Vachel Lindsay: Dead Poets, Dead Generals, and a 50-year-old Dissertation

March 6, 2018 Leave a comment

2018-03-06-02-19-39-edited.jpgFifty years ago today, my grandmother, Elizabeth Thomas Fowler, completed her dissertation.  She examined the letters from the American poet Vachel Lindsay during the time when he was wooing Nellie Vieira.  My grandmother was looking for a topic to explore in grad school (while also raising four kids), and she was neighbors with “Mrs. Nell”, as the family used to call her.  Mrs. Nell offered her an ordered collection of letters that she had received from Lindsay, mainly over the course of a few years but with a few stretching over the course of a decade, and those letters formed the basis for my grandmother’s Master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation.

Vachel Lindsay was a well-known poet in the early part of the 20th century, authoring several books that are still in print today. On several occasions, Vachel Lindsay conducted what my grandmother described as a “begging tour”, where he would walk from town to town on a “sing for your supper” journey across huge swaths of America, reciting “his noisy, booming poems”.  Indeed, Lindsay intended his poems to be chanted or sung, with presentation a big part of their appeal.

Four Generations (edited)

Elizabeth Fowler with her father, daughter, and grandson (me!) in 1971

My grandmother completed her Ph.D. rather late in life, at the age of 51, at a time when she had four kids and when my grandfather was in failing health.  Indeed, she made it a point in her dissertation of acknowledging her family “for uncomplainingly sharing our home for a long period with the ‘Letters of Vachel Lindsay'”.  She went on to take a faculty position at Maryville College for a dozen years after completing her dissertation—after having served as a minister’s wife and taught in public schools and colleges for many years beforehand. She enjoyed leading groups of students, friends, colleagues, and family (including me, as a teenager) on study tours to England, often with themes like the search for King Arthur or tracing John Wesley’s travels. No wonder she was known as the GBOF (Great Ball of Fire) to her children!

Lindsay’s work hasn’t held up as well as some of the poets of his generation, though you occasionally see references to his work.  One of his most famous poems, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”, was set to music by Charles Ives (and others) and is still performed today.  Another famous poem, “The Congo”, was featured in the cave scene in the Robin Williams movie Dead Poet’s Society.  But I’ll leave you with a recitation by my grandmother of one of my favorite Vachel Lindsay poems, one that seems to capture the American spirit that Lindsay so desperately wanted to represent, “The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken”.


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What Comes After CHI? The Systems of Truth Workshop

March 5, 2018 1 comment

The Center for Human-Computer Interaction (CHCI) at Virginia Tech just wrapped up its third workshop in the “What Comes After CHI?” series, this one focused on the theme “Socio-technical Systems of Truth”.  Kurt Luther was the primary organizer, and information about the workshop is at  The workshop is described as such:

This two-day workshop, held March-1-2, 2018 … will explore interdisciplinary perspectives on designing socio-technical systems of truth. We advocate for human-centered systems of truth that acknowledge the role of belief, testing, and trust in the accretion of knowledge. We focus on processes of questioning and accountability that enable a deeper understanding of the world through the careful, comprehensive gathering and analysis of evidence. We will consider the entire investigative pipeline, from ethical information gathering and archiving, to balanced and insightful analysis, to responsible content authoring and dissemination, to productive reflection and discourse about its implications.

This post lists some of my own observations about the things of interest to me and is not meant to be at all comprehensive. Look to the workshop site for more comprehensive summaries.

The workshop kicked off with faculty lightning talks, featuring 8 faculty from 4 different departments and centers around campus.  I talked about the intersection of core HCI topics—particularly things that I care about, like claims and personas—connect with the themes of this workshop.  I included results from surveying my 105-person introductory HCI class. I used Shuo Niu’s AwareTable system to mine the student answers for occurrence and frequency, revealing workshop-relevant terms (e.g., social (40), media (14), bias (15), ethical (20)), key course concepts (e.g., claim (4), persona (6), artifact (6), scenario (6), constraint (3)), and topics mentioned in the invited guest bios and abstracts like dead (3), nude (4), and the scary gap between academia and industry (3).  You’ll have to read up on the invited guests to learn the relevance of those last few terms!

The big highlight of the workshop was to have four invited fellows in attendance: Mor Naamen, Alice Marwick, Travis Kriplean, and Jay Aronson. Each gave a talk, followed by discussant comments and open discussion.  There were also several breakout groups that explored relevant topics, and a reception and dinner.  A quick take on each of the talks and the other events.

