Slowing it Down as the Semester Speeds to a Close

“When someone is trying to make something that doesn’t exist yet, for which there is no clear template, it’s going to look unfamiliar, and it’s likely to arrive with struggle, uncertainty, and a quality of raggedness. What makes things feel polished or “finished” is very often their adherence to familiar codes. The new arrives with its edges less charted; it tends less ‘to click the lid of a well-made box’ than to jangle or vibrate or sigh. Or even to provoke or irritate, as it presents itself with opacity rather than transparency.” Mark Doty, Preface to Legitimate Dangers, American Poets of the New Century

We’re back, barely, and briefly, from Thanksgiving break, which marked the first trip home for many first-years.
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It’s a wild time now as students scramble to complete their work for the semester and try to get into spring classes. The first-years have had to watch our on-line registration system for days as the upper-level students preceded them in the course selection process. It has been agonizing. Every day the numbers in their favored choices have dwindled, and Friday morning, many were disappointed when at last, they were able to register. My phone has been ringing, my email box swelling. Students want to take creative writing and they can’t get into the class. My waitlist is longer than the class roster. And while I am delighted to see so many seeking creative spaces in their course line-up, I am dismayed that our institutions of higher learning place such little value on creativity-centered courses except for majors in the arts. If a student has 36 courses to take over the four years of college, how many of them are creative-intensive? And yet, what could be more important than building their ability to think and act creatively?

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It’s got me thinking–of Ken Robinson’s contention that schools are killing creativity, of Vera John Steiner’s examination of the role of collaboration in creativity (ah, here’s where schools could and should play a role, with our built-in arenas for collaboration), of Maxine Greene’s urging, of Dewey’s urging ( “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.” from The Quest for Certainty) and of James Paul Gee’s emphatic argument “that people learn best when their learning is part of a highly motivated engagement with social practices which they value.” (p. 77 Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling). Heck, it’s got me thinking about what many of my blogging buddies write about so often: our deep need for creativity, and the reality–a lack of creative spaces and practices in higher ed because, at least in part, these spaces invite uncertainty, risk, and Doty’s “raggedness.”

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Mostly, of course, it’s got me thinking of the journey of this course–nearly done– and how Mark Doty’s quotation about poets could describe this class. I think of how this group of students has come together to urge one another on, to encourage one another, to collaborate, to celebrate. Just as the course ends, they are oozing creativity, cracking open their voices and subject matter, messing around with the tools of twenty-first-century writers, as they engage with ideas, events and realities of our times, of their times. Their ongoing narrative reflections reveal that they are deeply immersed in Thomas Mann’s “serious play” of art and finding the deep rewards of creation: see Sarah’s inventive exploration of her thoughts on writing, for instance. They are confronting, too, what it means to be emerging adults, between childhood home and adult home, a reality they felt acutely upon going home for the first time last week, in posts such as Home? and the wry, moving Coming Home. This self-motivated slow-blogging (I’ve just told them to try it out, think about what they want to engage people in discussion about, without prescribing for them number or focus of posts) is pushing them to take responsibility for “what it is they believe and why they believe what they believe” (from yesterday’s lecture by former Harvard Dean, Harry Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Higher Education Have a Future?) They are loosening up, undoing the shackles of the grade-oriented grind, noodling around a bit, becoming increasingly playful, and open and THEMSELVES in posts such as Love is Monkey and Home: A Five-Paragraph Essay.

That so many students are lining up to take creative writing–and my section with its extra two-hour evening workshop to boot–tells me that we need to take our students’ creative development far more seriously than we do. The emails I have received from students trying to find a way into the course emphasize their need to explore their creative sides, as in this excerpt:

“This past semester, all of my writings in every class were analytical and dry. I found myself yearning for something more creative, something I could really attach and devote myself to.”

