Carnegie Mellon University
April 06, 2021

Hagan Named Dean’s Innovation Scholar

By Stacy Kish

Susan Hagan, associate teaching professor in Information Systems, is the 2021 recipient of the Dean’s Innovation Scholar award.

“When I read the email, I have to admit, I screamed, because I was taken aback and shocked. There are so many great people here,” said Hagan. “It feels really humbling to receive this honor.”

Hagan was honored for her teaching approach, which brings together design, rhetoric and technology. Her students engage with information as a collaboration of unique elements. Text, image, typeface and interaction offer individual and collaborative strengths that help stakeholders to learn, perform tasks and consider options within technology-driven environments. Students turn those insights into interfaces for modern applications.

Hagan’s students learn about the underlying grid architecture that is the foundation for most modern user-interface design on desktop, web and mobile applications. The students study grid systems not as containers but as structure/content/interaction relationships that help stakeholders engage with complex concepts and tasks. Her students combine lab and theory to build on their UX/UI design skills to overcome sticking points in the design process.

“The tools available to software developers today make it easy to build web and mobile applications, but that does not mean they ensure good design any more than Microsoft Word makes it easy to write but does not ensure a good novel,” said Joe Mertz, director of the Information Systems Program and teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “Susan brings a background and experience that draws from the humanities fields of design and rhetoric that is unique among IS faculty. Because of her innovative teaching, she is very deserving of this award, and I look forward to seeing the exciting things she does with it.”

The pandemic has changed teaching practices across the country and at every grade level. Hagan’s class was no different. In fact, it added an unexpected wrinkle. Typically her students share space around a screen and examine the problem, leading to collective brainstorming with the potential for spontaneous insight. This more informal approach was not conducive to teaching during a pandemic. She moved their discussions to Google docs and chat features. What she did not anticipate was how that structure would help students hone the skill of giving and receiving organized, thoughtful and respectful critique.

“I have been able to give students more direction on how to give feedback, so people can hear it and it is valuable,” said Hagan. “While we might lose some moments of surprise insight, we gain more in terms of constructive feedback.”

Criticism, even constructive criticism that is positive, can still sting. Hagan helps her students embrace the comments by sharing her own experience with criticism. She also notes that any comment on a weaker area in the design is actually a gift that is pointing out the problem on the current design and opening a window to a solution.

“The word gift seems to resonate,” said Hagan. “It is the best information they can get.” 

From this perspective, the students gain a level of comfort and confidence. For Hagan, she also believes students deserve the greatest gift of all — the ability to fail.

“I want my students to know that failure is part of the process,” said Hagan. “If you are going to have the freedom to fail, you have to have mutual respect all the way through.”

Hagan has a split appointment between the main Carnegie Mellon University campus and the campus in Qatar, spending a semester at each campus yearly. Her courses move students toward design that meets the stakeholder’s need for an interesting and organized experience developed using the potential for interplay between text, images, typeface and interaction.

Instituted in 2015, the Dean’s Innovation Scholar award recognizes significant innovation in course design, teaching practice and learning outcomes assessment among teaching-track faculty in Dietrich College, as well as the promise of these faculty for ongoing creative and effective innovation. The fellowship provides two years of support, totaling $20,000, for curriculum development, course delivery and learning outcomes assessment.

“I think for anyone who is teaching, you never know if what you are doing in the classroom will resonate outside,” said Hagan. “This award acknowledges that my work, the work we all do, has legs. It is really such an honor.”