Mor Naamen spun off the notion of “systems of trust”, where trust is the result of truth.  He focused on his research into Airbnb, showing (among other things) that longer profiles, and profiles that cover more topics, correlate with high trustworthy ratings.  So what’s the right thing to say in your Airbnb profile? Things like “We look forward to hosting you.”  And the wrong thing? Providing a life motto.

So what about fake news? Mor noted that there’s not a good reliability/credibility signal.  Possible solutions? Local news, where familiarity and relevance is high.  Proof that statements are true (but how to do that?).  Discussant Tanu Mitra pushed that notion, seeking to identify ways to encourage people to call out fake news, with the danger of risking (or helping?) their own reputation.

Alice Marwick talked about fake news: how it is created, why it is shared, how it evolves into our consciousness, and how it is (and can be) debunked.

Are people who share fake news “dupes”?  That’s been proven false multiple times over.  They share stories that support pre-existing beliefs and signal identity to like-minded others.  Algorithmic visibility and social sharing contribute to this.  What to do? Understand where fake news resides in media ecosystem, take polarization and partisanship into account in fact checking, and scrutinize algorithms and ad systems.

During the Q&A led by Carlos Evia (and afterward), Alice noted that it’s difficult for the average citizen to know what to do when someone you know (someone you’re related to) puts forth information that’s clearly false.  It’s hard to foster dialog when people are repeating stories that mirror a deeply-felt belief. The many fact-checking sites out there (Snopes, Politifact) do not seem to influence behavior, and corrections often lead to more repetition of misinformation.

Travis Kriplean put forth 3 categories of systems of truth, with examples of systems that fall into each category that he has crafted.  The categories (and systems) include:

  • empirical (fact$,
  • intersubjective (, reflect, deslider,com,
  • reflective (cheeseburgertherapy, dellider,

Andrea Kavanaugh took the lead on the discussion. One statement by Travis during the discussion that resonated with me was his statement that people have to be part of the loop—though it was unclear how that could happen with a web site.

Travis used the notion of claims a lot. But not in the Toulmin or Carroll or Sutcliffe or McCrickard sense of the word. He seemed interested in claims as hypotheses, to be debated with the help of systems.

Jay Aronson talked about methods to organize and analyze event-based video. The early part of Jay’s talk addressed how technology is a double-edged sword. It can be used for “good”, but also for harm. He emphasized the need for a trusted human in the loop, which I read as an “Uncle Walt”; i.e., Walter Cronkite, or a Billy Graham, to work the controls.

The bulk of Jay’s talk featured an examination of a video he created to show a murder that took place at a Ukraine protest.  He stitched together a collection of mobile phone videos that were taken at the protest.  There are often tons of videos of disasters, so how can you sync them?  The obvious way seems to be to look for similar (visual) objects in the videos, but that’s hard. Audio proved to be easier: by identifying and connecting similar loud sounds, Jay could connect videos taken from different locations.

Jay hired animators to connect the videos, which made him somewhat uncomfortable. These sketch-based animations make assumptions that aren’t present on the video, though they stitch together a compelling argument. Jay cautions against de-coupling the video from the people; they need to be coupled to maintain “truth”.

Deborah Tatar, in her discussion, noted the ability to query video is very important–YES!  But it took around a year to produce the video, so a query system that doesn’t take 6 months to answer anything more than a trivial question seems far away.

Breakout groups were each centered on a series of questions. A common theme was the effort to define terms like “system” and “truth”, and efforts to define people’s role in systems of truth. This section details my perspective on some of the discussions in breakout groups.

So who do we need?  Is it Walter Cronkite or Billy Graham? Mor’s work suggests that someone local may help to turn the tide, like the “News 2 at 5pm” anchor. Were/are any of these people more trustworthy than Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly, and the like?  Or just less criticized?  Or is there some different sort of person we need?

How do we determine what’s true?  And do so by avoiding provocative phrases like “pants on fire” (and “lying”, per the Wall Street Journal controversy from 2017. So is there a set of words that are provocative, that should be avoided?  And if a system helps with that, could it avoid such words From Snopes:

I realize this is quite possibly a novel idea to the Daily Caller writer, but here at we employ fact-checkers and editors who review and amend (as necessary) everything we publish to ensure its fairness and accuracy rather than just allowing our writers to pass off biased, opinionated, slanted, skewed, and unethically partisan work as genuine news reporting.

Perhaps some Daily Caller writers could give that approach a try sometime.

I realize that it may be fun for an organization like Snopes to put the smackdown on an organization that puts forth factually-inaccurate articles like Daily Caller. But is the closing snark helpful for advancing the argument, particularly to those who wish to think positively about Daily Caller?

