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.