In spite of my best judgment and due to some serendipitous events I ended up in graduate school at The Ohio State University working with Rich Jagacinski in 1978. I distinctly remember sitting in front of an analog computer and pretending to understand as Rich explained to me that linking two integrators in a closed circuit would produce a sinusoidal signal. Six years and two kids later, with support and encouragement from my wife, I finally completed the Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology and took a “real” job at the University of Illinois where I had joint appointments in three departments [Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (50%), Psychology (25%); and the Institute of Aviation (25%)]. Although the joint appointments seemed like a good idea (especially for exploring aspects of human-technology systems that didn’t fit within any single discipline), I soon learned that I wasn’t up to the task of serving three masters. In particular, I was unable to convince my colleagues in Psychology that my research was relevant to a basic understanding of human performance. In 1990, I failed to get tenure and had to leave Illinois. In essence, I was banished to the “Pointless Forest.” However, like Oblio, I was surprised to learn that everything in the Pointless Forest had a point.
Fortunately, I found a home in the Psychology Department at Wright State University where supportive students and colleagues helped me over the tenure hurdle. I was very lucky to find a psychology department and a university where the goals of application and theory are seen as complementary, rather than opposing forces. This atmosphere encourages interdisciplinary collaborations in problem-centered research endeavors, consistent with the spirit of Pasteur’s Quadrant (Stokes, 1997). These collaborations led to an NSF:IGERT award in 2005 in the area of Technology-based Learning with Disabilities in collaboration with colleagues in the College of Science and Mathematics and the College of Engineering. It is ironic that I have more encouragement to pursue problems that span the disciplines of Psychology, Engineering, Aviation, and other domains from within the Psych department at WSU, than I had with the joint appointments at U of I. From 2004 to 2012 I was chair of the Department of Psychology at Wright State, and despite my muddling style of leadership the department thrived during this period. Following this naturalistic exploration in organizational sensemaking, I am very happy and content to return to the role of professor and to concentrate on my own teaching and research.
My research stems most directly from my failures at sports, ineptitude with music, and uneasiness with technology. I came to psychology seeking reasons why things that seemed to come so easily to others were difficult for me. This has led me to study general issues of coordination and control in cognitive systems. Specific research topics have included visual control of locomotion, graphical interface design, decision-making, manual control, and tactile displays. Along the way I have learned a little about the domains of aviation and medicine. More recently, I have had the opportunity to begin learning about command and control (in relation to military systems, emergency medical operations, and managing an academic department) and about assistive technologies for students with physical disabilities.
My publications include three edited books: two on Ecological Approaches to Human-Machine Systems (with Hancock, Caird, and Vicente) and one on Aviation Psychology (with Mike Vidulich and Pam Tsang). I have also co-authored three books. In 2003, Rich Jagacinski and I wrote the book “Control Theory for Humans,” with the ambitious goal of introducing the logic and analytical language of control systems to social scientists. More recently, Kevin Bennett and I completed the book “Display and Interface Design: Subtle Science and Exact Art,” which was published in April of 2011. This book offers a theoretical context for designing displays to support human problem solving. The most recent book is titled "What Matters: Putting Common Sense to Work." Written with Fred Voorhorst (an industrial design engineer), this book explores some of the metaphysical and theoretical assumptions underlying cognitive science and design. It can be downloaded for free via CORE Scholar: http://corescholar.libraries.wright.edu/books/127/
One of my greatest pleasures is collaborating with students to explore questions and domains of mutual interest. The opportunity to learn along side the students is what makes life in the university most attractive for me. I find that the enthusiasm and skepticism of students is the best guide for discovering interesting things. I do my best to follow these guides to where ever they lead. In the process of exploring cognitive systems, my students and I have had many interesting adventures, however the original problem remains unsolved – I remain a clumsy athlete, an inept musician, and am always the last to learn how to use new technologies. But my appreciation for the expertise and skill of others continually grows!
Perspicacity BLOG: http://blogs.wright.edu/learn/johnflach/