The systems that Travis developed helped to prompt a lot of discussion in one breakout group on systems that help with decision-making.  IBIS-based systems were a big part of that, including gIBIS, QOC, and Compendium.  Steve talked about his thesis work, which was related to IBIS.  And I interjected about claims as a hypothesis investigation technique.

The reception and dinner provided a great venue for further discussion.  Students presented posters at the reception, held in the Moss Arts Center lobby area.  Big thanks to my students, Shuo Niu and Taha Hasan, for putting together posters about their work for the event. The dinner was upstairs in the private room at 622 North.

Next steps seemed to start with a writeup that would appeal to a broad population, including a VT News posting and possibly an interactions article. Some sort of literature review might fit well into someone’s Ph.D. dissertation.  Design fictions, part of one breakout session, might help spur thoughtful discussion.  And follow-up workshops at CHI and elsewhere seem like a good next step.

I suggested putting forth a series of videos, perhaps as a class project for students in the Department of Communication at VT–they’ve put together other compelling video collections.  The videos could be made available on YouTube for use in classes and other meetings.

It was great to see the different perspectives at the workshop, and I’m particularly grateful to the invited speakers for taking the time to connect with us.  Looking forward to the next steps!

A year of Pokemon GO

July 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Pokemon Go turned one year old earlier this month, and today marks the one year mark in which I’ve been playing it.

Pokemon GO is a multi-game, a collection of interconnected games with interdependent success metrics; e.g., you spin spinners at Pokestops to collect items, and those items are useful for catching Pokemon, which are useful in fighting in gyms, and so on. The objects and locations in the game correspond to actual locations, so a Pokestop may be at a church and a gym at a restaurant.  One core idea is that people walk more so they can be successful at the game. Another core idea is that people connect with friends, as these connections can help with game success.

As with many games, there are many ways to “game the game”. The common one I see is cars full of kids who drive from gym to gym and collecting as many points as possible, avoiding the pesky exercise component. And they often drive at low speeds so they don’t trigger a “driving” warning and also accumulate steps. I’ve also seen a few people with multiple phones, playing as two characters at once.  And of course, there’s ways to fake your location and set up bots to play the game for you.

I’ve played on and off for a year now. I played for a while but gave it up–I was bothered by missing the scenery when walking and the way-too-long gym battles. And I found I walked slower than my normal pace when walking with the app open, even if I wasn’t stopping to catch and battle. I only like a few aspects of the game, those related to tracking and rewarding distance that is covered. You can’t play the game unless your phone is on and the game is active, so it’s hard to just put it in your pocket and walk around (though I occasionally do, even though it burns through the battery).

I’d stopped playing for several months, but then when my son got a phone and mobile service, we started playing together. (And I started on my own, since collecting things on your own is helpful in the game.) Also, they improved the gym feature to make it faster and more fair.  It’s nice to have another way to connect with my teenage son, though it increases the screen usage for both of us at times when we might be better suited to pay attention to other things! I’ve also been lured back into the game thanks to changes in the way they run gyms, the number of Pokemon, and the colleagues and friends I’ve found who play it (and like to talk about it). Other academics have written about their own experiences related to Pokemon GO, including a great writeup about Pokemon GO and work-life balance by Amy Bruckman.

In a similar exercise-related vein, I’ve carried a Fitbit for over five years now, a wearable accelerometer-based device worn on the wrist or placed on/in clothing that counts steps by noting changes in acceleration along multiple dimensions. You can set goals, identify friends, take part in competitions, and even traverse virtual hikes (the last of which only makes me long for real hikes). Again, there are ways to cheat to accumulate steps, by shaking the step counter, or putting it in the dryer, or attaching it to the dog. And there are glitches: sometimes riding in a car along a slow and bumpy road can accumulate “steps”. My Android smartwatch and mobile phone do a lot of the same things as my Fitbit One, but I enjoy its simple interface and the connection to Fitbit friends.

The game matches some of my research and teaching initiatives, specifically toward encouraging better fitness through the apps you use. Monika Monk’s MS thesis focused on mobile exergaming among children. She and a number of undergrads developed mobile exergames that were used by nearby Boys and Girls Clubs to encourage exercise through games with tag and capture-the-flag themes.  And Andrey Esakia’s Ph.D. work, recently featured in a VT News article, examined how smartwatches can leverage small group cohesion toward encouraging more exercise. And a senior capstone project by my students, Marmallapic, resulted in an app that encouraged students to take pictures around campus on a different theme each day.


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FitAware: Wearing fitness on your wrist

July 18, 2017 Leave a comment

My Ph.D. student Andrey Esakia has been working hard on FitAware, a smartwatch and mobile phone system for encouraging improved fitness behaviors within and between groups. His hard work has started to pay off, with a work-in-progress paper at the ACM SIGCHI Conference (the top conference in human-computer interaction) and a feature article in Virginia Tech News.

