Creativity: ‘Re-imagining Academic Writing for the 21st Century’

This post’s title is taken from “Re-imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century”, a collection of essays edited by Tina Besley and Michael Peters (2013, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam). The essays examine what tertiary knowledge means in a globalised, international context. The writers question values, epistemologies, established meanings, assumptions and purposes that together shape ‘our’ understandings of ‘university’.

I read it to build my own discourses of what ‘academic’ means: if ‘academic writing’ is the writing we do in/for the university (at whatever level), then what does the ‘academic’ in ‘academic writing’ mean? From an Institutional Theory of meaning (drawing on critical theory of art), ‘academic’ pertains to and is determined by whatever relates to the academy. (However, I don’t think that I like Institutional Theories, but still haven’t got a coherent reason).

My blog title also contains the phrase ‘creative non-fiction’ (borrowed from here), so I thought I’d better start swotting up on what ‘creative’ might mean …. and what it might look like in ‘academic’ writing.

‘Creativity’, as the title indicates, is a key word in this edited collection, and, overall, I think that this is what the authors would like the 21st Century University to be: i.e a site where creativity occurs (they don’t seem to think it does, though!).

And I don’t seem to have underlined any helpful working definition of what ‘creativity’ might mean, so here is an amateur cluster/concordance based on words/phrases adjacent to ‘creativity’ in the book:

invention, discovery, questioning, chance, critical thinking, innovation, probabilism, possibilism, pluriversity, flourish (Chapter 3 on using Gilles Deleuze and Charles Pierce to portray an ideal university)

imagination, fresh metaphors, ‘what if’ scenarios, surprising connections, free play of possibilities, capacity to provide foresight, working with the possibilities, alternative ideas (Chapter 6 on using Ricoeur to interpret a physics class).

emergence, concern with knowledge as a representation of a fixed and stable universe to be transferred from mind to mind in the educative process, rejection of reductionist approaches to curricula, non-linearity (Chapter 10 on Emergentism and Social Realism)

When I think of academic writing – of how we have been taught it, of what we have read about it and of what we actually read, of the advice on how to (and not to) do it, of how we actually do it – I don’t see it as an ‘it’.

Rather, I see a plurality of ‘academic writings’ because I can see these embodying some of the above aspects of ‘Creativity’. (I think I understand the ‘writing’ in ‘academic writing’ as a present participle so that it conjures up the notion of an ‘activity’ rather than a ‘thing’ and therefore it becomes dynamic, not static and reified).

I see ‘Creativity’ emerging in/from/around (?) academic writing when I read about changing citations practices, odes to scholalry blogs, evolving attitudes to wikipedia and multimodal dissertations. Examples abound.

But I also see an aversion to taking risks in academic writing:

The institution that results … is inimical to true collaborative creativity because it is wholly risk-averse: it tries to remove the element of chance from discovery (page 51)

The underlying assumption, here, is that being creative involves taking risks. But taking risks with our academic writing has some pretty obvious disadvantages! (aka disasters). So, if we accept (or at least acknowledge) that for academic writing to be ‘good’ it should be ‘creative’ (because creativity is part of what being academic should be, according to Besley and Peters), then it also has to involve a certain degree of risk-taking.

The question remains: what would be the difference, then, between ‘academic’ and ‘creative’? (Another time, maybe ….).

Are you risk-averse with your writing, or are you creative? Why?

Reference: Re-imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century Tina Besley and Michael Peters (2013), Sense Publishers: Rotterdam


10 thoughts on “Creativity: ‘Re-imagining Academic Writing for the 21st Century’”

  1. My view is that the university is institutionally much better equipped to conserve knowledge than to create it. A lot what’s wrong with universities today stems from trying to be creative in a fundamentally conservative environment. (That’s not to be taken in a political sense, of course, I mean “conservative” more in the sense of conservatory and conservationism. I.e., indicating an interest in preserving what we’ve got over progressing towards something new.)

    It’s easy to see this in the case of literary study. We don’t expect the universities to produce great new innovative literature. We expect them to equip the writers of the future with a sense of what’s already been done so that they can innovate on that basis. The same should be true (if you ask me) in business schools, where a pretty conservative set of managerial and financial skills should be inculcated that can then be innovated in practice. I’m even in favour of less “discovery” in the natural sciences on campuses. What universities should be doing is holding the too-often-hyped discoveries of natural scientists working in private industry to a higher standard.

    I should say that I don’t think it’s a question of too much innovation and too little preservation overall. That might be a problem in some areas, but I’m not in a position to make blanket judgments. I think it’s pretty clear, however, that it was a mistake to cast universities as sites of “creativity”. Given the constant focus on examination (now a permanent part faculty development as well, i.e., “publish or perish”) what made us think a university would be a good place to foster creativity? I think we should let go of this idea, and let go of truly “creative” spirits. (Indeed, part of me wants to describe such letting go as letting them out of jail; many academics today suffer terribly because they think they’re supposed to be creative but everything in their environment stifles them.) Let them become the artists and inventors they’re destined to be. And then let’s find and develop those who have a real talent for scholarship, i.e., for getting the facts right and for asserting those facts in language.

  2. I disagree. I think universities should be “sites of creativity” because ‘creativity’ is more likely to foster automous-responsible thinkers. We also need ‘standards’, in your sense of conservatism’, but we (i.e. the standard makers) need to remember that those standards are human-made, not set in stone, and therefore also subject to critical scrutiny, revision, context and re-adjustment. As with everything, it is clearly not a question of ‘either-or’, but a question of degrees, i.e. how much creativity vs how much prescription, and when. But I am inclined towards the dialogic ‘discovery-risk-experimentation’-end of the spectrum when it comes to learning, and therefore writing, because, as I have said somewhere else, the writing process can reflect how a writer is working through an issue (warts-‘n-all) thus reflecting ‘academic thinking’, which is what I think academic writing should do. I think that is why I say in this post that I like the idea of calling it ‘academic writings’, so that we can accommodate different notions of #acwri that can receive institutional sanction at different stages of a writer’s process?

    1. You’re right that’s it not either-or. But I think we have to think very seriously about what it would take to make today’s universities into places that actually can foster creativity. And, like I say, I think we have to ask ourselves why we want specifically the universities to be such places.

      I’ll give a bit of ground there, actually. I think universities have to respect the creativity of students. I’ve always said that universities should be great places for intelligent, curious people to succeed. And I’ve also always emphasised the importance of imagination. The point, however, is that universities are there to discipline the minds and imaginations of students and teachers. It’s not like curiosity and imagination are lacking, and must somehow be brought about by university education. It’s a matter of forming the materials that are available.

      A friend of mine, who is now a school principal, once said that formal education will never produce a genius … but with a little diligence we may destroy some. I think universities should take that attitude towards creativity (and genius, actually). They should be seriously worried about harming the creativity of students, but they should not hope to occasion it. I think it was T.S. Eliot who said you don’t make flowers grow by pulling at them. What universities can do is assign good reading, and come up with good writing assignments, and the give constructive feedback about how the writing can be improved. Practice, practice, practice.

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