Reading, writing, and research for the design grad student
How to stay ahead and afloat when you’ve got a lot to read and write
I’ll keep updating this as we progress through the semester, with more useful information for you.
Graduate school is intense, and design programs are no exception. We want to introduce you to a lot of material that will expand your ideas of what design is and how it’s practiced. Some of the material is academic, wordy, or from other disciplines—and there’s a lot of it. Why do I assign it and what do I want you to get out of it?
Design does not exist in a vacuum. Design exists in the world. It has to do with people, objects, qualities of objects, spaces, pages, screens, technologies, work, labor, the environment—all of the above, and sometimes all at the same time.
The readings that we assign are there to give you context and depth, and to expand your own design practices. They may come from a number of fields outside of design, including anthropology, sociology, philosophy, architecture, systems approaches, technology, history, STS, media studies, race, gender, and LGBTQ studies, to name a few.
Readings & reading strategies for grad students
You’ll quickly discover that reading for graduate school is different than reading a book for pleasure. While the readings might be long, wordy, and written in academic language, you can follow strategies to get successfully get through the readings. The goal is to find ways to move at a steady pace, follow the key ideas and arguments, and then be able to delve in detail at a later point, when you write your blog posts or papers for the class.
This piece by Miriam Sweeney, “How to Read for Grad School,” has good strategies.
“I knew about skimming. And I knew about speed reading. But now I’ve discovered speed-skimming.”—McLain Clutter, University of Michigan architecture professor, when he was a first-year graduate student
My friend McLain said this to our class in our first month of grad school when we were completely underwater with our reading. I’m not suggesting that you speed skim. But you can follow reading strategies and approaches to reading difficult material that will get you through the material strategically. For example, in one of these methods, Preview, Read, Recall, you start by spending 5–10 minutes looking over the piece to spot the main ideas. Read the title and subheadings throughout the piece, then read the introduction and conclusion. What diagrams or images does it include? Then, as you read the piece, pay attention to how the argument develops. Take notes as you go. (I use Notes on the Mac or Notational Velocity when I’m typing them, but I also keep notes on paper in the book that I’m reading and keep it there. But there are many ways to do this.)
Writing is design
Writing is design. It is a matter of making and remaking, iterating, building upon, getting feedback and critique, building and making some more. It’s hard, hard for professors who write books and teach writing, hard for native speakers of English, hard for students who don’t have English as a first language. You’ll find that it’s like developing design skills. Just as you learn to draw, or render, or form, you learn to do the same with words.
Writing isn’t a matter of one sitting and one text. It’s a matter of sketching, mapping, scribbling and scribbling things out, drafting, editing, and redrafting. Whether you write a paper for class or a paper for CHI, a book chapter or a dissertation, writing is about a set of different processes, not just putting down words but sculpting them and reworking them.
We will write a lot in this class. Almost every week, you will be writing something that will allow you to reflect on our readings. You will write a short paper, engage in peer review for feedback, and then rewrite your short paper.
You should own these books, whether a digital or physical copy:
- Craft of Research. Required. We will be using this in class. Have it no later than 9/19.
- They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing: helpful little book to help you make better transitions and phrasing.
Resources for writing
CMU’s Global Communication Center can help you with writing at the graduate level. They’re great. They can be good to work with one-on-one as you’re developing the arguments you’ll make in your short and long papers. In addition,
For non-native English speakers
If you speak English as a second (third, fourth, fifth) language, there are resources that will help you in your writing. CMU’s Intercultural Communication Center has useful resources for non-native speakers of English. They offer workshops and resources in writing, speaking, and US academic culture.
They also provide a good handout on citing sources and plagiarism.
Sometimes, definite and indefinite articles are a confusing part of grammar for non-native English speakers. When do you use “a” “the,” a plural, or no article? Here’s a CMU chart that shows how to choose the right article 80% of the time. And this handout is a useful explanation of what to choose when.
Academic integrity & plagiarism
The point of this class is to develop and situate your own ideas in a broader discourse — and in order to do that properly, you need to cite your work. No form of academic dishonesty will be tolerated. When you use words, images, videos — even ideas and thoughts that are not yours and that you do not credit or properly cite, you are guilty of plagiarism. Do not cut and paste from other sources, even into your own notes, without keeping some system that tells you exactly where your work came from. For your weekly posts, you must cite, and you must not use words without attribution. This includes paraphrasing. Use Chicago style to cite your work in your papers. We will discuss research tools that can make this easier for you. CMU’s policies are available here for your review.
This video is a simple overview about plagiarism, produced by CMU’s Intercultural Communication Center.
These very useful videos by the GCC (Global Communication Center) go into more detail about the nuances of summarizing, paraphrasing, and using sources.