FitAware builds on the FitEx program, an 8-week exercise and diet program that encourages teams to meet individual and group goals. Esakia has been developing ways to alert people of the progress of teammates and other teams, toward encouraging cooperation and friendly competition in the walking portion of the program.

The personal tracking and group connection portions of this program are related to another recent initiative that is wrapping up its first year: Technology on the Trail. A lot of my blogging now takes place there (though posts related to computer science, education, and personal things will remain here).  So feel free to follow that blog if interested.

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FIE 2016

October 17, 2016 Leave a comment

FIE (Frontiers in Education) 2016 took place in Erie PA last week with great representation from Virginia Tech. This conference focuses on education across lots of engineering-related disciplines, including computer science. The Virginia Tech Department of Engineering Education sponsored a table at FIE and had about a half dozen people in attendance, and the Department of Computer Science added four more. VT had its name on 18 papers and chaired several sessions.

My group had four papers. Mohammed Seyam talked about Pair Programming (PP) when teaching mobile software design in an upper level CS course, exploring the balance with traditional lectures and labs. Andrey Esakia looked at a model for teaching mobile software design.  Shuo Niu investigated how large multi-touch displays can be used in creative exercises for teaching. And I was part of a paper with NCA&T colleagues on mobile computing and mobile security that emerged from a workshop last year.  We were able to connect with colleagues at Western Carolina University, UNC Charlotte, CU Boulder, NCWIT, and elsewhere.


The conference has been around for a long time and seems to be managed well by a core group of frequent attendees. Sessions are well-attended, and questions tend to be thoughtful and on-point. Breaks are reasonably spaced and attract a crowd, and there was a reception after the first full day sponsored at the GE facility in Erie, followed by one of the managers from GE giving a keynote at the conference the next day.

Erie PA seems to be in a renaissance phase, with lots of effort to clean up the waterfront area and provide a good conference experience at a relatively low cost. Alas, Mid-October is already off season despite the nice weather, and several things were already closed for the year, but, as one local put it, “You can’t close nature!”  We enjoyed walking around and seeing the sights, hitting a few of the local restaurants, and biking Presque Isle in the afternoon after the conference. FIE next year will be in Indianapolis—worth a look if you have a relevant paper.

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Conference on Teaching Large Classes 2016

July 28, 2016 Leave a comment

In preparation for teaching a junior-level undergrad introductory human-computer interaction class with up to 150 people, I attended the Conference on Teaching Large Classes at Virginia Tech. There were over 100 people in attendance, with about half from VT and the rest from other universities. Peter Doolittle served as master of ceremonies, and a huge group of other people worked hard to make it a success. There was a lineup of educators from a wide variety of disciplines who shared approaches that they feel work for large classes.

My main interests were to understand how to connect with the students in meaningful ways that get them to actively practice the techniques that are important in the field of human-computer interaction. This introductory class doesn’t focus on programming but on methods, so if the students aren’t understanding when and how to use the methods, they won’t get it–and that takes practice. In past years I taught this class with 30-40 people, maybe up to 70 or 80, where I could assign in-class activities to teams of 3-4 with some expectation that I would be able to interact with all the groups. With a group of 150, that no longer seemed possible.

The conference made it clear that the notion of “large” is self-defined; it’s put forth as a size at which one feels unable to use familiar methods in teaching the class. That seemed to be a great match for situations like mine, though sometimes it meant that a speaker might be talking about teaching to a large group of 50, or a large group of 400, and the method wouldn’t be relevant to me. It would have been helpful if the breakout talks were somehow labeled with an indication of what size range “large” meant to the speaker or leader.

Martha Olney from UC Berkeley gave the opening keynote. She talked about iClickers (or free mobile phone equivalents) that encourage participation throughout a class period. She also noted that she often has a rapid-fire handful of quizzes early on to get people in their seats and engaged on time. She noted that students are more engaged and there were fewer D and F grades when even just a few quizzes were given each day. She also talked about other electronics in class and admitted she’s gone back and forth on a policy. A survey of the audience revealed that 58% of attendees allow any electronic device to be used in classes, 16% ban mobile phones, 9% ban all electronics.

