MIT: Semester 3

In my last MIT recap, I outlined a model of graduate research that started with breadth, as I pursued the many and varied classes that sparked my interest, and progressed to depth, as I focused my topics into a concise, thorough thesis. That’s a nice model, I suppose. And while it might roughly capture the path of my courses over these two brief years, the analogy doesn’t go much farther. But that’s okay, because if there is a term that summarizes my third semester, it’s improvisation. If I have learned anything these past few months, it’s the importance of not sticking to projections and models – of occasionally loosening my grip.

In many ways, I suppose I should already know this. The focus of my work is, after all, play, and how its often-aimless nature proves so fertile a ground for creative thinking. And yet, it’s no real surprise that I am still learning this lesson. Loosening my focus (“playing”) is one of the most difficult things for me to do. If I focus, I obsess, and it is difficult for me to detach. I have great trouble skimming across the surface, no matter what I’m doing: I re-read sentences and paragraphs and pages until I feel I’ve truly absorbed the deeper content of what I’m reading; I hesitate to discuss topics that I’m not truly versed in; I like to excel in any skill I take up. And while I value this tendency in terms of how it contributes to my work ethic (it is a skill that translates well to traditional models of scholastic achievement), it alone is not enough, especially in the field of design. There is as much value in un-focusing as there is in focusing.

Of course, lessons often take a while to learn, and judging by my struggles in my Thesis Prep class, this one was no exception. The class is essentially aimed at helping students develop reasonable thesis topics, with a few critiques staged throughout the semester. Time and time again, I found that despite the clarity of the issue in my head, I struggled to translate my concerns into a digestible format. Critics – both peers and faculty – consistently questioned what I was doing at a fundamental level. This frustrated me at first, as these questions felt less like a development of the topic and more like a step in the wrong direction. But as I alluded to earlier, it is naive to conceive of research as ever being truly linear. I opted quite late in the semester to change my thesis, due partly to this continuing struggle, and I realize now that the choice was a good one. What felt like missteps at the time may have been quite necessary – without them, I may never have been provoked enough to change my topic. (This raises the question of how we should treat failures as they happen in the moment: Do we stay positive, cognizant of their beneficial properties, or is it important for us to be truly impacted by the depth of dissatisfaction they bring? A topic for a separate post, I think…)

Back to the semester: I finally took Shape Grammars I, taught by George Stiny, despite my initial (and naive) objections to the topic. While I don’t really intend to advance the field of Shape Grammars per se, I find great resonance with its basic ideology. Shape Grammars makes an effort to recognize design thinking – with all of its ideation, abstraction, and novelty – as a rigorous and well-defined activity. It does so by recognizing the role of the designer in the process. Shape Grammars promotes a system that is open and flexible: Truth can be embedded by a subjective observer in what already exists, thereby allowing art to exist comfortably alongside science. The result is altogether different from most modern applications in computer science, where truth is always determined from an external source, maintaining the closed objectivity of the system. The distinction here may sound like philosophy bordering on irrelevance, but to me the difference is everything. If design is to be recognized as a legitimate activity, then we must recognize the role of subjectivity in design thinking, and traditional models of computer science do not deal with subjectivity well.

Proseminar, also taught by Stiny, was essentially a discussion-based approach to the more theoretical aspects of Shape Grammars. The class was quite slow. Ultimately, we only made it through two relatively short readings – but I found that even if I didn’t engage fully in the conversation, the classes sparked my thinking very fruitfully. I did some of my best thesis planning in that class.

Theory of Computation, taught by Michael Sipser, outlined the mathematical foundations of computational theory. I largely took the class out of interest in the second half of the semester (complexity theory), but as I was only a listener, I lost momentum before getting to that section, and regrettably missed it. If I were to extend my studies at MIT, it’s a class I’d like to take again.

I took one class at Harvard: Intro to Computational Design. The class provided a very broad introduction to the use of code in design (if you told me a few years ago I’d go to MIT but take my only coding class at Harvard, I’d have given you some strange looks). It’s taught by Panagiotis Michalatos, and it was excellent. His knowledge of computation is incredible. He can speak with ease on everything from the physical structure of digital computers, to the manipulation of sound in signal processing, to the current strengths and weaknesses of the latest VR applications. The class provided a refreshing approach to computation, where its implementation was taught directly alongside high-level discussions of its use and abilities.

By and large, Projects in Computational Making, taught by Terry Knight, occupied the largest chunk of my semester. This class was excellent. It provided an intimate, engaging platform for reading-based discussion and project development. In fact, it was my work in this class that ultimately proved so influential in (re-)shaping my thesis.

Finally, I also worked with Terry Knight (as an RA) collecting literature on the topic of Computational Making. Our weekly discussions greatly expanded my thinking, on top of providing me with an excellent source of material for my own literature base.

I find myself increasingly interested in the things we do for doing’s sake. I am fascinated by the activities we struggle to define – by the behaviors whose explanation can’t be properly justified. Is it just that we don’t understand the topic well enough, or are there things that we do that will never fit into a well-defined understanding of how the world works? And by studying them, am I simply trying to find a way to define them, or is there a way we can acknowledge these activities (perhaps even model them computationally) without compromising their unpredictable nature? Truth be told, I do not want the world to reveal all of its mysteries. Without diverting into a discussion of spirits or souls, I want there to be an element of uncertainty in the world. As much as I appreciate objectivity in science, I also believe truth is sometimes made, not discovered. And I believe that notion is critical to design, if not human intelligence itself.

Unfortunately, that is not an easy thing to promote in today’s political climate. In a world where leaders eschew science and objective truth simply to promote twisted political agendas, the claim that “we make our own truth” does not ring well. That, I fear, will be tricky ground for me to navigate as I write my thesis – but perhaps the challenge will enrich the writing. Politics has certainly come to the forefront this semester. At first it served to completely derail my studies, following the election. Ultimately, I’ve had to concoct a strategy for how to maintain my political engagement, in order to avoid complete burnout. I initially thought it would be best to separate my studies and my political beliefs, but now I’m wondering if each could benefit from the other. After all, is it ever really possible to compartmentalize one’s thoughts so simply?

Throughout the semester, my frequent conversations with George Stiny and Terry Knight led me to realize that my placement in this program couldn’t be a better fit. Perhaps I should have done my research when applying to grad school and known in advance that I’d align so well with the teachers here; perhaps my visit several years ago subconsciously reinforced my general attraction to the institution; or perhaps it is to the selection committee’s credit for seeing potential in me. Whatever the case, this degree, while short, has felt exactly right. Like any good research effort, it has raised as many questions as it has answered, but it has also been encouraging and exciting enough to keep my energy and engagement high. My final semester for my master’s degree starts tomorrow – a surreal thought, to say the least. I’m not sure what will come next: Another degree? A job in architecture? Perhaps the start of a teaching career? It is difficult to picture. Regardless, I think the best thing I can do is bring my newly-sharpened curiosity to bear on whatever work I pursue. For it is the means (the curiosity) – and not the ends (the work itself) – that really matters.

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