interests continued. We didn’t continue to work in that space, but the idea for having the space had been modeled deliberately on an activity that Evi Nemeth had had.
Do you know the name Evi Nemeth, by any chance? Evi was very important in the life of the department. She was one of the people who hosted me when I came, and she was wonderful at creating settings in which students could do really meaningful stuff. She's deceased now, but she was lead author of what was originally the Unix System Administration Handbook and now Linux. It's recognized as the Bible in that field, and Evi wrote that along with mostly former undergraduate students who would work with her in a computer operations group that she ran. It brought many important computing breakthroughs, new practices, to the campus. They did things like pull cable through air conditioning ducts, and other stuff, when networking was a new thing. At that time, when you were going to run a computer system, you had to be physically somewhere in a machine room. It turned out that that machine room was an incubator for many important experiences of the undergrads. So, I wanted to generally create this project space modeled on that. But that whole thing has dissipated because it's so easy now to do work remotely. There's not the need for people to get together somewhere and do it. Even though it's really valuable for people to get together and do stuff, they don't do it. So Evi’s operations group doesn't exist any more, and there's no machine room where people hang out.
So, at some point I let go of the space that I was using. I'd gotten involved in other things as well. But what that grew into was a course which I'm giving for the last time, in fact, I had the last regular class meeting today of this professional development course, today. I meet with a mixed-level group of students, although in recent years, it's been almost entirely seniors or fifth year seniors. We work on developing their professional network, job interviewing, figuring out what they want to do, and a host of things like that. In one way or another, that's proved to be valuable. So, I'm hoping, after I step down in the Fall, to do a little bit of work with the department, to get that course into other hands, but that won't be trivial, I think, partly because at least to do it the way I've been doing it, it takes a lot of time meeting with the students. It's probably not in the interest of the typical faculty member to make that kind of investment. But one of this semester’s students has started a club to do some of what that course does, which is great. So, what I'm hoping we can work out is some way where a little bit of faculty input will allow the club to create these kinds of opportunities for students.
Tell me a little bit more about what kinds of opportunities there are.
Part of it is getting people connected, and helping them make alumni connections, and things like that; getting them to understand the importance of their human network as we call it. A good many students come up to graduation without really knowing what they want to do. So, one of the important roles this course provides is a way for students to explore what they might want to do. I emphasize to them, if you end up doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little bit of the other thing, that's perfectly okay. You know, if you're always working on what you think is the most important and interesting thing, then that's what you should be doing. If you come to the end of the semester and you've only done a little bit of this, that, and the other, well, so be it! If you get stuck on something and you do a lot of work on something, that's fine too. I think having that kind of opportunity is very important. One might imagine, why can’t students just kind of do that on their own. Well, that's not really very realistic. Students have a lot of schedule pressure. As I tell them, this course, which is typically taken for one credit, opens up a little corner of your life where that kind of exploration is what you're supposed to do. That's what you have to do, you know? Just as you have to do problem sets in other courses, that's what you have to do here. Since entering phased retirement, I'm doing that. And then what turns out to be somewhat similar is a freshmen nontechnical introduction course, where a lot of it is having alumni come in and talk about what they do. I've also taught a small course for bachelor's thesis students this year. There are 10 of them, which is a fairly typical number. For accreditation reasons, we have to offer them computing and society course content that's built into a capstone course that they don't take if they do a thesis. I've enjoyed that, but it's different from the others. I also have applied some of the same philosophy. At the start of the course there's a sort of breadth phase, where the accreditors want to see a certain coverage. And then the middle, the meat of the semester, we call the depth section. They're picking questions that they are actually themselves interested in and researching those. That course has been successful as well. So anyway, that's the sort of teaching side of things.
On the research side of things, as an HCI researcher, I guess the work I've done that's been the most impactful has been methodological. A line of work that started at IBM, and actually started with that meeting I described at the Brown Palace, with Lewis Branscomb, when I suggested that the thinking aloud technique from the psychology lab would be useful in software development. That's become now a ubiquitous practice. Anybody who's doing user interface development is very likely to do thinking aloud. That's probably one of the two most impactful things I've done on the research side of things. That did have its origin for sure when I was still at IBM.
In fact, I don't think it could be said that I contributed very much on that since coming to CU, but something that was wholly homegrown at CU is something called the cognitive walkthrough. This came from a joint research project that Gerhard Fisher, Peter Polson, Walter Kintsch, and I had. This was a very deliberately interdisciplinary NSF-funded project that ran for – I don't know how long. It was great because we and our students got to spend a lot of time talking about a wide range of interesting things. The cognitive walkthrough was one of the things that came out of that, and I remember the initial image. We were talking about a person moving through a user interface, in the way that a ball moves through a pinball machine. You know, the pinball runs into a bumper and it gets thrown over here, and then the flipper hits it up there, and so on. So, the image was that the user responds to the cues provided by user interface in a similar way. The user has some sort of trajectory, modulated by what the user imagines they're trying to do. They've got some notion of their goal, they're looking at these cues, and they're trying to respond to them.
