Creative = New and Valuable

“Creative work” is a beautiful idea to me, rife with possibilities and unknowns. I think for some people the idea of engaging in creative work is terrifying and born of a self- or outwardly-imposed belief that they’re “not creative.” Thinking of creativity may conjure images of painting and poetry, music, beadwork, etc. But I think the most useful definition of creativity is from my pal Wikipedia, which describes creativity as “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created” and…that’s it. New and valuable. Not earth-shattering or game-changing on a global scale, but new and valuable to the creator herself.

I’m thinking about this right now because of the work my students are doing in ENGL 111, Introduction to Academic Writing. Maybe not the first venue one would connect with “creativity,” but I think one of the most germane. What else are they doing but finding ways to generate ideas and organize them in new and valuable ways? Academic writing has its conventions, but it’s not formulaic, and I’m certainly not a prescriptive instructor. So students spend a lot of time in my class exploring and experimenting and, ultimately, problem solving.

Let me put this into context: students read three pieces over the course of the semester, and write three primary essays in response to those pieces. The second essay builds on the first, and the third essay builds on the previous two. Each essay requires a new controlling purpose, or “thesis idea,” which the students need to generate themselves. This is a sticking point for some of them – that initial act of creativity in the pen-to-paper process can be daunting. “I thought you were going to tell us what to write about,” I’ve heard. “In high school they gave us the topic and we just wrote about it.” To which comments I respond, with a grand flourish of my dry-erase marker, “the work of academia is the development of new knowledge!” I imagine I see a couple of them mentally licking their chops and rubbing their hands together in anticipation, but the rest of them visibly shrink in their chairs, averting their eyes to hopefully minimize the possibility that I’ll call on them to make meaning of what I just said.

But I call on them anyway: “What is the development of new knowledge?” An intrepid soul may venture, “like, curing cancer?” “Sure!” I exclaim, “a cure for cancer is certainly an example of new knowledge.” Now that they’re properly terrified that their final project is going to be describing the cure for cancer, or a solution to world hunger or peace in the Middle East, I clarify our scope. For example, this semester we’re talking about language and identity, focusing on essays by Gloria Anzaldúa, Haunani-Kay Trask and James Baldwin. I’m asking my students to enter into a conversation with each of these writers and to generate a new (for them) discussion, exploring some aspect of language and identity that arises from the reading and discussion. Their minds temporarily put at some relative ease, we begin the work of the course.

So where does creativity enter into it? Generating a useful (for the purposes of the course) discussion is usually more difficult than it sounds, as is the understanding that I’m asking them to generate a discussion that is new and valuable to them, the students – not the whole of the Academy (yet).

I’m writing this more to talk about how we encourage creativity in our students, across the disciplines, than to convince anyone that creativity is important – I (maybe naïvely) take it as a given that we’re all on the same page about that. And I’m writing it to think about ways to maybe help students navigate around that ugly internal voice telling them “you’re not creative,” because it also tends to translate into “you can’t write,” or “you’re bad at math;” all of which translates into “you can’t problem solve” and therefore, “you will fail at academic pursuits.”

So how do we instructors nurture those students who feel their creativity is nonexistent, or insufficient or of a variety unsuited to a discipline? These are some approaches I use, and I would love to hear about more:

I never tell them to “be creative!”

I demand perseverance, even excess. I often think of composition theorist Kenneth Bruffee’s assertion that “[w]e can think because we can talk, and we think in ways we have learned to talk.” We can observe – and most students seem to be more comfortable, initially anyway, with observation – and we can analyze because we can think. And there’s another sticking point: analysis. Students are making meaning of what they’ve read, but do they recognize that meaning-making is a personal and very creative process? So persevere: observe and analyze via asking questions. I observe that this is, but so what? Why does it matter? Why else does it matter? Why else might it matter? What are the implications? What are other implications? What are the implications for you? For another person? For another group? To paraphrase Bruffee, consider that if thought is internalized talk, then writing is internalized thought made public. So this thinking, this analysis and examine of “what else” matters to the process, which leads me to my next point…

Be messy. Thinking, creativity, problem solving – they’re messy and that’s ok. The results of our mess – our efforts in revising, revisiting, editing – are, hopefully, tidy and navigable. But the way there is full of side-roads and cul-de-sacs and they all deserve examination and reflection. A lot of students say, “I read the reading assignment and then I sat down to write my essay and I couldn’t think of anything.” That statement translates to me as “I looked at the crime scene, but I have no idea who the murderer is.” How to find a murderer? We examine the scene of the crime; but then we gather and analyze evidence, we formulate hypotheses, test drive them, abandon or follow them, ask around and ultimately, hopefully, arrive at a conclusion: X did it, and I’m about to tell you how and why.

