A Pause Before Diving Back into the Blog

The academic year resumed and I dropped off-blog. I need to spend the next week or so catching up with the comments and reintegrating this writing into my day-to-day life. (Easier done once final grades are in.)

I’m wrapping up a spring first-year writing course with the theme “Genius” in which I attempted to establish a flexible space for exploring connections between academic writing, reflection, and the kinds of ingenuity that inspire us. I hoped that such an approach would enable my students and me to explore deeper and more diverse ways that a liberal arts education can help us tap our own creative potential.

As the years pass–I’ve now been teaching at this institution over 8 years–I find myself more committed than ever to the principle that what we do in first-year courses absolutely must include stimulating the creativity of our students. Some who share my commitment call it “critical thinking” rather than creativity. So be it. I’m using the word creativity right now because I need to emphasize a kind of openness, resourcefulness, ingenuity . . . playfulness too. These things aren’t always encompassed in definitions or discussions about “critical” thinking. What I’m looking for includes joyful discovery and an expectation of/faith in serendipity.

We don’t have time to wait for other people to be creative. We have diseases that need to be cured, an environment to heal, life-spans to extend, cycles of ignorance and brutality to halt and transform. We can’t think of ourselves as “not creative” for doing so just perpetuates our own mediocrity. This all seems so obvious to me and yet all around me I see people who may, at best, purchase tickets to a performance or watch a nifty video on YouTube. Art-integration is approached too passively, if at all. People keep missing the connection between art and personal agency. They miss opportunities to pay closer attention to what they see and how it might connect to their own lives and work and vision for the world.

There are so many things I would do differently with the “Genius” course next time around.

One thing that nags me is the sense that I didn’t do a good enough job of fostering ways for students to make meaningful connections between the creatives they admired and their own lives. We spent too much time wrestling with the notion of what “genius” is and looks like, not enough time doing things that would enable them to experiment with their own ways of knowing.

I keep thinking about that TED.com video about the use of origami by engineers.

What’s leading me back to it, I think, is my current situation: the semester is ending; I’m planning to take more art classes over the summer. One in design, another in sculpture, probably some more weaving. I’m exposing myself to as many media and techniques as possible so that during the school year, when any art-making must come from my own time and talent (such as it is) I’ll be better able to realize my vision.  There are things I need to make, compositions in 3D that have been calling me and that I just need to complete–get them out of my head and here on the table. But my skill set is limited. Heh. Not as limited as it was last year, though!

What studio artists and artisans have that everyday people don’t is this: an ability to conceive of copious, diverse uses for things beyond the customary ones. I’ve discussed this before elsewhere. The resourcefulness thing. Into that category of artists and artisans I would like to add engineers, mechanics, chemists, nurses, cooks . . . people who do problem-solving in three dimensions. I emphasize artists because they are trained to think imaginatively at a level that most others aren’t. It’s their job to create something astonishing out of nothing. It’s an intensification of creative purpose, almost an urgency. Musicians don’t just make sounds; they make music. It’s OK for them to just make nice music. But to some degree the musician won’t feel like she’s really doing her job if all the music she ever makes is merely nice or merely an accurate reproduction of the notes in an arrangement.

As someone who works with first-year college students every year within a liberal arts institution–the kind of place intended above all others to cultivate intellectual versatility for the betterment of our world–I can’t ignore the opportunity (heck, the civic responsibility) to develop courses that do their share to construct the scaffolding needed for further creative inquiry. My field, rhetoric and composition, is rooted in the western academic heritage. And yet I still worry about appearing to neglect the teaching of writing in order to do the teaching of thinking. I want to do a better job of teachings style and grammar–but those things aren’t all that I teach. I’m not teaching functional literacy; if anything, I’m teaching academic literacy. Academic literacy is about knowing why you are researching something, why you are writing about it, how it could matter (or not) and to whom. It’s also about preparing yourself to do consequential work as a researcher and writer–learning how to draw upon what’s known and make something new or different from it, and to generate more worth knowing.

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