Peter and I developed this idea, together with a bunch of our students. We had a number of students who worked on this in the early stages. We developed a method for critiquing a scenario. In the cognitive walkthrough method you've got an idea for a user interface to support people doing something or other. Then what you do is you pick an example of something they might be doing with this. And if you're the designer, you work out, what do you want to see them do? So, you've created this interface with the idea that certain things will happen. What is it you're hoping will happen? That's kind of your happy story, which is going to end with them having done all the things they need to do with the user interface to accomplish their goal. So, you start with what you want to see happen, and then you critique that. Basically, what you're asking is, what are the odds that things will really happen this way? So, you work through on a very step-by-step basis. Here they are, they look at whatever is on the screen when they start out, and they've got in mind something that they're trying to accomplish, and they're going to be trying to find some guidance in the cues that are on the screen. It could be the label on a button, or it could be the heading on a menu, or whatever. They're trying to do something, like I'm trying to delete something. Well, here's a button that says “delete”. Maybe I should press that. Okay. So, the first question is, given what they're trying to do… well, actually, the first question is, are they going to be trying to do the right thing? Maybe to begin with that's the case, but in the course of working with the interface, they may say, “well, I'm now working on this subgoal.” But guess what? That's not going to end well. That's not what they should be thinking about. So, are they thinking of doing the right thing at this juncture? If they are thinking of the right thing, is it going to be apparent to them what they need to do? If it is, is there something else that also might look like the right thing? If there is, that’s going to be trouble. There might be a button that says “delete”, a button that says “remove”… not uncommon. Well, that's gotta be a problem.
Then, supposing they do the right thing, will they believe that they did the right thing? A sort of a neutral, but not so great, situation, is that there's no obvious indication that anything's wrong, but neither is there any clear indication that what you did was right. That's risky. Of course, even more risky is if it looks like they didn't do the right thing, when they did. So, if you carry on that analysis through the whole scenario, then you come up with potentially a lot of actionable work. You can do things like try to suppress those irrelevant, but relevant-looking controls, and stuff like that. So, Peter and our students developed that method and published a number of papers, including evaluations of it. That, too, has become a completely standard approach.
I have to say that one of my proudest moments was sitting at a table full of participants at some workshop or other many years ago -- I don't remember anymore what it was all about, but there were a bunch of people there. We were supposed to be working on something, and somebody pipes up and says, “There's this great method that I've found out about. It's the cognitive walkthrough method. It's so cool.” I mean, it's not so often that you actually hear somebody saying like that. If you were to Google it, it's all over the place. I kind of feel like I earned my salary. If nothing else that I'd done has really amounted to very much… those two methodological contributions have become standard.
I have worked on a bunch of other stuff, including, off and on, I've worked on causal attribution, which is relevant to user interface design. I argue it is, anyway. It's a question of how people learn how to do something. Maybe the clearest case would be something like a command language. In general, people learn stuff like that from examples. Actually, I've been recently doing some work again on this, in a much broader setting. But it's quite mysterious, in general, how people are able to learn stuff from just single examples. We did some work on heuristics for causal attribution in the context of learning command languages, and in particular, how to generalize commands to new situations.
There's another thread in the work of my students and me: new approaches to programming. Going all the way back to my original motivation in going back to school, trying to make comprehensible computing systems, I'm attached to the romantic vision of some form of programming that will be much nicer than programming as we know it – of which I'm not much of a fan, or a fan at all really. Over the years, there've been many versions of this. Actually, few of them have had much lasting impact. In my opinion, this is one of the places where we've left stuff on the table. I guess this is something I might conceivably try to work on in retirement.
So, a few examples. One that we didn't bring to wide fruition, but it has been brought out, I'm sure completely independently, is spreadsheet-based interactive graphics. We had the idea of linking the values in spreadsheets cells to the coordinates of graphical objects, and having this be a two-way linkage, so that, for example, you can drag a point around and its coordinates will update in the spreadsheet. Then also you could have formulas in the spreadsheet that would determine where things are put. One of the examples that you can do that shows this off is a really quite remarkable theorem in plane geometry, that if you have an arbitrary quadrilateral (and I mean arbitrary, it doesn't have to be convex or anything), you find the midpoints of the four sides, and you connect them, you get a parallelogram, no matter what. You can set that whole business up, where you start with the end points of the line and then you can calculate the midpoints, and then you have lines connecting those, and you drag it around, and it all works.
More exciting perhaps is that you can have a clock running in a cell. And if you do that, then you have animation. So, this is somewhere out in the direction of wanting to have a very simple kind of system that can do all kinds of interesting things. Then, once you have the clock there, then you can give yourself a time integral operator in your spreadsheet. If you do that, one of the things you can do is to have a mass on a spring, as a simple example, and you can get the dynamics completely from first principles. You have what the stretch on the spring is, and you have the spring constant, so you can generate the force. Then using that and the mass, you get the acceleration, you integrate that, you get the velocity; integrate that, you get the position, and you can do all that and start it up. By George, you get simple harmonic motion, not because you’ve said that's what the motion is, but because that's what it turns out to be. In fact, you can do it in 2-d as well, and you'll get an elliptical orbit and all the stuff that you should have. There's a system called Geogebra, which is a very refined version of all of that and a lot more. It's no longer all that simple, but anyway there is a case where the basic ideas have been put out in a very finished form, but it's not by us.
Another system, which was a thesis of a student named Brigham Bell, is a system called ChemTrains, a pictorial rewrite system. One of the high-water marks of that system is, suppose that you needed an interactive model of a Turing machine. And suppose you didn't know that the Internet is full of those things, that you can just go out and find, but you needed to create your own, or maybe it's some other time, a time when nobody has created one for us. You need to do that. So, with just a little bit of fudging, you can get a completely operable, interactive Turing machine with one pictorial rewrite rule. You have a “before” picture that shows the tape and the read-write head and the control table and all that stuff. Then you have a single “after” picture. That expresses the complete dynamics of the Turing machine, in such a way that you could add new states to the state table and all that stuff. It all works. It's pretty cool, but it was implemented in LISP, and hasn't ever been sort of moved on from that.
