Tag: design

Drafting “Research Methods and Critical Writing for Design”

I had some time to begin to develop the graduate research course I will teach in Design, Winter quarter 2017. This is a draft (and only a draft):

Course Description

This graduate research seminar in Design intends to pose two interrelated challenges:

  • First, if one can identify something as a problem for designers to address, then how come the discipline has not addressed it? In other words, with an eye toward history and society, this course asks you to place your concerns as a designer into a context as to why those concerns come to matter (“matter,” as in a matter of concern, but also physical matter, i.e. become tangible).
  • Second, how can ‘research’ help elucidate why design has or has not resolved a certain ‘problem’? Put differently, through critical readings and discussion that address issues of (but not limited to) race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, and the past, we will explore what does (and, importantly, doesn’t) trouble the discipline of design. To do this, we will seek to theorize research itself in order to refine our methods of research.

NASA/Ames Research Center, 7/14/1989, Virtual Environment Reality workstation technology (helmet & gloves)

Explained in a different sense, this course sets up the proposition that the production of knowledge is not a linear progression, and thus the kinds of certainties we are convinced about are, in fact, contingent; these contingencies relate back to how we go about deciding what can—and cannot—constitute research.

Or, as somewhat elucidated in the infamous words of Donald Rumsfeld, “(…)as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” In his own perplexing imagination, what Rumsfeld accidentally was getting at was, at the core, that sensing an unknowability demands not only problematizing its other, knowability, but in effect, unknowability itself. He posed, in short, a puzzle about the nature of evidence or data, and how to go about collecting it.

A few additional key points… This course will also ask MFA students to think of design and research as two domains that continually co-make each other, never leaving one behind for the other, and thus, we will seek to trouble research through modes of thinking like designers, while also seeking to trouble design by subjecting it to research practices, understanding such practices in the broadest possible way we can.

To do this, we seek to look outwards; to research how designers have posed questions and sought answers, and in parallel, how different fields of knowledge go about performing research (and “perform” is another important keyword to think about, too). Students in the course will be expected to do both, such that they learn about the history of design and to read authors seeking clues to how they designed their research.


I don’t have the final readings for the course yet, but the long list includes an eclectic mix of theorists, historians, anthropologists, designers, artists, geographers, etc. The list includes Shannon Mattern, Reyner Banham, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Marisol de la Cadena, Hugh Gusterson, Minh Ha T. Pham, Alberto Corsín Jiménez, David Gissen, Anne Galloway, Arturo Escobar, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Sunaura Taylor, Anna Tsing, Alison Kafer, Orit Halpern, Natasha Dow Schüll, Keller Easterling, Shiloh Krupar, Simone Browne, Louise Amoore, Rashad Shabazz, Bruno Latour, Shannon Cram, Michelle Murphy, Mimi Thi Nguyen, Fred Turner, and Felicity Scott. Any suggestions for the long list are welcome.

My idea is to maybe assign two readings (or two modules of shorter readings, perhaps) and divide the class into two readings groups per week. We’ll have, then, two rounds of discussion and one group has to listen to the discussion of the other group, and take notes. Students will take turns submitting summaries and notes. The last segment of each week will be reserved for general questions and suggestions around the progress of student research projects.

The course will also include a workshop on human subjects protocols with someone from the Research office on campus. We will also discuss proposal writing. Students will develop their own projects and submit a final essay, which could be a draft section for their final thesis.

It is possible that there will be some field trips to research spaces on campus, but it is not a guarantee.


Harvard Design Magazine no. 42: Run for Cover!

c4_hdm42More mailbag stuff! — This one arrived last week: Harvard Design Magazine no. 42: Run for Cover!

In this issue, Demilit (of which I’m a member) has a piece on “thinking with suspicious packages,” an intervention into the discourse around tactical and informal urbanism(s). It draws from our research on urban securitization and electronic networks, particularly by using walking methods to intimately sense the city.

The piece begins:

Report suspicious activity. If you see something, say something. Do not leave bags unattended. These are the instructions for acceptable cohabitation in the secure city. But objects mediate between bodies. People are allowed to put materials into new and unexpected configurations, as long as such arrangements do not inspire fear or dread.