Indeed.

flight

In slowing down by moving more deeply into reflection, connection and creativity , my students have gotten in touch with parts of themselves that they haven’t seen in years while coming out of themselves to examine the world around them within the contact zones of the classroom community and of the provocative readings from John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay. Harry Lewis said something else in his talk along these lines that stayed with me: “Everybody should read books that keep them up at night.” Yes. And through reading one another’s thoughts about our reading and about life in general, we experience what de Certeau describes:

“the activity of reading has…all the characteristics of a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance…words become the outlet or product of silent histories. The readable text transforms itself into the memorable: Barthes reads Proust in Stendhal’s text; the reader reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces…This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment…” (p. xxi The Practice of Everyday Life)

It’s got me thinking, too, about Laura’s recent post in which she wrestles with getting out of her comfort zone of genre and media:

“And although from a technical standpoint, I’m comfortable with video, audio and images, from an artistic standpoint, I feel like a complete dolt.”

And yet in the very pushing of herself into new creative directions, while vulnerable and terrified, perhaps, she finds herself energized, excited, “gung ho,” as I did when I made my foray into text-image storytelling this summer and every time I post a new photo. I have no training in photography, and all of my education tells me that I have no right to claim ownership of arenas outside those of trained expertise. And, yes, the results are pretty ragged but no less serious and revelatory for that.

This is what learning is about, this is what we need to be doing–not teaching undergraduates (most of whom will not go on to become academics, after all) to become ever narrower in viewpoint and expertise within silo-ed disciplines and arcane discourse modes, but to become expansive and worldly and deeply in touch with their creative and critical selves as they tackle the problems that face our world and articulate deep thinking clearly across disciplines. We need them to transcend disciplines, even. Look at this example of a “video poem” by a student working with a former student of mine on a Global Learning semester trip to Morocco. Wow…why aren’t these kinds of practices–as well as the traditional read-and-analyze practices– at the heart of our classrooms?

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We need more interdisciplinary creative courses in our higher education institutions, open to all students and not just majors. A little creative space goes a long way to bringing about meaningful reflection, action & interaction, “getting students to use their writing not just as a tool for making arguments, but also as a lens for exploring complexity and a vehicle for arriving at nuanced understandings of a lived reality that is inescapably characterized by ambiguities, shades of meaning, contradictions and gaps.” (Richard Miller, Writing At the End of the World, p.196-7)

And so on Monday, I will write more emails to those students seeking creative courses, urging them to let the school know how hard it is to be a science or social sciences major and get a place in a creative writing or other “creative” course, and how crucial it is to do just that. I’ll move into re-thinking my January term and spring semester courses with this in mind, too, and hope that I can continue to help students find contact with messy, vibrant, challenging spaces of creativity.

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8 Responses

  1. Lovely post. You know, I majored in creative writing. Even though there was no money in it, no practicality whatsoever, I pursued what I felt was my calling. And maybe I didn’t become a poet as I had initially planned, but I don’t feel like I failed. I feel like I gained so much from that time when I was able to be creative always. It invigorated everything I did. I even used creative writing–poetry mostly–as a way to understand other subjects: history, science, literature, economics. It is a shame we don’t have more space for that.

  2. Ah, Laura, that explains a lot about your bold forays into all manner of creative endeavors. Makes absolute sense that you were a creative writing major. I majored in art history, but took studio art, too, as I moved ever more emphatically to a life of writing and teaching writing. I founded and ran a student art gallery, too, which brought me into contact with all kinds of creative moments, people and spaces. But much of that I had to do outside of class. Not with professors. I rarely if ever saw their creative sides, and rarely had time for hanging out with ideas in a creative way in any of my non-studio classes. And it’s a shame indeed.

  3. Hi Barbara,

    After working with gap-year students in Morocco, three extremely bright and talented young women who are all headed to prestigious institutions, and who ironically have not even considered majors or the limits of choosing one discipline, it has become apparent that we really need to be thinking of creativity, and beyond that, creative tools, such as written stories, video, photography as just that, tools. They are the means, not the end. They are not the product, just a variety of avenues to reach that destination, wherever it may be. I found this as the most effective way of convincing these students to try their hand at these various mediums, it is just one way to explore a whole world of subjects.