I talked with Brigham more recently, maybe three, four years ago, about trying to do something with it. Then I ended up being pulled in other directions, and Brigham had some ideas in some ways related to his work as a professional, very high-level programmer. But those directions were kind of less interesting to me. So, I don't know that that's likely to go anywhere, but there was stuff published on all this. A side branch of that work, which also had some impact, is something called “problem-centered design”. Brigham, John Rieman (another student), and I set out to do the design of what turned out to be ChemTrains. It had certain high-level goals, but we didn't know how we were going to realize them. We developed a design approach that was built in a structured way around use cases that expressed our aspirations for the design, to begin with, but also represented issues that arose in the design process. So, rather than framing issues in purely abstract terms, we tried to capture the emergent issues in the form of examples that illustrated them. We ended up writing a book chapter about that, and I haven't checked to see how much it's been cited, but I've made a lot of use of it in advising students. I believe there's a lot of design wisdom in there. Those ideas have had more impact so far than the ChemTrains work itself, which reminds me of another outgrowth, a long-term interest in the theory of representation. Another paper, that's been cited quite a bit, written with another student, when he was a master's student, Steve Wehrend, who these days is a vice president at VMware, and went on to do a PhD on other stuff with me. We did a paper on visualization from the perspective of theory of representation, which is a generalization of something called theory of measurement. I don't know if you've run across that stuff. There's a book, a series of books, Krantz, Tversky, Luce and Suppes. You'll know some of this probably, if you’ve run into ratio scales and interval scales. Is that something that you've encountered? No. Some of theory of measurement is about physical measurement, like measuring length and time and stuff like that; how does it work. Then the psychologists got into it because they were interested in measuring stuff where there was no cultural history of measuring them, like intelligence. Okay. Then you get into questions like, does it make sense to subtract one IQ score from another or not, or to take the ratio of two IQ scores? Does that make sense? I've been working on sort of generalizing this framework to cover more complex situations. The theory of measurement is a theory of representations where the things you're using to represent stuff are simple mathematical structures like numbers. But, of course, we use all kinds of more complex things like bar graphs to represent stuff. I argue that it makes sense to extend this even to interactive programs and other things, which represent things. This is long running stuff. I wrote a small book largely about this when I was on a fellowship over in Germany a couple of years ago. One of the initial products on this was the paper with Steve, using these ideas from theory of measurement to classify visualization techniques, where you'd say, what's the mathematical structure of the data? That’s the idea in that paper, and it's been cited a fair amount. I haven't looked at it lately.
Something that punctuated this whole trajectory, the research trajectory anyway, was serving a term as department chair. Unwisely, I decided to continue teaching and let my research die down while I did that. I probably would have tried to do all of it, but my wife said that if I didn't drop something, she would leave me. When I finished my term as chair, I didn't know what I was going to be doing. At that point, the leadership of the Coleman Institute got in touch with me. When I was department chair, the university was approached by Bill and Claudia Coleman, who wanted to start an institute that would promote the development of technology to help people with cognitive disabilities. Actually, Bill just passed away recently, which is a very sad event. At any rate, Bill and Claudia were both tech people, very successful tech people, and they had a niece with a cognitive disability. When the niece was a little girl, the Colemans had given her an Apple II computer, and their observation was that she'd really liked it. They felt it was really good for her, gave her things to do, and helped her to be active intellectually. They reflected that nobody associated with the Apple II had any thought whatsoever about their niece and her needs and interests. So, they thought, what if people were thinking about that? So there's a lot more that could be said about that agenda, but at any rate they made a quarter billion dollar commitment to the university to start this institute.
As chair, I'd been sort of around the edge of that. So, when I was talking earlier about Bill Coleman supporting my work on project-based learning, that's what that had grown out of. In fact, connected to a couple of things here, Bill's first visit to CU – he had no prior connection with CU at all – was to speak in my freshman class, which is another story. But anyway, we'd gotten to know one another a bit, but I had not been primarily involved. Gerhard actually was involved in the early going in the institute. There I am, just having finished being chair, gotten voted out by my colleagues as department chair, and not knowing what I want to do. The director of the Institute asked me if I would like to get involved with the Institute. I don't really know why that happened, but I do have speculation, which is probably not wholly off. As tech industry people, the Colemans had pretty strong views about what kind of work really needed to be done. Those views were not very well aligned with the typical academic outlook. The hope was that the Institute would act to shape what mainstream technology companies do, rather than kind of inventing new stuff. The reason they thought that -- I think correctly -- was that they knew very well what the economics of tech are, namely that all the stuff that we can afford, like iPhones, that we think of as being cheap, is actually hugely expensive. The only reason any of us can afford any of this stuff is that there are a gajillion iPhones made. If you needed to make one iPhone, it would cost you a billion dollars or something like that. The Colemans knew all of that. So, while they would certainly recognize that there's an important role for one-off innovations, they felt strongly that what was also needed was to try to shape what mainstream companies are doing so that the technology everybody uses, that’s going to be affordable, would provide better support for people like their niece.
