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This past month, I participated in a panel discussion with a number of Duke undergraduates, faculty, and administrators. The theme of the discussion was “Creativity in the groves of academe: promoted or obstructed.” The panelists were asked to consider the following questions: Where is creativity found? Is creativity in the university context flourishing or imperiled? How is creativity nurtured? The premise of the discussion seemed hokey to me at first—who has the right to say who or what is creative?—but I believe it speaks to concerns shared by students, teachers, and parents everywhere.
Creativity, like interdisciplinarity, is one of those buzzwords that the university champions as an ideal but hardly anyone dares define unequivocally. Most people would agree that creativity is a virtue, a defining characteristic of artists and free thinkers, something that not everyone has, but the majority of people aspire to cultivate. Creativity is described as the ability to think outside the proverbial box—to produce unique, one-of-a-kind work. But in its plainest form, creativity simply refers to a process of creation, of making, becoming, and growing. Every person has the ability to create, and therefore to be creative.
Under what conditions is creative work made possible? Can a teacher ask a student to produce something creative? Can creativity be forced, or compelled? Perhaps the most obvious way to address the questions would be to examine the cluster of academic classes that explicitly self-identify as, and purport to be, training grounds for creative students doing creative work. I’m talking about creative writing classes. In my experience of classes in poetry and nonfiction writing, the most effective creative writing workshops are those in which instructors give students considerable freedom and consistent feedback. This is not to deride writing exercises or assigned readings, but rather, to understand the conditions under which the writing itself, the stories, poems, and essays, are produced. These are conditions of freedom, with the assurance of constructive responses, suggestions, criticisms, and validation.
As the poet John Keats wrote, “That which is creative must create itself.” The university can imagine itself a space for creative thought and work, but it is neither the only, nor the primary, space within which creativity is expressed and performed. Creative writing classes do little more than create opportunities for students to think, to think on paper, and to have their thoughts explored in a semi-public forum. There is no pedagogy that can ensure the production of creative work. No writing prompt that will guarantee creative work. Creative writing happened before writing workshops and will continue to happen—in solitude, in desperation, in moments of inspiration—whether or not instruction is involved.
Should schools and universities be concerned with fostering creativity? Is creativity the goal of scholarship? There has been the suggestion among academics and theorists of creativity that the university must provide for students, and faculty, the tools, resources, freedoms, and conditions within which creative work can happen. Surely, no one would argue the opposite—that the university must deny students and faculty those conditions—but the original claim is itself problematic.
What are the tools, resources, freedoms, and conditions within which an individual can be creative? If there were one ideal atmosphere or space within which all people could be creative, then the “nurturing of creativity” would be a moot issue. Creativity is intrinsically subjective. What’s more, not all people aspire to do nominally creative work. There are other motivating factors for the production of art or text or innovation—ambition, foundation, repetition, dissemination—that may or may not have anything explicitly or implicitly to do with “creativity.”
Unfortunately, just as most of us have preconceptions about what creative work looks like, we have an instinctive sense of what doesn’t qualify. The Taj Mahal: creative. Suburban tract homes: unoriginal. Wingdings: creative. Times New Roman: standard. Pottery: creative. Grammar: unimaginative (unless you’re reading the illustrated Strunk and White). There are a couple points to note in my construction of this flip list of opposites. The first is that it is very difficult to come up with a consistent, comprehensive, accurate antonym for “creative”—which to my mind speaks to the tenuousness of any given definition. The second is the fact that it is incredibly easy, dare I say reactionary, to designate a thing, person, or idea “uncreative.”
The task of the truly creative person is to re-imagine those things, persons, and ideas deemed uncreative in new and productive ways. Disciplinarity and pre-professionalism may seem like stumbling blocks to “creative” academic pursuit, but they certainly do not have to be. Majoring in economics or English, being pre-med like all the other desis, taking the LSAT, or writing a proof in mathematics can be just as creative as fine arts or music or dance or poetry. Artists are not the only creative people in the world; nor are artists necessarily creative. Far from being imperiled, creativity is flourishing everywhere. On the internet, on television, in newspapers, in classrooms, yes, and in cubicles around the world. What’s creative is the approach. The resolve. The individual stamp that each of us puts on the ordinary. The way we think ourselves through unremarkable struggles and dream up solutions to everyday crises. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche, albeit out of context, “In this world there is one unique path which no one but you may walk. Where does it lead? Do not ask; take it.”
I’ll stop here, before I turn this entirely into a Barney-esque affirmation of individual potential. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if a video-blog on Youtube gets three stars for creativity or 10. It will not have escaped the reader that this essay on creativity seems to have a wholly uninspired, uncreative title. But it’s to the point. At bottom, creative work is just that: work. Creative thought requires thought. Creative labor is labor first.
And discussions on the topic? To modify an old adage, those who can, do; those who can’t, write columns about it.
But we try to be creative.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a senior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.