    Thus you are right, we don’t have to be creative writing majors, or art majors, to think creatively. We don’t need to change already established disciplines or majors. Rather we need to change the way we approach them and the tools and methods we use to do so.

    So even if these students can’t enroll in the creative writing classes, they can carry what they learned from thinking creatively for a semester to their other courses. They can push their professors to accept a video poem in place of an analytical essay, and in that way they won’t have to rely on you, or creative writing classes to be creative. They already have the tools, after all.

    Piya

  4. Piya,

    Great to hear from you–you and Remy clearly did fabulous work with the students on the Global Learning semester trip. I have enjoyed looking through the blog and their digital stories. Can’t wait for you two to guest teach my J-term course for a couple of days!

    I’m not worried about my first-years taking creative writing so much, for the reasons you point out. It is the senior geography major or the junior biology major or the first-year (not in my or another creative seminar) and the others who have not had ANY creative space in their classroom life here. Ideally every course would be threaded through with the creative practices you mention as a means to opening understanding of the subject matter and its context even in the most exacting of traditional courses. But short of that, I’d like to see every student take at least one creative-intensive course every year. We have writing intensive courses, why not creative-intensive?

  5. Awesome post, Barbara.
    I remember the first couple of times I tried to teach creative writing or composition, and the huge, shadowy mental gulf I had to cross from lit crit, in order to get to the shore.

  6. I’m currently reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Your post applies Pink’s theory to education–that we must foster not only our critical and analytical thinking but our creative thinking. Teaching students to use 21st century tools to create and publish their ideas and messages in a myriad of genres and mediums fosters this “R-Directed Thinking,” as Pink calls it. As you’ve aptly noted, such work can be “ragged,” for both the teacher and the student. As a high school English teacher, I too am trying to foster creative as well as critical and analytical thinking. It’s sad to see the majority of students resist, students who prefer clear-cut answers rather than messy, complicated options. When there is no right answer or no particular formula, many students shut down. Their resistance reveals how schooling has stripped away their willingness to risk, to create original works. Perhaps, the availability of 21st century tools will empower teachers and students to tap into their creative sides, to be willing to take risks. If schools–both high schools and colleges–will offer, as you suggest, more creative courses, perhaps we can restore a balance between creative and critical thinking.

  7. Thanks, Bryan and Lisa, for your comments.

    In my experience, not many lit scholars venture into creative-writing teaching, and when they do, their syllabi read an awful lot LIKE a lit course, a traditional one at that. Having someone like you, Bryan, move between worlds, bridging them, is exactly what I’m talking about–we need you in the classroom!

    Lisa, I agree that Pink’s take on creativity resonates here, and I am delighted to hear about my cohorts in high school classrooms striving to ground their classes in creative practices. I think that in many ways it’s even tougher for you as your students have been told from just about everyone that getting the grade, filling the resume with activities and accomplishments is what matters on the march to college. And there’s also the very real fact that nothing is more challenging, more difficult than being deeply creative or as Mose Allison put it, The artist is the one who never gets it right.” And “right” is what students have been taught is the goal, often, the only goal.

    Certainly these tools can help especially since they feel so new to students, so out of the realm of the drill-and repeat patterns that represent school to them. The transparency & connectivity help, too, in that students now have access to one another’s creative explorations, and by seeing someone else take a risk, and connecting with one another over that risk, they feel just a little better about doing it themselves.

  8. Barbara,
    As always your words and work inspire me. Although students in two of my classes blogged this semester, none of them really caught fire the way that your students clearly did.

    I’m trying a new class this spring, a digital history senior seminar in which we’ll spend the semester working on 4 digital history projects that the students will have more creative control over. [digitalhistory.umwblogs.org]. For someone from a discipline that emphasizes the analytical, often at the expense of the creative, I feel like I’m going out on a limb here. Yet I also believe I need to provide opportunities for my students (all of whom are history majors) to find a new creative voice; I think the digital environment allows them to escape some of the blinders that we (I) put on their creativity in other classes.

    Thanks for reassuring me that the effort is worth it.

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