I’m also using this blog as a place to explore and illustrate the idea of academic research as a “design problem.” I think this approach could be a real benefit to my students and me because it draws attention to the three-dimensionality and multi-modality of our work, not just in terms of document design (though that’s important too) but in terms of the overall process of intellectual work that is intentionally creative rather than perfunctory.

The visual-verbal journal or sketchbook is an important tool for this approach because it can and should become:

  • a record of the project’s context, purpose, and development,
  • a repository for the diverse resources contributing to the research project, and 
  • a narrative of the researcher’s evolving understanding of the research subject and growing mastery of research and writing.

My emphasis on both visual and verbal journaling comes from my belief that creative research (by which I mean research that demonstrates ingenuity as well as depth) is an art that can and should be informed by other creative processes. Architects, sculptors, novelists, and others doing creative work maintain visual and verbal journals as a way to capture the ideas, inspirations, plans, and puzzles that flutter through their minds as they commence a project. Affixing those elements to the page makes them potential resources for the project rather than merely vague notions or nagging distractions. Research projects, whether done for school, work, personal curiosity, or world peace, benefit from visual and verbal journaling as well.

Viewing sources as resources (or “materials”?) and research as a design problem seems fairly productive metaphorically, but I want this to be more than an exercise in metaphor (i.e., in viewing X in terms of Y) because, let’s face it, all metaphors are potentially useful as metaphors and I want this to be more specifically helpful than, for example, viewing RESEARCH AS DANCE or RESEARCH AS MARATHON or RESEARCH AS JOURNEY. Yadda yadda yadda.

A design problem tends to have:

  • a client or audience
  • stakeholders (people who care about or are affected by the outcome of the project, which includes the creative team but might also include, e.g., an endangered species of fish or the commuter population of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex or the faculty of the Pre-Med program)
  • a basic goal to be achieved
  • time constraints
  • material constraints (which could include the budget for purchasing materials as well as many other things–marshmallows might be a great foundation for a temporary sculpture but less ideal as the foundation of a skyscraper or hardcover manuscript)
  • components (the stuff you end up working with)
  • relationships between the constraints and components and client and stakeholders
  • a craft or method (a dominant form of expertise that’s being called upon to complete the project–so, e.g., although your deep knowledge of cake decorating and agribusiness might in some ways inform your approach to the problem in this particular case you’re being called upon for your expertise as an architect)
  • technologies (systems of knowledge, materials, and processes that you’ll draw upon as you do your work; e.g., the pencil, the Internet, the English language)

That’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture.

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