I think you'll recognize that this isn't the kind of thing that the typical academic gets out of bed in the morning to do. So, I sort of fantasize that the Colemans might've had a conversation, when the Institute had been running for a while and they were sort of looking at what had been happening and not much of this kind of stuff that they wanted had been happening. I sort of fantasize that they might've said, when we were there at CU, didn't we meet somebody who had actually worked in industry? Wasn't that Clayton Lewis? I don't know if anything like that actually happened, but the effect was as if it had, and the founding director asked if I would get involved. I went there for a while as scientist in residence. I know that what I imagined myself doing, and what I actually did, ended up being quite, quite different. As a psychologist, I was intrigued at the prospect of trying to understand something scientifically about cognitive disability. But people that I asked counseled that that was going to be way too hard to do. And still is, I would say. And it's true, I had worked in industry, and so I found the other agenda also congenial.
I've worked on and am still working on that side of things. At the moment, I'm working on what I argue would be an improved interface to the sort of consumer-grade home automation stuff that's out there these days, because what we've learned is that a lot of people with disabilities, and those who care for them, make a lot of use of that kind of technology. Some of it it's pretty consequential, it can really increase people's independence. But with rare exceptions, caregivers don't feel able to do what they have to do to make it work. We believe that a different user interface would make that possible. So, that's an example of some of that work we've been thinking about. Because of Bill's passing, we've been taking a bit of stock about what we've accomplished. I would say our probably more important contributions have been more diffuse, and not so much tied in with research of any kind. Going back a decade, if you were in a conversation about disability and technology, the word for that is ‘accessibility’. Can people with disabilities access your stuff? The conversation was always dominated by visual impairment. Then there would be a little bit of stuff about people being hard of hearing, and some about with people with motor challenges, but basically nothing about cognitive challenges at all. I remember being in a meeting with some people working in that field and having the argument made that they really didn't want cognitive challenges to be discussed at all. Because the industry people who sponsor this kind of work were very afraid that if cognitive issues were to be allowed into the conversation, they would be asked to try to do things that they didn't know how to do. So, they preferred keeping these questions out of the conversation altogether.
Well, today that situation is very different. If you went to a conference about this stuff 10 years ago, there'd be essentially nothing about cognitive disability. Now, a lot of what's at the conferences is about that. Then there are other arenas in which, you know, various federal standards and guidelines and things come up; and one can make parallel observations there. So, why would I assert that we had anything to do with that? Well, I could tell particular stories. There was a very influential task force, federal task force, mostly staffed by people outside of the federal government, talking about guidelines and regulations for accessible technology. I, and a friend of mine who is a person with a cognitive disability, were invited to present to that group. I'm often reminded of that. I'll meet somebody somewhere and they say, “Oh, I remember, you and Nancy Ward came and talked about such and such.” And that was something that wouldn't have happened, had it not been for the institute, something that I did in my role at the Institute. That's the research story. So, we've done the research story and the teaching story. Then there's also a service story.
Before you go there: you have mentioned in passing the Institute of Cognitive Science, but you've said very little about it. Could you talk about it some?
Yeah. So, I mentioned that something about the institutes and guiding hiring in particular. At the university when I came, the institute was in a very vibrant period. It's in another one now. In between, it was kind of less vibrant, and I participated less in between, anyway. So, the Institute acted, as I've said, to promote recruitment of people who were interested in various aspects of cognitive science, which is a very broad field. I mentioned Mike Mozer, who was hired in computer science. Mike was a pioneer of the field that used to be known as connectionism and these days it's neural nets and it's a mainstream, even dominant kind of topic. Mike was a pioneer and is still very active. He left CU not long ago, and he's at Google working on that stuff. One of the things he said when he got there, “I'm on a floor with 300 PhDs working on this stuff.” Another person who was at CU for a tragically short period, who, I wish would have been here forever, is Paul Smolensky. I don't know if you know that name. Paul is probably the most capable and insightful person I've ever known, and I've known a lot, a PhD in physics, I believe. I think he post-doced in San Diego with the groups that pioneered the whole connectionism outlook. Then he was on our faculty. He was also hired through the Institute – cooperatively by the department and the Institute. Then there was a guy named. – what was his last name? There's a weird sort of invariant people have pointed out, which is that there's always one philosopher on the campus who participates in the Institute of Cognitive Science; and who it is shifts, but there's never more than one at one time -- ah, Rob Cummins was his name, and he was very influential.
