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Celebrating the Extraordinary Careers of Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar

April 27, 2021

Celebrating the Extraordinary Careers of Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar

With great gratitude, the Center for Human-Computer Interaction recognizes Deborah Tatar and Steve Harrison for their many contributions to our community and to the world. On the occasion of their well-deserved retirement to the home they’ve been building in California for the last several years, it’s appropriate to step back and thank them for all the ways they’ve made an impact. Deborah and Steve have performed outstanding research that has inspired and shaped the field; they have provided leadership at many levels; and they have served CHCI, Virginia Tech, and the profession admirably. But they will be remembered just as much for their strong convictions, their thoughtfulness in all aspects of life, their hospitality, and the personal impact they’ve had on their students and colleagues.

Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar joined Virginia Tech and CHCI in 2003. Steve had been a researcher at Xerox PARC and Deborah had been at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International). Steve’s background and training is in architecture, with degrees from UC Berkeley.  He is a licensed architect in California, specializing in architectural-scale display, and holds eight patents. Deborah’s background is in psychology and cognition (B.A., Harvard; Ph.D., Stanford), with interests in social attention, ethics, and computer-supported cooperative work and learning.

In addition to being a member of CHCI and a professor in the Department of Computer Science, Deborah has had a courtesy appointment in Psychology. She is a Fellow of the Institute for Creativity, Art and Technology (ICAT), and a member of the Program for Women and Gender Studies at VT. In addition to being a member of CHCI and a professor of practice in the Department of Computer Science, Steve is a professor of practice in the School of Visual Arts

Deborah and Steve made important contributions to CHCI and the broader HCI community through their service and leadership. Steve helped establish the CyberArts program at VT in 2005, which was a conceptual precursor to the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). He later became Associate Director for Social Informatics in CHCI, and served on its Executive Committee from 2015 to 2019. During this time, Steve led an interdisciplinary effort to create the HCI Minor now offered at VT.  He also served as director of the Human-Centered Design (HCD) interdisciplinary PhD Program offered through the VT Graduate School. In the professional HCI community, both Deborah and Steve have given many years of high-level service, especially to the ACM DIS and CHI conferences.

Steve and Deborah initiated a workshop in 2016 on the theme of What Comes after CHI? PSI (People, Systems, Information), with outside speakers including Paul Dourish, Lilly Irani, Peter Scupelli, and Niklas Elmqvist. It grew into an annual event on this theme of the Future of HCI. The workshops have been held annually on different sub-themes since 2016. The annual workshop series is now one of the key initiatives of CHCI, and will be remembered as one of the most lasting contributions made by Deborah and Steve.

Professors Tatar and Harrison are well known at Virginia Tech and in the human-computer interaction community for their research contributions. They jointly led a research lab in CHCI called THIRD lab, which combined Deborah’s Pragmatics of Educational/Emotional Technology (POET) Lab and Steve’s h.Lab. Their work made fundamental advances in our understanding of designing technology for humans, and in particular on theories and methods for describing and studying HCI phenomena. Their seminal paper “The Three Paradigms of HCI” deepened our views of various ways to approach the study of human-computer interaction and design, and elevated phenomenological approaches alongside more classical human factors and information processing paradigms. Former Ph.D. student Joon S. Lee reflected on how this research has impacted his own career: “I still go back to their work whenever I start new research projects. Their work is the main theoretical underpinnings of my research.”

Deborah’s research spans many technologies and application areas, but often centers on enhancing communication and engagement among humans. For example, she developed and tested a platform called ThoughtSwap, which was described as “a new way to engage in discussion using a facilitation technique and online platform that can deepen and enhance face-to-face discourse through anonymity, listening, and response.” This reflects her deep motivation to encourage people with divergent backgrounds and points of view to come together in dialogue. She often develops minimalist technologies that facilitate human communication without getting in the way.

One of the common themes of Steve’s scholarship is space and place, starting with his early work on Media Spaces. Kurt Luther, associate professor of computer science, reflected, “Steve's research at the intersection of HCI and design continues to inspire me ever since reading ‘Re-Place-ing Space’ as a graduate student.” This line of thinking has influenced many of us in CHCI. “Steve’s passion and research experience in space, place, and embodied interaction played a critical role in shaping the future direction of the CHCI … this has had a major continuing impact on the Center for nearly two decades,” said Chris North, professor of computer science.