As instructional designers, we look at this as the “Understanding by Design” process. We start with a Big Idea (the crime scene) and then begin look at the ways by which we may best explore our Big Ideas in the classroom: we ask Essential Questions, we experiment with […develop this…] We deliver our course, examine the results, and we revise, revisit and edit. X is the destination of this course, and these are the ways I’m going to get you there.

Encourage reflection. Reflection is always important, and especially so in first-year courses. Every course builds on its own material, each unit more involved than the last and relying on students’ comprehension of prior material, until a glorious crescendo of understanding and contextualization rings out like a holy choir from each final project and culminating discussion…we hope.

I realize that volumes have been written on creativity in education but, just as I ask my students to do, I’m sussing out what it means to me personally here. I’ve got a whole other thing about being the perceived roadblock that certain types of interpretation require a student to be a certain type of “artistic,” but I’ll get to that later.





Comics & the Multimodal World Conference was Grand

The first ever Comics & the Multimodal World conference happened last week in New Westminster, BC. The conference was hosted at Douglas College (outside of Vancouver) by Graphixia and The Comics Grid, both online comics journals. Graphixia has offered an excellent overview of events here, so there are some things I’m not going to cover again. I do want to talk about points in the conference that were highlights for me.

It was a relatively small group of presenters and attendees, with only two morning sessions held concurrently. The rest of the four-day conference took place in one of two meeting spaces within Douglas College, including the Aboriginal Gathering Space:

the Space awaits

This matters because that small group and consistent schedule fostered a productivec sense of community, and ensured that by day three, for example, we were all still on the same page regarding Lynda Barry. (She’s everywhere.)

The most relevant discussion to my own interest in students in higher ed as comics makers, was from Roger Whitson of Washington State University. (He posted his presentation here.) There were a few of us presenting on comics in education, a field, I’m realizing, that is as broad and varied as we can make it.

I presented later in the second day (you can look through my slideshow here). I (being one of the very few non-PhDs there) spoke more of how I use comics as a tool in the classroom to help students expand their thinking – even if it doesn’t seem related to the topic at hand. I had everyone in the room draw for a while, and if you haven’t seen it, try and get a room full of academic grown-ups hunched over their papers, so very quietly focused on their drawings – it’s a wonderful thing.

One of my favorite presentations overall was Ian Horton’s seminar/teach-in based on instructional comic books, and the relationship between the visual language of comics in communicating information. (Read more about his discussion here.) Ian (from the London College of Communication) also got the whole group drawing, this time a history of Vancouver.

It’s worth going in to detail about the exercise: After presenting some examples of visual language in comics, Ian pulled up an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Vancouver. He gave us a few minutes to read the entry, and then distributed to each of  us a large sheet of paper, black ball point pen, and black marker, to ensure an even playing field when it came to materials, at least. We then had 25 minutes to create our own pictorial “History of Vancouver.” And while 20 or so different people produced 20 different visual histories, the point is that in the attempt to communicate the information pictorially, we engaged with the information more powerfully than reading the entry alone. As Ian said, “When’s the last time you got students to spend 30 minutes thinking about the history of anything?”

My History of Vancouver:

from Ian's workshop

On the more scholarly, less practicum-based side,  presenters discussed “Representations of Indigeneity in The Incredible Hulk,” “Québécois Bande Dessinée: A Quiet Revolution,” “The Digital Materialities of Building Stories,” and a whole bunch more. You can look at an overview of some of the presentations here. These students, teachers, thinkers, makers, are working to secure the place of comics in the pool of material to be considered for “legitimate” scholarship.

One of my favorites from this group was Marni Stanley’s “Where Do You Draw the (Front) Line: Women Surviving War.” (Read more here.)

MarniShe discussed some powerful comics made by women in countries affected by war and trauma…which leads me to Sarah Leavitt‘s keynote speech (which brought tears to my eyes and made me need to call my mom immediately) about her autobiographical graphic novel Tangles…which leads me to Damon Herd‘s presentation on autobiographical comics, where he shared with us (and had us critique) some of his own work…


There was so much, and it was all so well done. If you’re interested in looking at comics academically, or in using them as teaching and learning tools, and if you’re not doing this already, pay attention to Graphixia and The Comics Grid, look back at #graphixia13, and think about the next Graphixia conference, maybe? in London? in 2014? I’ll be there.

(While they weren’t at the conference, both Lynda Barry and Nick Sousanis were present in the frequent references made to their work, and if you want to know about comics as scholarship, as modes of inquiry, as the most they can be, know about these two people.)

(About the drawings: many of us drew throughout the conference, and shared our drawings on Twitter at #graphixia13. I either drew mine or used the Paper app on my iPad.)