Objects in space must have an author or an owner who speaks for them, lest they leave interpretation up to undue speculation. Unknowability is insecurity.1 However, the alarmist idea of the “suspicious package” may unlock a different politics of urban life, one premised on sensuous materialism rather than security theater.2

Suspicious packages, or “suspacks,” as we have started to refer to them, are perplexing.3 They are material things that inspire dark thoughts in urban subjects, far surpassing what can be deduced from their ordinary thingness. Suspended in a state of possibility, suspacks flood the synapses with mental triggers like few other creations can. In other words, the suspack is matter in semiotic flux. A suspack is not (yet) a bomb or weaponized debris in motion, but neither is it a plain box. If it were a bomb, we would call it a bomb. If it were poison, we would label it with warnings. If it were a delivery, it would belong somewhere else—on a truck en route to its destination, say. But sometimes (most of the time, in fact), a box is just a box and an unattended suitcase is simply luggage that was misplaced. Suspacks are a little-understood entity—not quite a fixed category or a marketable commodity—that defies the certitudes of designed products.

The entire piece is up at the HDM website, along with many other excellent pieces. Our big thanks to editors Jennifer Sigler and Leah Whitman-Salkin for their careful work, and to the staff who handled corrections and bios. We’re continuing to expand this investigation into the suspicious package (and I gave a recent panel talk on this at the Regional Studies Assoc, North America conference).

Some readings from the last week or so…

Reposted from my Sunday reading picks at The New Inquiry. Thanks to Aaron Bady for inciting. Most, and maybe all of my bookmarked links are saved on Pinboard.

Spaces of the 1942 Black Sailors’ Uprising in Vallejo, California

I wanted to give a quick heads-up that, at long last, one of my articles that took forever to publish has been released. This all began around 2011 while doing research at Mare Island and first meeting Myrna Hayes and Nancy Rowe. This article reflects some of the work in my dissertation and book project, albeit much strengthened through the publishing process. I hope some of you can find it useful in your classes or research. I’d also like to think it’s an interesting story in its own right, even if not directly related to what you do! Not many people know that this uprising took place, or what it meant for anti-segregation struggles in the Bay Area during WWII (the subject of my book ms). The article was published in Landscape Journal, which I am very happy about. Although it took a long time, they did invaluable editing work and I received very helpful anonymous peer review comments. If you don’t have an institutional access, email me and I can send a PDF.

The intersection of Virginia and Sacramento Streets, or the vicinity identified in Pearson’s account of the shooting of black sailors—an anonymous and unrecognized “anti-memorial” to the 1942 uprising. The city of Vallejo truncated Virginia as part of 1960s urban redevelopment, creating this “paseo,” or pedestrian plaza. The Marina Tower looms large over the site (Photo by author, 2015).

The intersection of Virginia and Sacramento Streets, or the vicinity identified in Pearson’s account of the shooting of black sailors—an anonymous and unrecognized “anti-memorial” to the 1942 uprising. The city of Vallejo truncated Virginia as part of 1960s urban redevelopment, creating this “paseo,” or pedestrian plaza. The Marina Tower looms large over the site (Photo by author, 2015).

“Anti-memorials and World War II Heritage in the San Francisco Bay Area: Spaces of the 1942 Black Sailors’ Uprising,” published in Landscape Journal


This essay excavates a little-known uprising of black sailors in Vallejo, California, a World War II boomtown where, in late December 1942, African American Navy personnel rose up to resist racism and to contest segregation at the Mare Island Navy Depot. White personnel sent to put down the revolt shot at least two unarmed black sailors. I focus on one site of reported violence: a downtown intersection, a location and incident interpreted in a woodcut print by artist Frank Rowe. The image contrasts with the uprising’s invisibility within the downtown spaces of the city. Accordingly, this text introduces a different understanding of the design concept of the “anti-memorial” to describe this elusive site of oppression as a geographic space that destabilizes and de-territorializes readings of the World War II home front, concluding that the Vallejo anti-memorial is a limen between the existing spatial memory that conceals military oppression and its potential reclamation for justice.