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Research Questions and Prototyping

23 Jan

The second year of a PhD, at least in the American system, is the time to narrow one’s interests and define a specific research topic. I ended the spring of my first year on track, with a strong direction and topic: evaluating the social and ecological effects of drought management policies. Unfortunately, over the course of the summer, I realized that it really wasn’t a topic that would excite me enough to do good work for a full five years. So I returned to school in the fall sans topic and basically back at square one. Instead of worry, however, I decided to turn the fall quarter into a prototype. I would carry forward three potential research directions and play with them, trying to get a sense of what sort of academic and practical contribution studying each would entail, and of what my life might look like were I to go down each rabbit hole. My plan for prototyping was relatively simple. I read the literature on each topic to get a sense of the types of gaps that existed and where my research might fit in. I brainstormed potential research questions – generating lists for each research topic – and also the type of research methods and fieldsites that I could use to answer the questions that sparked an interest. I discussed all three questions with my advisors and with new faculty who I hadn’t met but who had expertise in the field or in the theory. I also interviewed practitioners – policymakers and environmental managers – to see what sorts of useful information they would glean if I were to carry forward any of the directions. In other words, I did what any sensible PhD student might do to pick a research question. The difference is that I did it religiously with three questions rather than just one.

One of the key lessons that design thinking teaches about prototyping is to “fail early, and fail often.” When working with something as important as a research direction for a PhD – which will both dictate how I spend the remainder of my 5+ years at Stanford, and will also influence the types of jobs I can have upon graduation – the idea of “failure” is a scary one. I had already “failed” once – I spent upwards of six months researching drought management whole-heartedly, and ended up empty handed, really only having a clear sense that there was one question I could check off of my list. I can’t afford to come up empty-handed again, or I’ll be back to zero after two years of study, and significantly behind my peers. However, having more than one option on the table actually frees up one’s mind and, more importantly, removes some of the all-or-nothing attachment that can come with working on a single project. Inevitably, I would have to choose just one of the three options, but as long as I had three real directions – and treated each one with full, honest intensity – the likelihood that all three would flop was much smaller.

As it turned out, I have selected a direction that wasn’t included in the three initial topics I prototyped, although it does strongly incorporate two of the theoretical directions I would have applied. During the process of prototyping, I heard an incredibly thought-provoking talk about dam removal, chatted with a few faculty who I knew worked on the topic, and realized that it was a direction that would allow me to tackle a lot of the questions I have been grappling with since my master’s and happens to be a hot-button policy issue. Ironically, I studied dam removal as a core part of a hydrology class I took last spring. However, I was in full-blown drought mode during the spring and so dam removal never even crossed my radar as a potential and exciting direction. Being in the prototyping mindset allowed me to be open to new possibilities, since I was honestly invested but not fully attached to the topics I was exploring.

That I have settled on a research topic in no way signifies that I should drop my prototyping mindset. Instead, I have started a new process as I hone in on a specific research question. Rather than run with one question (and run the risk of coming up empty-handed in a few months), I am currently choosing cases, and starting to gather data based on two distinct research questions. Both questions stem from a larger framing question, but as I formulate potential theoretical directions and research design, I am treating both as real options. By playing with possibility, prototyping multiple research questions lets me work earnestly toward my dissertation while giving me the freedom to continue operating in a creative, exploratory mode.


Design, Creativity, and the Performing Arts

22 Sep

Last spring, I was invited to give a talk on research and design for a dance class at Stanford.  The class, titled “Liquid Flow: Dance, Design, and Engineering,” both taught basic dance technique and theorized on the role of the body as a source of creative inspiration.  Because the class had a large number of graduate students, the instructor thought her students would surely appreciate our team’s new perspective on the research process.

In preparing for the class, however, I didn’t feel comfortable just talking.  I would never consider lecturing during a workshop at the, which fully embraces a “bias toward action.”  More importantly, it was a dance class, the students would be expecting to move, and I have far more experience teaching dance than teaching in any academic classrooms.  So I developed a new curriculum—on design, research, and choreography.

I brainstormed hybrid activities that played with the intersection between movement, research, and d.thinking:

  • How might you interview someone using only your body?
  • Make a short dance. Now prototype it – test whether the emotions the choreography is trying to convey come across; whether a certain sequencing worked and why.

The class was a hit.  During the final activity, with less than half an hour to run through the entire design process, the teams of non-trained dancers made beautiful, moving, and incredibly diverse pieces.

Developing and teaching the class forced me to reflect on my own experiences with the creative process.  I have trained in dance, music (I play flute), and acting since I was four.  I love the process of choreography: turning on a piece of music, having a rough idea of what I’d like to create, and then messing around with my dancers, or—to use d. language—prototyping the moves, sequences, and spatial patterns until it clicks.  Or writing music, just playing and jamming, noting what riffs seem to work, and then beginning to construct a coherent piece from these tidbits.

The problem is that I approach my academic work in a completely different, non-creative way.  Somewhere between first grade and completing my bachelor’s, any sense of creativity or play was erased from my academic repertoire.  Sure, I’ll take the time to develop a good hypothesis, and always write several drafts of my papers, but nowhere is there an element of play or an understanding that I won’t have it “right” or “perfect” the first time and that’s okay.  (In fact, not being right is great, because that means I have somewhere to expand and innovate.)

Even after ten months of exposure to design thinking, of developing and teaching RAD workshops, and embracing (at least intellectually) the fact that my research can be enhanced by thinking like a kindergartener again, it still terrifies me to really play with my research.  I’ll brainstorm research questions, sure, but I can’t quite get to the loose mindset that comes so easily when I pick up my flute.  I guess I feel like I have too much at stake when it comes to my academic career, which is the exact opposite mindset than I actually need.  I have learned how to do really well in the elite academic world with the techniques that I’ve honed since high school–techniques that make my work really good but not revolutionary–and I’m scared to try anything different.  The irony is that at this point in my training and my life, I want to (have to) be revolutionary: too many of the problems that I hope to address with my research demand out-of-the-box approaches.

Practice makes perfect.  Or rather, practice expands one’s proficiency and repertoire.  I’m still in Ballet I with my design skills, and I have to remember that great performers and artists take years to hone their technique before they can let loose, break the rules, and improvise.  Be patient, and trust the process—after all, I have a lifetime.