Beyond specific research contributions, their research approach has been a model for many. Former Ph.D. student Stacy Branham put it this way: “Steve and Deborah did ‘slow research’ of a sort that I have rarely seen since my doctoral studies. They let their students walk away from meetings with half their bookshelf. They encouraged us to talk about the big ideas––the sort of ideas that put the 'P' in PhD.”

While their scholarly contributions are considerable, Steve and Deborah have also made a significant impact on the lives of the students they taught and mentored. For many years Deborah was the faculty supervisor of the student-run Association of Women in Computing at VT. AWC seeks to promote and retain women in computing fields, through regular informational meetings (on topics of interest), community building, and professional development. 

Steve and Deborah’s classroom teaching was thoughtful and thought-provoking. It pushed students to think, speak, and write carefully, and to challenge their assumptions about other people, technology, and design. Speaking of Steve’s teaching, computer science Department Head Cal Ribbens said, “So many students told me that his courses were uniquely responsible for changes in how they thought about CS, and in many cases in their career aspirations.”

Of course, their own graduate advisees were perhaps the most influenced by these two professors. When we reached out to current and former students, we received far too many testimonials to include in this article, all of which spoke to the deep mentoring and care provided by Steve and Deborah to their students. Here are just a few quotes:

Working with Deborah, I found an encouraging and resource-rich environment to be creative, learn, and explore, coupled with a tireless push to ask the why's and how's that would help me to find my way to my research trajectory that aspires to help us understand human-human relationships through study of human-computer interaction. (Michael Stewart, former Ph.D. student)

Deborah, you have been one of the most inspiring and genuinely caring mentors I could  imagine. The dedication of energy and heart from both you and Steve to your students has influenced my own approach to advising and supporting students. (Whitney Wall Bortz, former post-doctoral scholar)

Over the years these two people have grown from respected professors to dear mentors for me. We've spent countless hours in conversation about all aspects of life, I've come to them for advice on personal matters, I've had many dinners with them, hung out with them most Fridays at Hack n Snack, introduced them to my boyfriend and even had them at our wedding. (Melanie Trammel, former M.S. student)

Measuring the impact that Deborah and Steve have had depends not only on what they did, but also on who they are. When asked to reflect on their careers, most students and colleagues focused on their personal qualities, and in particular, their genuine care and concern for all the people around them. Ribbens remarked, “Both Deborah and Steve have consistently set a great example for our faculty and students as outstanding academics who are also just plain nice people—caring, gracious, good-humored, interested in people and the world.”

Even for those in CHCI who never worked directly with them, their caring was evident through their hospitality. Numerous CHCI social events were held at Steve and Deborah’s home. Scott McCrickard, associate professor of computer science, recalled, “One thing really stands out to me: their willingness and enjoyment in sharing their home and family for events of all sorts.  Whether it was a visitor from far away or a celebration for someone or something local, they made people feel welcome and kept the good times rolling.”

For Deborah and Steve, their research, service, advising, and personal lives are all reflections of their commitment to and belief in the best parts of being human. Ph.D. students Aakash Gautam and Javier Tibau summed it up: 

You could think of Steve and Deborah as amazing Humanists. They are a great example of how caring and empathy can be a part of our way to work and live: from a career that remained forever true to their long-held commitments to promote meaningful human experiences, to fostering loving relationships with their students, communities, and the broader world.

Steve and Deborah, the CHCI community wishes you all the best in your retirement! We are grateful for all the ways that you have made us better thinkers, designers, researchers, mentors, and people.

All quotes

“Deborah, you have been one of the most inspiring and genuinely caring mentors I could  imagine. The dedication of energy and heart from both you and Steve to your students has influenced my own approach to advising and supporting students. Thank you!” 

--Whitney Wall Bortz, former post-doctoral scholar

“It is always interesting to talk about research and any other subject with Deborah and Steve — they live the examined life —  from probing a research question to poking the structural foundations, trappings, and social constructions we imagine ourselves standing on!”

--Andrea Kavanaugh, Associate Director, Center for Human-Computer Interaction

“I have always valued Deborah's deep thinking about the potential impact of computer science on everyone and everything, and on how to train students to carefully wield the power of computing.

Steve's research and teaching opened minds and broadened students' perspectives throughout his career.  So many students told me that his courses were uniquely responsible for changes in how they thought about CS, and in many cases in their career aspirations.

