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Dr. Lutters and the ‘mushy middle’

Wayne Lutters of the information systems department reigns as one of only two UMBC instructors that have a perfect 5.0 rating on The Retriever reached out to Lutters to find out more about the man behind the rave reviews.

Behind the five-star rating, you will find a very unconventional professor. In his HCC 728 Online Communities course, for example, Lutters requires that students join and log in to a “Yik Yak-esque” class chat during the period. Students use it for everything from questions on lecture material to laments about cold Chick-fil-A nuggets. The chat is often projected onto the classroom wall and students turn to it to generate new ideas for discussion.

“If people are going to be chatting in class anyway, I would rather to have them chat with their classmates about [class],” said Lutters.

In his courses, students engage in debates about topics such as the role of information technology in organizations, telecommuting and autonomous technology. “This is my first course with him and it’s discussion-based,” said Jesse Futter, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in human-centered computing. “He makes us sit in a circle every class and we discuss the readings.”

In addition to teaching, Lutters does research in human-centered computing, a sub-field of information systems. He describes it as the methods by which we design our technologies to work best with people. Within HCC, Lutters studies systems that support groups like video calling platforms such as Skype.

Lutters wasn’t always on this academic path, however. As an undergraduate, he pursued journalism at a small liberal arts college. Quickly realizing he did not possess an affinity for tight deadlines, he earned degrees in cognitive science (a precursor to neurology) and European intellectual history.

He later worked as a modeler for neuroanatomical forms of learning while attending University of California, Irvine as a graduate student. It interested him, but the work still didn’t feel quite right.

A colleague guided him towards the field of social informatics, where he observed and interviewed individuals in order to design better software for them.

“I was in heaven,” said Lutters. “I found a place where all my interests tied together.”

He worked briefly at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, W.A. as a usability engineer before completing his doctorate at UCI. In the midst of his search to find his niche, his role model Jenny Preece left the United Kingdom to become the head of the information systems department at UMBC.

Though he wasn’t familiar with UMBC, he was lured by the possibility of working with Preece. The rest is history: Lutters has been a proud Retriever ever since.

“He always brings a very happy, positive vibe when he comes to class,” said Rakesh Arvapalli, a student in the HCC master’s program.

Despite his technical field, Lutters retains his interest in the humanities and appreciates the ambiguity of our world: “There are very rarely right answers for anything,” he said. “[I enjoy] encouraging students to be comfortable navigating and discovering in that gray, mushy middle where we all live.”