Oh, I forgot a whole line of research. I'll try to fill it in. The institute acted as a kind of convening of people who had these different intellectual interests. Paul was wonderful in that way. He was the kind of person where you just loved talking with him and and he loved setting up events. We used to have these wonderful seminars, year in, year out. There's a weekly seminar at the Institute, but when things are really hot, then it would be like special evening events that people would turn out for. So, a very lively setting intellectually, but also – and this was, I guess you could say, from a more cynical point of view, what's in it for the university – a lot of funded projects came out of all these conversations. In my case, there was as much as a five-year project (I'm not sure how long). I did a science education project, at Uni Hill Elementary School across the street from the campus, called Science Theater / Teatro de Ciencias. That grew mainly out of interactions between me and Nancy Butler Songer. These days, she is Dean of Education somewhere; she's on her second Deanship. But anyway, she left here and went to Michigan many years ago, and then has gone on to do other things. She was interested in educational technology, and I was too. I should try to remember where the original germ of these ideas came from. The idea was this. I can tell you one of the examples we used to sort of put the idea across to the National Science Foundation, which we were able to do. Deann Bucher, the wife of one of my students, Cathleen Wharton, was a teacher and then a curriculum person in one of the local school districts. Through Deann, we got ahold of some lesson materials, and one of the lessons went like this. There are the ingredients, and then the process. You get two identical blocks of ice, two pails full of warm water, two stopwatches, and a hammer. With the hammer, you smash one of the blocks of ice, and you put the fragments in one bucket of warm water, and you put the intact block in the other bucket. With the stopwatches, you time the melting of the ice. When you've done that, you're finished. You look up at the top of the sheet and it says, “Learning objective: measurement and observation.” So, this seemed to us to be a travesty. What kids should be drawn into is, what's going on here? And in particular, why is it that the fragments melt more quickly than the solid block? That's kind of interesting. I forgot to mention another of those new approaches to programming things, probably because I had little to do with it intellectually, but another of my students is a guy named Alex Repenning, a very successful educational technology person based in Switzerland. Alex developed a system that’s been very successfully commercialized, called Agentsheets. This is a rule-based system, not with pictorial rewrite rules like ChemTrains, but another kind of rule. It turns out it's pretty easy using this system to create a 2D version of the ice fragments thing. There are some subtleties there, which other students worked out. But at any rate it's not too hard to set up a thing where the kids can build a model where fragments will melt more quickly in a way that you can see why that is. What it has to do with, as you probably appreciate, is that melting is a process that happens on the boundary of things. So, if you have the intact square (in the 2D case) it has less boundary, and it doesn't melt as fast. That's what this project was about, the notion that kids should think about why things happen, and they would try to represent their ideas about why things happen with models that they could actually run. Some of that actually worked out. For example, one fifth grader built a model showing why vermiculite in a potted plant is a worthwhile idea. In this model, there's the soil and the roots of the plant and stuff, you can put water in, and the water percolates through. If there's no vermiculite, it's gone. But if there's vermiculite, it traps the water, and the roots can get at it. There was a lot of interesting stuff there.
As usual, I didn't make as much of this as could have been made of it, perhaps. But at any rate, this came out of the Institute of Cognitive Science, which is where Nancy Songer and I met. We could talk about this idea, and we ended up working on the proposal together. That's an example of what it did.
Then the thing I mentioned before, the project that led to the cognitive walkthrough, that was definitely an Institute project. Walter was the Institute director, and Peter was a professor of psychology. Gerhard and I were professors of computer science, and we got together and wrote this proposal and got it funded. The Institute was definitely what that was about. More recently – and it's certainly nothing to do with me – the Institute is hosting one of the first five of these $20 million NSF national AI institutes. The Institute contrived the hiring of a guy named Sidney D’Mello, who's a professor of computer science, but hired by the Institute. He's the person who is leading this, the director of it. It's got I don't know how many institutions participating. Sidney is a real powerhouse. I think we're entering another period in which the Institute is really fermenting a lot of interesting stuff. In between, they did stuff that other people would find interesting, but that’s less interesting to me. You might know, or not, that psychology and cognitive science have kind of taken a pretty strong neuro turn. I'm old enough not to see that as a particularly good thing. I started back in a bit more with this new work that's happening there.
Did you want to talk about service?
I've found CU to be a good place with many, many strengths. The institutes are strengths. I've certainly benefited from the Institute and being involved in it. Another strength I'll mention, which is maybe a little bit esoteric, something that would come under the service heading. There's something called, it goes under different names, but I think it's generally called program review. This has changed in form over the years, but in outline every seven years, every program, which would include every department, but there are other things that are programs that aren't departments, gets a pretty full-dress review, which includes people coming in from outside as reviewers, and I've participated in that many times. Departments need internal as well as external reviewers. I've served as an internal reviewer many, many times for different departments. This is one of those things that you can imagine has sort of bureaucratic dimension to it.
It's not uncommon for people to gripe about the whole thing, but I always emphasize, I'm always happy to participate in this, for a particular reason. Many years ago, the then-Dean of Arts and Sciences, whom I knew only slightly, got in touch with me to ask if I would be willing to undertake an assignment for a friend of his, who had just come in as the corresponding Dean at another major university that I won't name. I probably could name it by now. This Dean wanted somebody to have a look at what was going on in their computer science department. Somebody else agreed to do this, too, so the two of us showed up in the university town, and we have a meeting with the dean at a restaurant. There's a newspaper, maybe even that day’s, with the headline “Computer Science Faculty in Death Threats Scandal”, or some such thing. It was explained to us that this Dean, who had come in unsuspecting from somewhere else, had found that there were apparently really awful things happening in the computer science department. I'm sure they hadn't become public, because this newspaper was recent, but he had figured out something wasn't right, and arranged for us to come in. You know the sort of film in which you see the same events from the perspective of different characters. This was what that experience was like. We would talk to somebody, and we would get a picture of what was going on. Then we talked to the next person, then we would get a wholly different perspective. And then we'd talk to a third person. It turned out that this department, for years, maybe as many as 25 years, had existed with virtually a blood feud between two factions of the faculty. It had come out into the open on that particular day, but it had been simmering there kind of forever. One or more chairs had managed to keep generations of deans in the dark about this, until this one guy showed up who decided he wanted to find out what was going on. People we talked with said, “I was hired here, and it's terrible, but I'm stuck. And the reason is that my partner is on tenure track in another department and is very happy here.” Then we talked with the grad students, and they would say, “Well, you just learn that if you have professor A on your committee, then you absolutely cannot have professor B, and vice versa.” So, that was just how it was. Another thing was that, in addition to sort of conspiring to keep people in the dark about this, they also managed to conspire to sort of divvy up some spoils. The teaching load for their doctoral students was higher than what they had for the faculty. It was really awful. But – and this is the connection to the program review stuff – they didn't have program review. So, they just lived with this for decades. We sent in our report, and the Dean blew away the department. I think it may have been reconstituted some time ago. But for a while, they blew it away, and moved some of the faculty into the math department, and some to electrical engineering. For a while, they just didn't have a computer science department because it was just too toxic. So, having been through that, I think it's worth a lot of bureaucracy if you can do things in a way where that stuff doesn't happen. I believe that the way we do things, those things do get caught, although I'll comment that the system isn't perfect. Were you around when there was a huge scandal in one of our departments over sexual harassment and what not? Maybe that was before your time?
