Cultivating Creativity

media-20170322Interdisciplinary Studies is about creativity, at least that’s the claim, but where is this creativity exercised? In choosing one’s career path? In choosing one’s compilation of courses? Or, as I hope to suggest is the most significant place, in the daily academic practices of interdisciplinarians?

In the Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies textbook that I and others use in our Cornerstone class, the authors write that “in interdisciplinary work, creativity involves bringing different perspectives and previously unrelated ideas, discovering commonalities among them, and combining them into a more comprehensive understanding” (21). I disagree with the quantitative component of this statement because often creative pursuits are about knowing differently not necessarily more, nonetheless the centrality of creativity is key.  I have been working very hard to cultivate a creative classroom, and I’ve had varrying degrees of success.

Creativity is not easy to teach, it turns out. Indeed, according to Bloom’s taxonomy, it’s at the very top of the pedagogical pyramid. I have to admit that I’ve been struggling a bit with getting students to lighten up and delve into the quirky and whimsical dimensions of intellectual work. But that’s likely because the concept of quirky whimsical intellectual work strikes them as an oxymoron. Academia is serious stuff. GPAs are on the line. What’s so quirky and whimsical about that? When provided with prompts to explore unconventional ways of thinking, they often either stare at me with blank expressions or challenge my intellectual forays by reiterating conventional tropes in regards to whatever topic is on tap. Not only is there often a lack of capacity for creative thinking, there is a lack of enthusiasm about even the prospect of it. Why?

Perhaps because it’s difficult? I don’t think this is a good answer. Many of my students are running academic marathons of sorts, trying to get through while juggling huge course loads, working, managing family, navigating institutional complexities, and facing a volatile political climate and an uncertain future. If anyone can handle difficult tasks, it’s my students. By and large, they are no strangers to hard work. I don’t think this is the best answer.

A better answer, I think, is more pernicious, in some ways. Remember Sir Ken Robinson? He has argued to more than 44 million people that school, in its industrial formulation, kills creativity, and he has convinced me. He argues that creativity is as important as literacy and should be treated with the same status, but I don’t think this message has made it through to higher education.

I had career services come to my class this semester to speak to my students. The title of their talk is “Majoring in Happiness.” During this talk, the speaker passed out pamphlets with a short survey that allowed students to assess their own personalities and intellectual orientations. The back page of the pamphlet provides an interpretation of the survey,  and test-takers can fall into one or more of the following categories: “Realistic Majors” (doers), “Investigative Majors” (thinkers), “Artistic Majors” (creators), “Social Majors” (helpers), “Enterprising Majors” (persuaders), or “Conventional Majors” (organizers). The bulk of my students were either “Investigative Majors” or “Social Majors.” Both of these categories are firmly ensconced in the realm of certainty–true/false, and right/wrong. Virtually no one identified themselves as creators.  I don’t think we are really witnessing personality results but rather education results that teach ‘right’ answers and solvable problems. If IDS is truly about creativity, and I believe it is, we have our work cut out for us.

As an instructor in IDS, I do not believe that my task is really about teaching content (I am sorry to offend the textbook writers and their ilk). There are a few key concepts and ideas that would be helpful for students to know, but let’s be honest, it’s not exactly rocket science. My task, as I see it, is much more difficult. It is to inspire students to be different, and to create a space where intellectual experimentation is fostered and rewarded. We need to provide creativity tools that students can apply throughout their whole learning experience setting the stage for application to their careers and lives in general. We need to teach creativity, or to unlearn conformity, to be more to the point.

Apart from classroom pedagogy, I think there is some important institutional work that must be done by IDS programs as well. IDS as a creative intellectual endeavor, despite its growth over the past couple decades, continues to face stigma. The world is changing and creativity practitioners are more and more in demand. This puts IDS on the cutting edge, as graduates from these programs are showing us and the world. Changing hearts and minds is never an easy task, but perhaps there are things that can be done. Increasing the profile of IDS majors and practitioners, for example. Engaging in campus conversations and building relationships across disciplines and throughout various communities on campus and beyond are certainly ways to strengthen IDS programs and provide support for our students taking classes in disciplinary department. But, it has to start in the classroom with individual instructors teaching in creative communities of practice, or in classroom communities practicing creativity, more precisely.

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