November 2016 Teaching Workshop: Creativity in Critical Writing

It wasn’t too long ago (though, because it took place before the Thanksgiving break, it feels like years have come and gone in the meantime) that FYW held a teaching development workshop on a topic that’s especially dear to my heart, Creativity in Critical Writing. In the workshop, we discussed several important questions, including . . .

  • How has “creativity” been defined, and what different types of creativity can we distinguish?
  • Can creativity be taught? What degree (and what kinds) of creativity can we expect from our students?
  • What do we mean when we say words like “heuristics,” “metacognition,” and “intrinsic motivation,” and what bearing do they have on our teaching?

Here, I’ll touch briefly on the first of these questions. (If you’re interested in any of the others and couldn’t make it to the workshop, you can access my slides here or contact me through email or at the FYW office.) It seems obvious that if we’re going to try to assess the value of creativity in critical writing and in composition courses—and discover how to foster it—we should have a clear idea of what we mean by “creativity.” Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a clear idea, nor can we very easily arrive at one, given the many (often opposed) understandings of and associations with creativity that circulate in culture.

In what follows, I’ll try to parse these various understandings and associations. Bear with me . . .

At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll start by saying that it’s useful to discern three overarching ideologies of creativity:

  1. First, and probably most familiar, is that of creativity as inspiration or Romantic genius, which conjures up images of the artist in the garret.
  2. A second view of creativity understands it to signify progress of some kind, a contribution to a preexisting conversation, the advancement of knowledge—called “normal science” by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
  3. Third, most recently, creativity has taken on overtones of disruption, innovation, and entrepreneurship: such creativity encompasses revolutionary discourse as well as the discourse of the so-called “creative economy” (see Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class), and it corresponds to Kuhn’s “revolutionary” or “abnormal” science.

In addition, we can divide theories of creativity into another set of three. I’ve labeled these theories individual (cognitive), social (sociocognitive), and material (ecocognitive):

  1. In the first, creativity emerges from the individual: Hamlet sprung from Shakespeare as a product of the writer’s genius. This theory clearly complements the Romantic ideology of creativity.
  2. The second theory, which I call social, builds on the first by adding social forces to the equation—that is to say, creativity emerges not simply from the individual but from the interactions of the individual and society (cultural influences, peer networks, discursive conventions, etc.).
  3. Finally, in a material or ecocognitive framework, all three come together: creativity emerges from the interactions of the individual, society, and material environment. The “material environment” consists of economic, technological, and other constraints and affordances—things like computer software that one can access, or a lack of productive time in the evening due to a punishingly long commute.

I’m partial to this last theory of creativity, as you can imagine. In my opinion, an adequate theory of creativity has to account for the individual and social and material factors—focusing on just one, or even only two of the three, doesn’t cut it.

Finally—and I say “finally” not because I’m approaching the end of the different distinctions that I could parse out, but rather because I’m reaching the limits of how much energy I’d like to devote to this blog entry—it’s worthwhile to attend to the distinction between “Big-C” and “little-c” creativity, to use terminology from the budding field of creativity studies:

  1. To put it simply, little-c creativity refers to the everyday creativity that we all exhibit whenever we confront and solve a minor problem or find that it’s useful for some reason to do something differently than we typically do. Such creativity is subjectively novel: my creative solution may be “new to me,” but not necessarily “new to the world.”
  2. By contrast, Big-C creativity involves that which is objectively novel and, usually, disruptive in some way (in relation to some tradition or convention or whatever else may have preceded it). It is eminent creativity: the creativity of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, or Marie Curie.
  3. Another type, Pro-C creativity, is objectively novel as well, but it’s contributory, not disruptive—as in the case of “normal science” in the second ideology of creativity described above. I’ll spare you the headache, though.

We could easily go further—the creativity of the artist versus the creativity of the scientist, for example—but I think I’ve made my point. It’s very simple to say, “Maybe I’ll assign a creative project this semester,” or to ask, “How can I enhance my students’ creativity?” or something along those lines. However, if we’re really going to commit to thinking about creativity in (our teaching of) critical writing, we have to first arrive at a clear idea of what we mean when we say “creativity.”