From the GCC’s descriptions:
How good writers get started—note-taking strategies: effective note-taking strategies for transforming your source text. (Refer to this handout)
How do I cite my sources correctly? Basics of citation, including different citation styles and why we cite.
In Seminar One, we’ll be using APA Style for your citations. The Purdue OWL site has very useful material on APA Style (I refer to it frequently). In APA Style, you will refer to your sources in text and not in footnotes. Then, you will produce a reference list. You’ll notice on the OWL site that there are different conventions for how to cite journals, books, electronic sources, and so on. This video shows how in-text citations work. (Note that I expect you to cite and cite correctly, so take care to follow style appropriately.)
Writing on Medium
Medium’s help page is quite useful for getting started on Medium. You may want to refer to it as you get started with your posts. You’ll notice ways to write and comment (publicly and privately).
Medium is particularly good for incorporating images and embedding video. This page offers links to “stock images that don’t suck.” I love this: places to find royalty free images for free. It’s a little easier than going through Flickr, looking for Creative Commons images that allow for the licensing. If you are grabbing images off the Internet, you need to cite your images.You might also find license-free or Creative Commons images.
Becoming a Stronger Writer
As you write a research paper for this class (and for some of you, as you start thinking about thesis), you are investigating a topic that captures your curiosity. Research papers are built on a web of evaluation and response to other people’s work. As you define your topic, you’ll probably learn that you’re not the first person to be interested in it—and that’s good! The work of research is to situate your topic within that of other scholars and designers, to pick up their questions and arguments, and to engage with them. This is one of the reasons that good sources and citation is important: to show where you stand within this web.
The writing that you’re doing needs to have a critical argument that you’re making, even when you’re writing a literature and previous work review—because otherwise, you’re just writing longform notes. You’ll want to refine that question and the particularities of your argument in the same way that you craft interactions or kern type or fix your line weights.
Determine a research question that will guide your paper and a plan for approaching it. Look at Chapter 3 (particularly section 3.3 to the end of the chapter) in Craft of Research. How might you best turn your topic into questions? Would you compare and contrast? Use a statement and then minor contradictions? Don’t forget to answer for yourself why this topic matters to you.
Finding appropriate sources. For this paper, you will mostly be using secondary sources: mostly scholarly work, such as books, articles, and papers that others have written about the topic. However, many of you are working on topics for which more popular design, technology, news, and art sources are appropriate. Many of you will also be writing about design projects. Wikipedia is not an academic source, and although it can point you to sources you might want to use, you must actually use the sources before you cite them.
The CMU Library offers a Research Guide for Design with useful links to databases and design holdings. Jill Chisnell is the design librarian and she is a great resource as well. You’ll see her contact information on that page.
One of the first places you might look is the ACM Digital Library (http://dl.acm.org) has millions of papers from conferences like SIGCHI and TEI, among many others. It can be a source of useful material, but you’ll want to evaluate what you see. What year was the article published? What conference? Who are the authors? You might consider reading an article backwards: look at the abstract, then look at the References. (You’ll notice a References tab on the page for each article that links to the articles within it.) What articles there seem to pertain to your topic?
Chapter 5 of Craft of Research has quick strategies for evaluating sources (p. 77–80 in my version; 81 talks about following bibliographic trails).
Engage your sources
It could be said that there’s no truth—there’s only argument (which is itself arguable). As you read and take notes, engage your sources. Booth et al in Craft of Research advise that you look for creative agreement or creative disagreement. (Chapter 6.4, p. 88–91). For instance, “Source claims that __________ is changing, but it’s not. It doesn’t say that it’s staying the same as follows: ______.” Or “Source correctly applies ________ to one situation, but you apply it to new ones.”
Write better arguments
This is the part of Craft of Research I keep returning to. All of Part 3, from pages 105–170 is useful and important. When you start getting ready to assemble your argument, you’ll want to revisit it (page 130 offers ways to organize your reasons and evidence and make sure that they match up.
1. What is my claim?
2. What reasons support my claim?
3. What evidence supports my reasons?
4. Do I acknowledge alternatives/complications/objections, and how do I respond?
5. What principle makes my reasons relevant to my claim? (We call this principle a warrant.) (p. 109)
A claim is a sentence that asserts something that may be true or false and so needs support: The world is warming up.
• The main claim of a report is the sentence (or more) that the whole report supports (some call this sentence your thesis). If you wrote a report to prove that the world is warming up, the sentence stating that would be your main claim.
• A reason is a sentence supporting a claim, main or not. (But reasons can also be subclaims, so this gets confusing.
As Booth and his colleagues write:
They give this example:
We should leave. (Claim.) It looks like rain. (Reason) See, look at the sidewalk, it’s wet. (Evidence.)