I heard a little bit about it [but it was before my time at CU].
Okay. When that blew up, I had a sinking feeling because I had done one of these program reviews for them, not that long before. I’m thinking, did we miss this? I went back and looked at our report. We didn't miss it, but it's not enough for somebody to say, “Look, there's something here. Yeah, it isn't right.” People have to follow up, and that didn’t happen. Anyhow, program review is another thing that I appreciate about CU, even if imperfect.
Oh, another thing I like, that's maybe not quite as prominent now as it has been. Actually, you might know, or not, that the rec [recreation] center is a completely student thing. What I mean by that is it was founded by and funded by students, and it's still operated by the students. They apparently, somehow or other, issued the bonds and did that whole thing. And they run it. So, that's an example.
Then, years ago, there was something happening in engineering that's no longer happening, but it was something I featured when I was telling people about the place. There had been an artificial solar satellite, an artificial planet, that NASA had put up, or JPL, or whoever does those things. It came to the end of its planned mission, but it was still working. Then it was turned over to CU, and generations of CU students operated it. Actually, it made a lot of difference. The NASA mode of running things was kind of what you might have in your mind's eye about the Apollo missions, your gymnasium full of guys with white shirts, looking at screens. You can't do student stuff that way. So, they had to develop a whole new generation of mission-control software, which would map all those screens onto one screen, and have a bunch of alerts so that one person could keep track of the thing. That was apparently picked up, and now it's become standard for other things that NASA does. Anyway, for years you could go to this lab in the engineering center and there'd be students in there running this spacecraft. So, I've appreciated that about CU, that there's a lot that happens, that the students do, not because faculty are making them do it. So, there's, a lot to like.
Something I’ll confess to not liking so much is the relationship between the administration and the faculty, with guilt on both sides, I feel. The faculty are generally happy having the administration worry for them about things like budgets, and more generally they are OK ceding power to the administration in significant ways. The last couple of presidents were installed over pretty strenuous objections of the faculty, but those objections made no difference. A painful change during my years was the abolition of the university newspaper. It used to have real journalists, who reported on things happening at the institution, including controversies, and the administration decided they didn’t want that. Now we just have press releases on the Web.
What [other] organizations within the CU community (Atlas, information science, NCWIT) do you want to talk about?
I don't have a lot to say about NCWIT [National Center for Women & Information Technology]. I've had some involvement with them here or there. I've never sort of fully gotten into it, but I admire what they do and I’m supportive of it. There was a time when I was more active, I guess in things that actually predated NCWIT. There's this thing, I guess it still exists, the Anita Borg Institute. My colleague Liz Jessup and I did some activities with them which we thought were valuable, and we were happy to be connected with them. Occasionally I'll learn about some NCWIT events, and I have a positive impression of them.
Information science. So, I played some role in the founding of that, but a pretty minor one. The heavy lifting there was done by Leysia [Palen]. I don't know how much you know about that history, but I would say that if it weren’t for Leysia, there would be no such department. Leysia brought to the project of establishing the department a lot of knowledge about what other institutions were doing and had done under the heading of the iSchool movement. Nobody else involved in the whole thing, starting the new College of Media, Communication, and Information, knew really much of anything about that. People kept trying to low-ball the whole thing, trying to get Leysia to agree to lead something without any resources. She very properly, in my view, kept telling them, if you're going to do this, you gotta do it right. Eventually, I guess, she wore them down about the right way to do this. So, I was very impressed by that, and by what she was then able to do in the way of hiring a great group of young faculty.
For a while there, I went through a period of not having an office, by my request. The reason I did that was that I realized that if I sat in my office, I would never see anybody. That's one of my critiques of CU, but the Engineering Center is particularly bad in that respect. I suppose you've been in the office tower of the Engineering Center. The nature of that place is that every office can be fully occupied with your colleagues, or they can be completely empty, and you can't tell at all because there are these solid doors and there's just no visibility of anybody doing anything. There's no point in having an office there. It's just somewhere you work to get away from people. By giving up my office, I forced myself to spend time where I would see people. I used to spend quite a bit of time in the old information science offices in the Environmental Design building. Then there’s a computer science instructional lab in one of the wings of the engineering center; I used to hang out there. I'd hold office hours, for example, there. Sometimes, I would sit in the lounge of the CS department, or other places. Anyway, that came to mind because one of the places I used to hang out was the old information science offices. When they moved over to the Telecom building, that was more like the engineering center. There wasn't an obvious place for me to hang out. I think I was probably busy doing other things anyhow. I think I used to see you in the old offices occasionally back there, I know I did. You had that big overstuffed chair, that was the thing. I love talking with you, but to me, one of the sad things about academic life is that it's not organized so that you get to have these conversations, that one loves having. Maybe I’ve already said this: at one time I made a little bit of an investment in reading faculty memoirs. There are a lot of them, and very many open with some observation like that. They say, “I pictured myself walking across campus, having a deep conversation with a colleague from another department. But guess what? It never happens.” That's a tragedy, I think. Anyway, I liked hanging out with you folks partly for that reason.