And both Deborah and Steve have consistently set a great example for our faculty and students as outstanding academics who are also just plain nice people --- caring, gracious, good-humored, interested in people and the world.”

--Cal Ribbens, Dept. Head, Computer Science

“Steve and Deborah did "slow research" of a sort that I have rarely seen since my doctoral studies. They let their students walk away from meetings with half their bookshelf. They encouraged us to talk about the big ideas––the sort of ideas that put the 'P' in PhD (I recall and energetic engagement with "the science wars!"). They instilled fundamentals of inquiry; rather than being driven by publication, we were driven by curiosity and intellectual exploration. It was "research or perish," not "publish or perish."

Steve and Deborah built a culture in THIRD.Lab that made space for "queer" people and thoughts in computing. That is, many of their students and supervised research projects were atypical for a Computer Science Department situated within a College of Engineering. They attracted students who identified as women and people of color in computing. They studied computing not through bits and bytes and error rates, but through the lens of family relationships, storytelling, education, design, and more. As a graduate of a CS program comprising a mere 4.2% women, I did not feel a true sense of belonging until I found THIRD.Lab.”

--Stacy Branham, former Ph.D. student

"Steve and Deborah are a large part of the reason why I am who I am today.

During my junior year at Tech I had begun to realize I was much different than my peers. When we finished our homework, I wanted to go hang out with friends and do photography, while they had many programming personal projects they delighted to work on. There was this whole other side of me that loved art, psychology and people that never felt like it had a place in what I was learning.

Then that spring I took Intro to HCI with Steve. I remember the first lecture - where he challenges students to really think about what "design" even means using quotes many different perspectives across time and industries. I hung on EVERY word. This was everything I had been missing.

That semester I fell in love with UX and threw myself into the discipline - taking many more HCI classes at Tech (many of which were Steve's), began to TA the Intro to HCI class, signed up for undergrad research and applied for grad school. Steve was with me the whole way through.

Joining Thirdlab as a Master's student meant that I also got to know Deborah. She often challenged my assumptions about research and the world, and I was better for it. Her rich understanding of relational dynamics and experience being a woman in computing was both an inspiration and a comfort as I processed what it meant for me also as a woman in the field.

Over the years these two people have grown from respected professors to dear mentors for me. We've spent countless hours in conversation about all aspects of life, I've come to them for advice on personal matters, I've had many dinners with them, hung out with them most Fridays at Hack n Snack, introduced them to my boyfriend and even had them at our wedding. Even now that I've graduated and left the academic world (much to their chagrin ;) ) and moved away, we still stay in touch and visit them when we are in town!

Steve and Deborah - you are near and dear to our hearts. Thank you, thank you. We often joke that you won't ever retire, but we all know you deserve it so much after everything you've poured into your work, this community and us. May you be blessed in everything that comes next!"

--Melanie Trammel, former master’s student

“We are certain that all who know Deborah and Steve have seen how they make abstract ideas personal and highly relatable. In a casual conversation, they both can (and probably will) provide deep insights drawing from varied anecdotes and their extensive knowledge base. We believe that this comes from their deeply-rooted care -- caring to pay keen attention to the myriad of things in the world and caring to open up about their lives to share their perspectives with others.

Probably nobody, not even Alan Kay, has said ''A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points'' (or a similar variant) as much as Steve. We think it is a testament to his drive to challenge students to think broadly and deeply, in a way that only a caring educator would. In his class, all student presentations, no matter how dull or off-point, were met with Steve’s well-thought and provocative observations that certainly rescued the poor student (us) from embarrassment. This is a trait that we dare only hope to emulate with more experience and patience.

You can probably picture Deborah dancing back and forth, following a group of middle school students' instructions in a class exercise of her design. These exercises came about her desire to do her best to promote equity and justice in education, which in this case, was by providing meaningful computing experiences to students who previously had none. The anecdote is one of many encounters where we felt Deborah’s deep empathy towards people, familiar and stranger alike. Her concern for her students, in not just academics but all aspects of our lives was significant, particularly as international students with little to no support network! If we can manage to provide even 10% of the care that she has for her students, we will consider ourselves to be generous human beings!  

You could think of Steve and Deborah as amazing Humanists. They are a great example of how caring and empathy can be a part of our way to work and live:  from a career that remained forever true to their long-held commitments to promote meaningful human experiences, to fostering loving relationships with their students, communities, and the broader world.”