Much of the conference focused on breakout sessions, where attendees could choose a session that matched their needs and interests. My favorite presentation was by Gary Green from UGA gave a great and engaging talk that pushed the effectiveness of humor and the need to call people out and keep them off balance. One example he gave was a “what’s in the bag” technique, where good answers (or questions) would give someone the opportunity to pull an object from a bag. The first time he did it, the “bag” was his lunch, and the activity arose because people wondered what was in there. He later created a bag of old kid toys, company giveaways, and the like. He also talked about ways to balance low, medium, and high stakes assignments (worth <3%, 3-9%, or 10+% of the total grade, respectively) to maintain people’s commitment and attention levels. He also surveyed students about their preferred means of communication–in order student preferences are texting, before/after class, mobile phone, learning commons, email, office phone, office hours. Audience members were stunned that he gave out his mobile number to large groups of students, but he noted that he peaked out at 6 messages an hour and most could be answered in a single word (“yes”, “no”, “5pm”, “tomorrow”). I’m not sure I’m going to try that last one!

There were tons of other pointers that were provided that need follow-up as I prepare to teach my class. Michelle Soledad talked about online homework resources like chegg, WileyPLUS, and informal forums. Deborah Good and her colleagues presented an online resource for getting students engaged. Mary Marchant and Kim Morgan talked about lessons from CIDER’s big courses workshop, detailing ways to engage people through projects, activities, and other graded activities. One theme that emerged in multiple presentations noted that many interactive techniques don’t “move the bar” in terms of number of As, Bs, or Cs, but they do decrease the number of Ds and Fs—helping the poor or struggling students. I feel certain I’ll be going through the online proposals and additional readings from the web site as my planning efforts continue.

Greg Justice from VT’s Theater and Cinema Department gave the closing keynote. He acted out lots of positive and negative examples of how lessons from theater can be used in large classes. A smattering of examples: Move from back to center-front, or move from left to right to draw attention (it’s the direction we read), but introduce conflict by moving from right to left. 50% of effective communication comes from what you communicate physically, 40% is vocal, and 10% is from the words that are used. Warm up before you “perform”, and have your students do it too. Lean forward if sitting. Get out from behind the podium. Avoid teen speak, where each sentence falls off at the end. Talk from your heart, talk from your passions.

Overall, a worthwhile experience. It was great to see other folks from my department there, including Dwight Barnette and Anamary Leal. More to come on this topic as my preparation for the class moves forward. And perhaps next year I’ll be presenting here!

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NCWIT 2016

June 22, 2016 Leave a comment

ncwit2016The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) held their 2016 annual summit last month in Las Vegas. The big news is that Virginia Tech received a NCWIT NEXT Award for our work on recruiting and retaining women in computer science (CS) and related areas. I’m particularly proud of my own work in reaching out to minority-serving institutions and in helping to craft CS-related minors (hopefully to be augmented with an HCI minor soon!), but this was definitely a team effort that included efforts by Barbara Ryder, Libby Bradford, Greg Farris, Deborah Tatar, Margaret Ellis, Bev Watford, and many others at Virginia Tech, plus a long list of NCWIT folks highlighted by our consultant Cathy Brawner, the Extension Services team, and the Pacesetters team.

NCWIT is a collection of companies, academic institutions, government agencies, and other groups working to increase women’s participation in computing-related fields through recruitment, retention, and advancement. As usual, the summit was an impressive event, packed with notables from academia and industry with keynotes and meet-and-greet events featuring exciting themes. Particularly motivating was the plenary by Melissa Harris-Perry from Wake Forest, who talked about getting more black women engaged in computing, particularly as professors. She called our Virginia Tech as a leader in this regard, particularly given the relatively large number of black women who have received PhD’s from here. But there’s certainly a need for more concerted efforts toward crafting welcoming environments for people in underrepresented groups.

Breakout groups help focus on topics of interest and importance to schools and groups with needs similar to our own. I attended meetings for the Academic Alliance and Extension Services, and workshops focused on diversity with respect to makerspaces, growth, pedogogy, and evaluation. One theme repeated at multiple venues that really resonated with me was the need for peer mentorship. We do a good job with this, but other ideas worth considering involve credit-based opportunities and other rewards for participation that enable and encourage a breadth of participation. This breadth can encourage diversity in the mentorship pool, and corresponding diversity in our student population. UC Irvine and the University of Wisconsin both have credit-based programs in place that reportedly are working well for them, and others have been considering adding them.

So who should attend the NCWIT Annual Summit?  It’s great to keep a foot in the door and make sure some people from your institution attend every year. But it’s also important to invite a few different people each year—we had myself, Barbara Ryder, and Libby Bradford there as regulars, but also our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the College Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, Bevlee Watford, for just the second time.  I’m hopeful that we’ll get some repeat attendees again next year, but it’s also good when there are new faces as well. Our departmental Diversity Committee will be under new leadership starting in the fall, so hopefully the new chairs will attend!