Atlas [Institute at University of Colorado Boulder] came from a planning effort that Bobby Schnabel put together, which was kind of the more timely version of what led to the formation of CMCI – by which I mean, closer to the first wave of other institutions figuring out this, that this was the kind of thing they wanted to do. I forget who were the early movers. I know that one of the examples that influenced us a lot was Cornell. They had this kind of matrix. Ischool-ish, but actually it wasn't an iSchool, but a sort of a school of computing. That was influential in part because Bobby Schnabel, who organized the planning for this, was a Cornell PhD alum and knew everybody there. Bobby ran a wonderful planning program that involved something like 30 people from all over the campus. I wish I remembered more about how he did it, but it was great. We had really substantive conversations about stuff and gathered a huge amount of information about what a school of computing could be like. What happened was that he succeeded in selling the administration on the idea of having a school or college of computing. You may know this, our chancellor at the time made a public announcement that CU was launching a college of computing and the computer science would move from engineering into the new college. Do you know this story? Have you heard it?
I don't know the story.
So that was announced. So, why don't we have one? Well, here's why. At the time the administration, unbeknownst to us as faculty, maybe Bobby knew, I don't know. Anyway, they were in the process of firing the then-dean of engineering, and that made it difficult for them to interact with him and other people associated with the college. So, very mistakenly, they decided to ignore that. They had had no communication with any of the donors who support the College of Engineering. I think we in computer science could have been forgiven for wondering whether these people knew that they had a computer science department because they had shown no sign of it before. How do I know that? Well, the engineering center was built in the sixties with wings for the departments. There was no computer science department at that time, and so no computer science wing. Dean after Dean would say, “I know you really need space, but after all, what can I do?” It wasn't until after what we're talking about that we got a dean who said, “you need space and I'm going to do something about it” – Rob Davis. So, he did. He reallocated space and he carved out a CS wing. And a lot of other stuff has happened since. We're talking about before that. We just weren't well supported in the college, but, as part of human psychology, the threat of having something taken away increases its desirability considerably. That's exactly what happened. The Engineering Advisory Council got up in arms. They said, “you can't do this.” I think I was [department] chair at the time. We made a rear-guard effort to try to find some solution that would allow us to have a college of computing but still retain some kind of connection with the college, to keep them happy. But it didn't work. And at the time Bobby was, I don't know what his title was. Bobby is one of these people who easily does three jobs. And he usually has three jobs. I think he might've been head of IT for the campus, as well as I don't know what; and then having this Atlas planning. Anyway, he had been planning this. So, of course it was a huge blow to him that this whole thing had to be walked back, which it was.
Atlas was the consolation prize. What was done instead of creating this new college was to create an Institute. That was a model that was there. We've talked about the institutes, but this one was different. It reported directly to the chancellor for a while. It had the objective of being a free radical in the intellectual soup of the campus. The notion was: it's outside the colleges, and so it can incubate ideas that will influence anybody. It was intended to, and did, host some amount of educational innovation, but more, I think the enduring part of it was creating a kind of meeting place for technology, arts, and media. Its most successful program was the technology, arts, and media program (It has been renamed now.) It was a place where, if you were a journalism student and you realized that computers were important, you could take courses in Atlas. And if you were a computer science student, and you thought that maybe graphic design is something that could be important for what your doing, you could go there, too.
I would say that the traffic was kind of asymmetrical. I think there were more people coming from the arts towards technology than from technology, but I'm reminded of its value every now and then. A good many of the alumni that have been coming in this semester, talking with the freshmen about what they did, say that the best thing I ever did was to take that technology, arts, and media course. It's served an educationally very important role that way. I don't remember the whole sequence, but there was money raised for the building that's there. In my opinion, that was something that we did not manage well. I will plead guilty because I had some part in that. Not much of one, but I believe that buildings for the purpose of intellectual exchange need to be as much as possible kind of open-plan kinds of buildings. You’ll know that the Atlas Building is sort of the opposite of that. Well, not all. There’s a black box theater and an auditorium of some size, but mostly it's carved up into lots of little spaces. I don't know if you've visited the Media Lab at MIT. They've been in more than one building, but one I remember had this huge kind of atrium space, and everything sort of opened out onto that. It just seemed like a space with a lot of visibility of what people are doing. Atlas is not much like that. I guess a lot of it's been redone, but there used to be a space where I used to go and hang out in that period when I didn't have the office. There was a place where there was a reasonable amount of traffic there.
