Steven Heller | Essays

The Specious Thesis

To everything there is a season. And a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap. A time to kill, a time to heal. A time to laugh, a time to weep. — Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
A design student can add: A time to write a research paper. A time to write an email questionnaire. It ain’t biblical, but it is inevitable.
In November and March the requests pouring in daily — and invariably there is a steady trickle from late September to early May. The emails often carry subject lines like “Disertation Interview” or “Resesarch Inquiry” and they read something like, “Dear Mr. or Professor Heller. My name is ______  and I am currently a ______  year student from the BA (Hons) Design Communication program at ______ . I am interested in conducting an email interview with you as a form of primary research for my final year dissertation paper.”
The request is innocent enough. But just as often I get those with no greeting, simply, “My name is ______  and I am currently a ______  year from the BA (Hons) Design Communication program at ______ . My professor told me I must interview someone [important, well-known, expert, willing] in the field for my final year dissertation paper. [You were suggested. Can you send me your bio?]” The brackets indicate some of the more guileless ones. Some are obviously form letters. Others say, “My professor assigned me to do you.” And finally, the most heartwarmingly honest: “I tried contacting ______  and ______  but they never responded, so I hope you will respond because I have only a few days before the paper is due.”
While nurturing a bruised ego by not being addressed personally, I find some solace in being considered important enough for a student to send me the request. So invariably, I answer all requests with some degree of seriousness. After all, students (especially undergrads) should be cut some slack. In fact, some questions reveal they’ve actually done some background reading. Recently, I was asked, “In 2006, you had a debate with Ellen Lupton that was published on AIGA on the topic of whether graphic design should be accessible to everyone. Now, 11 years later, do you still hold the same views as you did back then? Why?” It was good of the questioner to provide the link, since I had no memory of the debate, and the question forced me to revisit something that, although no longer interesting to me, still was relevant to the student.
Yet most questions in these routine email interviews are general, uninspiring, and painful to answer. Here’s a common one: “What is the current state of graphic design as a field?” It’s not that it is invalid, but that it could require a book-length answer. Answering it could make a dissertation in itself. (Here’s how I commonly respond to that query: “This will be answered differently in 100 different ways owing to demands of clients, technologies now available and whether one produces information or decoration, entertainment or propaganda. There is no current state, just many options.” Perhaps the student can read between the lines.) But my gut sense is that the question is prompted by an assignment to ask about “the current state” of design, and that the student is dutifully trying to fulfill the requirements.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in asking questions by email for a paper. Even I ask email questions when I just want quotable opinions or information for an article, and save my voice-to-voice or face-to-face interviews for projects that require deeper delving. But email interviews are somewhat lazy ways of obtaining content. They often obviate the necessity for follow-up questions inspired by curiosity (or a need to double-check a quote).
In the past, the research paper was primarily a graduate school method of building a base of knowledge and demanded rigorous scholarship. The recent rise of the undergraduate thesis or final paper has shown its merits (e.g., giving students the space to learn about people and issues of design that they might otherwise not explore). But it has also led to a noticeable pattern of superficial engagement with people and issues of design through rote questioning and regurgitation of the responses.
If this method of “learning” is to continue, then design teachers should not assign papers just to fill time and space, but rather to challenge design students to engage in quality, first-hand research — research that doesn’t ask obvious or meaningless questions, but instead is based on thoughtful investigation, critical inquiry, and passionate exploration.
I actually enjoy responding to student requests. Yet when asked, I usually end up telling them to craft three to five questions that only I can answer. What I wish I could just say is: Don’t waste my time with the dross that can be found out on Google. Don’t waste your time with my disingenuous answer to what the state of the field is today. But no, I wouldn’t send them a form letter.

Promo image from Chris Devers on Flickr

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