Creative Commons License
verynicehat by Brooke Sheridan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Comics as Scholarship

I’m becoming a mad, frothing opponent to humanities instructors that allow only text-based scholarship, the term paper being the prime example of enforced mediocrity. I had a few professors who allowed us to incorporate images into our projects, a few who encouraged it, and a few whose parameters for our final projects were “do whatever you want.” A lot of students balk at such broad assignments, and they should – they should balk and bridle and bristle and rear up and freak out a little bit. The loose parameters don’t alarm them, for the most part, because they can’t think of anything to do. It’s because they don’t know if what they’re doing will get them the grade they want.

That’s the part that makes instructors hesitant, too. How to assess work with parameters outside the rubric? I don’t have an answer for that here. What I’ve been thinking about are the projects that can push students out of their comfort zones and into generating something beyond what they thought they could do, extend their thinking, and maybe even make something new.

Comics are one of many types of scholarship in which we can encourage students to engage, and I’ve been scouting around for the best tools to offer students who may not want or be able to draw a comic. I made the following comic using Pixton, a flexible comic -generating tool with an account option specifically for education. Instructors can create assignments in Pixton and share with students, who then may use the account to create their own comics in response to the assignment. Most of the samples I’ve seen so far have been from high school courses, but Pixton is flexible enough that, given the proper instruction and assignment guidelines, students in higher education could make good use of the tool. Barbara Weaver, from Clemson University, used Pixton in her sophomore literature course, with promising results.

Instructors and students may both have to get over the associated superficiality of the word “comics,” which often conjures first the image of grade school boys reading Superman on the stoop, or maybe the bland, blunted offerings of the newspaper funnies. They may also need to contend with the assumption that “comics” have to be funny, or that the medium is meant to make complicated ideas more palatable for less ambitious minds, like in the “Classics Illustrated” series.  The best evidence against these assumptions, right now, is PhD candidate Nick Sousanis’s dissertation in comic form, which he discusses in his blog, and which I discuss with fellow designer Chris Malmberg in the inaugural edition of his podcast.

The goal of incorporating sequential art as a form of critical inquiry is to create complications between word and image, and from complications come questions, and from these questions arises the possibility of fulfilling the potential of academia, which is the creation of new knowledge. “Funny pages” indeed.

Comic by me, using Pixton.


The Chaotic Kitchen

Though the description on the job posting was pretty clear, the first thing I did when I found out I got an interview for this instructional designer position was get on YouTube and search “instructional design.” I happened to choose the “Introduction to Instructional Design” options made for business people, and got a little concerned because be-suited professional-types were sitting under fluorescent lights using corporate buzzwords/phrases like “synergy” and “maximizing productivity” and so forth.  Wikipedia offered a nebulous description of the field, making it sound more like the undertaking of philosophers stretched out on fainting couches, chain-smoking and pondering the nature of “learn.”

Then I actually arrived in the office and spoke with the real-life ID team. They each have specialties and strengths and can speak expertly about pedagogies, programming languages, user interfaces, and apps that, yes, maximize productivity. It has not been a linear learning experience for me – the starting point is clear (“I know nothing”) but there is no end point, only my ever-increasing awareness that adaptability, flexibility, ingenuity, and a love for things with screens are essential.

I was initially frustrated that there was no now-you’re-an-instructional-designer checklist, and by the fear that I would feel forever behind because I don’t, in fact, speak any programming languages and I have a hard time remembering acronyms. (There are a lot of acronyms. I was in the army for a few years and they had a lot of acronyms. I didn’t like it very much there and I’m thinking my brain is pretending not to notice, looking away and whistling, when I encounter any more.) Then I realized I was missing the point entirely about the ingredients for a successful instructional designer. The point is that there can’t be a checklist. If there were a checklist, than anybody could be a good instructional designer, and I don’t think just anybody could be a good instructional designer.

My teaching background is primarily teaching college composition to freshmen. One of the more useful resources I encountered when formulating my own pedagogy was Ann Berthoff’s “Learning the Uses of Chaos.” Berthoff discusses the composing process of writing, pointing out that it “is not like cooking a particular dish…it is not sequential or ‘linear’; it is not measurement, followed by amalgamation and transformation.” It is the chaos, the nebulousness of the uncertain, that actually forms the “hinges of thought” that help us rediscover “the power of language to generate the sources of meaning.”

The analogy for me, looking at Berthoff’s sense of the value of chaos in the composition process and my own poking around in the cupboards of instructional design, the cupboards full of unlabeled jars and weird artisanal chutneys, is that in the realm of innovation and meaning-making, sometimes it’s more helpful not to know exactly what’s going on.