I used to be on the advisory board. There was a long-running advisory board there, some of whom became significant donors, like those the building is named for, the Rosers. There used to be a board that had a mixture of faculty and outside people, potential donors. I used to enjoy participating. Under new leadership, they have a new board and I'm not on it anymore. So, I know less about what's going on. A significant change was moving the Institute from reporting to the chancellor to reporting to the Dean of Engineering. Moving into engineering seems to have been a good thing. Now the director is Mark Gross. Mark has, I think very explicitly, wanted to create something that would play the role of the Media Lab, which, as you know, has been hugely influential. I think Mark has made some progress towards that, hiring a lot of people of the kind that ordinarily you don't tend to find in colleges of engineering. I think the leadership of the college recognized that too, and they thought it would be good to have these kinds of people there. So, as I say, I'm less knowledgeable about what's really being on there. I haven't talked with Mark much lately, I guess that's a COVID impact. As part of my hanging out, I used to hang out over there; and I would see him, and we would talk occasionally. But it's been a long time since I've talked with him. So, I don't really know what he thinks, but my general sense is that he's making some progress towards creating that sort of creative technology space.
I'm mindful of the time. We have about 10 minutes to the hour. There are at least two other topics that I wanted to give you a chance to talk about if you wanted, CHI. And the other was sort of wrap up with reflections on your career and what you've done and what you wish you would have done. Do you want to take on either one of those topics?
Sure. Let's do CHI. If we do set up another session, I can also do the career reflections, but CHI I can probably do reasonably briskly. I think I was at the first meeting that eventually launched CHI. There was an earlier special interest group of the ACM. I'd have to look and find out what they were called, maybe office automation or something like that. And then a group of people at the University of Michigan, including Judy and Gary Olson, were involved. I was one of the participants. I guess I would have still been at IBM when this was going on. I think I was out of the country when the first of the conferences that then became CHI was held. So, I think I missed one and then I didn't miss any for many years. I was program chair or co-chair twice. I never was general chair, but I was heavily involved. I was on the doctoral consortium a number of times.
And then CHI and I kind of fell out, and we're still kind of out. I stopped being a regular attendee. Then I got named to the CHI Academy. I do like that because there are a lot of old friends. I've tried to go to that a few times, but I haven't been actually since Glasgow. I don't know how many that's been. I might go again for the reason that I mentioned, but I'm not much in sympathy with the organization as a whole these days. That's because, in my view, it's become academic and cutesy, and it didn't use to be that way. When I started there, as I mentioned, I was at IBM; and while we were doing research, I certainly had the view that we were doing the research in aid of what companies like IBM were doing. In the early days I felt that way. It was a pretty healthy balance. There were a lot of people who attended that one could call “practitioners”. It wasn't just researchers.
That began dying out because CHI went in a direction where it became clear that nonacademic contributions to the program were not really valued all that much. This kind of came to a head, I don't know that it matters what year it was. I'd have to try to figure it out. But I was on the program committee one year, charged by the program chair specifically with getting non-academic papers on to the program because it was recognized that we were losing that. The dynamic is not hard to understand. For a lot of people, it's much easier for them to get funding to attend if they're on the program. If we wanted industry people to attend, we needed to accept their papers. So, I had the special charge from the program chair, and I completely failed. I would go to another committee member and I'd say, “Here's this paper”. And they'd say, “Well, that's not as good as this paper. How can we turn this paper down and accept that one?” It's not a completely black and white picture. It's not like there's no industry work, but most of it is industry research, Microsoft Research or IBM Research or whatever, and that's different. In particular, it's not work which as a rule influences what people really do very much, which I felt and still feel is important. That's one of the things I think that keeps intellectual communities vibrant, when they're engaged with people who are actually doing stuff. And it became clear that the community didn't really value that.
I'll tell another thing that's emblematic of this larger problem. Do you know about HCIC, the human-computer interaction consortium? I used to be a regular at that, and I haven't fallen out in the same way with that. That's more been… it just hasn't been convenient. I would probably go to that again, at some point, although it's grown in a way that I think makes it less to my taste. But anyway, the last time I was there a faculty member whom I won't name gave a talk, which was basically, um, how was it put? It might literally have been put, “how to game the CHI reviewers.” And if it wasn't put in exactly those words, that was clearly the import of it. It was about how to package your work in such a way that the CHI reviewers will accept it. You can see the evidence of this kind of outlook anytime you look at the program. All the titles are cutesy and, and many of the topics are also kind of cutesy. I actually am as politically correct as the next person, but still, you see that there's a lot of sort of ordinary work that just doesn't show up because people just aren't interested in it, because it's not gimmicky or it doesn't address the sort of fashionable concern of the day. I don't find myself thinking, I'd really like to go to CHI. I have been occasionally, and I like to go because of meeting old friends. I don't mean to say that there's nothing of interest there, but there's really not much. I just don't like that. I don't like the atmosphere.
To add to that, one of the side effects of CHI going the way it went, is another organization which used to be called UPA, Usability Professionals Association. It's changed its name recently to UX Professional Association. It is a separate professional association of practitioners. In my view, we shouldn't have that. But we do. I went to a fest event for a friend, not someone who had been a close colleague of mine, but somebody that I'd done some work with and who influenced me. It turned out that most of the people attending that event were from this other community. They recognized me, and identified me with the CHI community, and they were hostile. I couldn't blame them for that, even though this was some years after the split. They felt they were pushed out. They wanted to do their thing. So now, we're doing our thing and we're not interested in their thing, you know? I don't remember what I did to convey that I was somewhat in agreement with them, but this is all bad stuff in my opinion. Too bad.
End of session