Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Research writing section: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session


This is a course about how research knowledge and other types of knowledge come to be actionable and influential in the world — or not. It is required of all first-year doctoral students in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (and supports completion of their first-year research papers), but it is open to other students, including cross-registrants from other universities. A small number of listeners (auditors) will be permitted.

The course explores ways to make research knowledge more accessible, credible, and useful in the realm of public policy and practice, a project in which the course faculty collectively bring decades of professional experience, in both academic and non-academic roles.

The course addresses the politics of the policymaking process, the power of framing and agenda-setting, fads and paradigms in the design professions and society in general, how knowledge diffuses along knowledge and influence networks, and how varied types of knowledge (rational, craft, other) and deliberation shape decision-making and action. The course engages a number of guests to present case studies of research in use (and abuse) in varied fields, highlighting rich areas for potential research contributions, along with major conflicts in public values, political interests, ethical obligations, and more. The resulting dilemmas confront scholars, policymakers, practitioners, and others as they look to research — sometimes — for useful guidance, influence, or both.


None. Cross-registrants are welcome, as are listeners (as defined by MIT) who do the reading and participate in discussions but do not complete written assignments or receive a letter grade.

The primary objectives of the course are:

  • To develop skills for analyzing and shaping the influence of ideas — not just the ideas themselves — in varied contexts and situations (policy advocacy, implementation advice, practice norms, etc.);
  • To enhance writing and research formulation skills with academic and non-academic audiences in mind;
  • To explore the value of "scientific" vs. other forms of knowledge;
  • To reflect on the ethical obligations of researchers in their multiple roles as inquirers, advocates, educators, policy experts, and more, as media markets, political partisanship, and other forces demand more and more "point-of-view research"; and
  • To help students examine their career choices and assumptions in light of the knowledge influence and impact themes.


While the schedule is defined somewhat by the availability of particular guests, the course proceeds in three phases:

  1. Foundations, covering major conceptual frameworks for analysis: general models of knowledge production and use, including rationality and its critics; the politics of the policymaking process; and frames and persuasion. These foundations are concerned with broad patterns of influence on thinking in society, as well as influence on authoritative decisions by public policymakers. The capstone exercise for this first phase is a midterm exam.
  2. Knowledge-in-use (or abuse) cases, drawing on the frameworks above or other frameworks as applied to a variety of public issues.
  3. Application, with a focus on the term assignment, in which students analyze a case of knowledge-in-use, according to their interests, and write a research brief on a topic they care about.

Format and Requirements

This is a reading and discussion-intensive course, with the heaviest reading concentrated in the pre-exam phase. Students should be prepared to participate actively in each session and occasionally to lead discussion.

Assignments include a take-home midterm exam, a research brief, and a final paper analyzing some case of knowledge in use (student's choice). For MIT doctoral students, that paper and the brief should be linked topically to the first-year paper, which the course assignments are designed to complement. For other students, the course assignments may complement qualifying papers or similarly substantial research papers. The exam helps connect the problem of research design and formulation of questions with course frameworks; the brief is an exercise in presenting your research effectively to non-specialists; and the case paper analyzes the "public face" — the controversies, utilization of knowledge, public opinion and/or decisionmaking contexts — of a topic you are writing up in the first-year paper or some other research paper.

Students will submit a brief, nongraded problem statement, early in the semester, to begin framing and defining the case paper focus. The exam punctuates the first half of the course, and the case paper and brief become our focus for the latter half.


Class participation 10%
Midterm 35%
Case paper 35%
Research brief 20%

Those enrolling at listener status will receive credit upon completion of the course, assuming regular attendance and preparation.

Democracy (and Responsibility) in the Classroom

A premise of the course is that our own efforts to engage challenging topics will reflect the very real-world challenges we wish to understand. The classroom is thus a case in point, and while faculty bear a special responsibility given their role in guiding the work, every class member is responsible for contributing to our success. Some working principles:

  • Respect with challenge: Promoting mutual respect, being as inclusive as possible, but being willing to disagree thoughtfully where it will support a better discussion or bring important ideas and differences in perspective (vantage point) into view;
  • Curiosity with candor: Following questions, questioning "givens" (prevailing assumptions, for example);
  • Listening actively: Listening to understand, checking assumptions, not simply waiting our turns to talk; and
  • Assuming responsibility: In our case, for the work of making the classroom an effective place for learning together, being more than a spectator.

Course Materials

Beginning with class session two, you will read assigned material guided by specific study questions, though you are welcome to go beyond them. The questions are linked to our central objectives for the case (or other discussion topic), which is linked in turn to the larger course objectives. In some instances, we will offer recommended readings or lists as take-away resources on important topics.