--Aakash Gautam and Javier Tibau, Ph.D. students

“It is a pleasure that you were not only my mentor or professor but also the voyager for my meaningful career. I really appreciate your guidance and supervision. As an example, your “NABC” approaching method is really really awesome. I still apply this theory in my ongoing projects. Although both of you are going for retirement, I would always seek guidance from time to time for my future development.”

--Md. Islam, student

“Fifteen years ago, professors Tatar and Harrison took me in as their advisee, taught me how to become a researcher, and showed me how to be an educator. They are still a guiding light to the path that I am taking. I still go back to their work whenever I start new research projects. Their work is the main theoretical underpinnings of my research. I am happy that I have them as my lifelong mentors, and I wish them all the best in their retirements.”

--Joon S. Lee, former Ph.D. student

“Deborah's work has always been prescient in challenging us to rethink the boundaries of computing. Her research and teaching have illuminated the critical connections between ethics and computer science; expanded the methods, theories, and disciplines we draw upon in CS and HCI; and broadened participation in computing to include underrepresented groups.

Steve's research at the intersection of HCI and design continues to inspire me ever since reading "Re-Place-ing Space" as a graduate student. His leadership in the CHI and DIS communities has shaped those communities and raised VT's external profile. His creative teaching is a model of interdisciplinarity and weaving together theory and practice.”

--Kurt Luther, associate professor of Computer Science

“Working with Dr. Tatar's as her student has been an honor and a blessing. She is inspiring in the context of work we do, and even as a person Dr. Tatar is really remarkable. In our meetings, one of the first questions Dr. Tatar asks is, "How are you?" or "How are you doing in general?" And she genuinely cares. Thank you Dr. Tatar for the amazing work that you do!”

--Chandani Shrestha, Ph.D. student


“Steve’s passion and research experience in space, place, and embodied interaction played a critical role in shaping the future direction of the CHCI during the Center's growth phase in the early 2000’s.  This has had a major continuing impact on the Center for nearly two decades, and still underlies one of the center’s current research foci on Immersive Experiences.”

--Chris North, professor of Computer Science

“I came to VT and to grad school in CS to help "make cars drive themselves". Having a bit of experience with assistive technology and then byte of industry experience with technological "solutions" that were anything but, I was super curious when Dr. Tatar's talk was announced ("Playground Games and the Diminution of the Feminine in the Age of Technology" [1]) and riveted when she gave it. Having begun my women studies education in undergrad, and having found little opportunity connect feminist politics to my tech work in my limited experience, I found my home working with Deborah. 

Working with Deborah and Steve I found my critical lens in third paradigm [2] HCI work. Moving beyond mere seamlessness, we learned to take more responsibility as designers and to *zensign* _seamful_ interactions, that would "...make us more likely to act as the selves we wish we were" [3] positioning technological interventions as tools of self-actualization rather than mere conveniences facilitating our current habits.

Working with Deborah, I found an encouraging and resource-rich environment to be creative, learn, and explore, coupled with a tireless push to ask the why's and how's that would help me to find my way to my research trajectory that aspires to help us understand human-human relationships through study of human-computer interaction. Dr. Tatar also understood and supported my interest in teaching, and developing my teaching practice. Her support coupled with that of the CS department and the VT Grad School helped me to prepare for my position as a professor in a teaching-focused program (JMU).”

--Michael Stewart, former Ph.D. student

“There are so many memories that could be shared, both individually and as a couple, and both single events and general ways of being, but one thing really stands out to me: their willingness and enjoyment in sharing their home and family for events of all sorts.  Whether it was a visitor from far away or a celebration for someone or something local, they made people feel welcome and kept the good times rolling.  Certainly the home was wonderful and the food and drink were plentiful, but at the heart of it all were the welcoming ways of Deborah and Steve.  You will certainly be missed.”

--Scott McCrickard, associate professor of Computer Science


“When I think of Deborah, I am reminded to engage in deep reflection about matters, and to remember the importance of ethical and human values. She has a rare skill to remind us about social concerns, and to be thoughtful in all that we do. With a smile she broadens our thinking, and demonstrates how we can be more caring of others.

When I think of Steve, I am reminded about his great service to CHCI, CS, and VT. As a man of action, he has instituted important changes, in our educational activities and in an improved physical environment. His humility and helpfulness have guided many students to better understand how our field can be helpful to those who could have much better experiences with computers.”

--Ed Fox, professor of Computer Science