Why it is (almost) impossible to teach creativity

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Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity.
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Robert Nelson, Monash University

Industry and educators are agreed: the world needs creativity. There is interest in the field, lots of urging but remarkably little action. Everyone is a bit scared of what to do next. On the question of creativity and imagination, they are mostly uncreative and unimaginative.

Some of the paralysis arises because you can’t easily define creativity. It resists the measurement and strategies that we’re familiar with. Indisposed by the simultaneous vagueness and sublimity of creative processes, educators seek artificial ways to channel imaginative activity into templates that end up compromising the very creativity they celebrate.

For example, creativity is often reduced to problem-solving. To be sure, you need imagination to solve many curly problems and creativity is arguably part of what it takes. But problem-solving is far from the whole of creativity; and if you focus creative thinking uniquely on problems and solutions, you encourage a mechanistic view – all about scoping and then pinpointing the best fit among options.

It might be satisfying to create models for such analytical processes but they distort the natural, wayward flux of imaginative thinking. Often, it is not about solving a problem but seeing a problem that no one else has identified. Often, the point of departure is a personal wish for something to be true or worth arguing or capable of making a poetic splash, whereupon the mind goes into imaginative overdrive to develop a robust theory that has never been proposed before.

For teaching purposes, problems are an anxious place to cultivate creativity. If you think of anyone coming up with an idea — a new song, a witty way of denouncing a politician, a dance step, a joke — it isn’t necessarily about a problem but rather a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise its autonomy, that magical power to concatenate images freely and to see within them a bristling expression of something intelligent.

New ideas are more about a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise autonomy.
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That’s the motive behind what scholars now call “Big C Creativity”: i.e. your Bach or Darwin or Freud who comes up with a major original contribution to culture or science. But the same is true of everyday “small C creativity” that isn’t specifically problem-based.


Read more:
Creativity is a human quality that exists in every single one of us


Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity, like humour, repartee, a gestural impulse or theatrical intuition, a satire that extrapolates someone’s behaviour or produces a poignant character insight.

A dull taming

Our way of democratising creativity is not to see it in inherently imaginative spontaneity but to identify it with instrumental strategising. We tame creativity by making it dull. Our way of honing the faculty is by making it goal-oriented and compliant to a purpose that can be managed and assessed.

Alas, when we make creativity artificially responsible to a goal, we collapse it with prudent decision-making, whereupon it no longer transcends familiar frameworks toward an unknown fertility.

We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy, that somewhat messy generation of figments out of whose chaos the mind can see a brilliant rhyme, a metaphor, a hilarious skip or roll of the shoulders, an outrageous pun, a thought about why peacocks have such a long tail, a reason why bread goes stale or an astonishing pattern in numbers arising from a formula.

We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy.
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Because creativity, in essence, is somewhat irresponsible, it isn’t easy to locate in a syllabus and impossible to teach in a culture of learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are statements of what the student will gain from the subject or unit that you’re teaching. Internationally and across the tertiary system, they take the form of: “On successful completion of this subject, you will be able to …” Everything that is taught should then support the outcomes and all assessment should allow the students to demonstrate that they have met them.

After a lengthy historical study, I have concluded that our contemporary education systematically trashes creativity and unwittingly punishes students for exercising their imagination. The structural basis for this passive hostility to the imagination is the grid of learning outcomes in alignment with delivery and assessment.

It might always be impossible to teach creativity but the least we can do for our students is make education a safe place for imagination. Our academies are a long way from that haven and I see little encouraging in the apologias for creativity that the literature now spawns.

My contention is that learning outcomes are only good for uncreative study. For education to cultivate creativity and imagination, we need to stop asking students anxiously to follow demonstrable proofs of learning for which imagination is a liability.
The Conversation

Robert Nelson, Associate Director Student Experience, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fear of Ghost…Writing

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Is ghostwriting cheating? Well, this edition of It’s Lit discusses just that.

I think the most interesting point raised in the video is around the idea of the solitary author. This is the creative genius whose work you love or the dolt whose work you loathe. All praise and ridicule can be easily directed at one person. But outside of some indie authors, a book (or series of books) isn’t the work of one person. A lot goes into bringing a story to life and placing it in front of us readers for our entertainment. From the cover art to the editing, from the writer’s group feedback to the publisher’s request for a sequel, lots of people are involved in influencing, shaping, and ultimately creating a book.

Now, I have been known to take a dig at authors like James Patterson for their co-authoring ways. And I find it a little unseemly that Tom Clancy is still releasing new books despite having been dead for five years – seriously, half as many as his releases while alive. But that is probably as much about the mass-produced book under a name-brand that we used to associate as the domain of pulp titles. To have that become part of the big-name author stable cheapens the experience somewhat.

That cheapened feeling is probably related back to the idea of the solitary author. Or possibly that I’m not a huge fan of Patterson or Clancy. You know, one of those.

You might being asking yourself– Why do ghostwriters even exist? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t literature supposed to be the result of one person’s agonizing need to create? Aren’t books supposed to be the blood, sweat, and tears of the tortured auteur? Well, the answer is more complicated than you think!

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.

Dirk Gently on US TV

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Yeah, Harry Enfield as Dirk!

Whenever I hear about one of my favourite novels being adapted for the big screen, or the moderate screen that fits in my house, I’m wary. Not wary in a “I hope they don’t mess this up” kind of way, but wary in a “They had better not mess this up” kind of way.

Well, one of my favourite novels was adapted for a TV show (again) and I’ve seen the first season. And I have thoughts…

I was very wary of clicking play on the trailer for the BBC America Dirk Gently series. I removed all sharp objects from my immediate vicinity before watching. If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams’ novels, you may want to do the same. Out of wariness.

Well, at least they won’t be butchering Dirk Gently, because I’m not sure that this is Dirk Gently.

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This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a book adaptation with the lead character portrayed by someone who doesn’t physically match the role. I’m talking about Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. Twice. Anyway, I’m not sure that Samuel Barnett really fits the Svlad Cjelli (aka Dirk Gently) middle-aged, overweight, poorly dressed, loser mould.

He is portrayed as a pudgy man who normally wears a heavy old light brown suit, red checked shirt with a green striped tie, long leather coat, red hat and thick metal-rimmed spectacles. Source

And after viewing the first season, I’m even less convinced this was a portrayal of Dirk Gently. Okay, so clearly Max Landis and his team are going for more of a “youth” vibe. Landis obviously thinks that the only way to write a quirky character (quirky being code for annoying bellend) is to have them bounce off of the walls with manic energy. Which is not something a pudgy middle-aged guy in a dirty suit does.

Then we have not-MacDuff. Elijah Wood is portraying a character named Todd. He’s meant to be more of an everyman for us to relate to (see video below for discussion). So no symphony of nature, no Susan, and no hallway couch. Todd’s relationship to “Dirk” is the typical cliched odd-couple, with the non-quirky character being inexplicably fond or loyal to the person ruining their life.

So two characters that aren’t that great* who get up to weird adventures. Right? Well, the adventures are… kinda… dull. Douglas Adams had Dirk save the world from a ghost of the people who created life on Earth, and the Norse Gods who are a bit peeved about not being admired anymore. Landis has Dirk investigating gifted people swapping bodies… and stuff.

I’m really not sure what Landis was going for. But then again, I’ve watched Bright, which leads me to conclude Landis probably doesn’t know what he’s trying to do either.

After watching this panel discussion you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone involved had a good grasp of the material they were adapting. Landis professes to being a big fan of Douglas Adams’ writing… Yet his takeaway from Dirk Gently is manic energy guy running around being weird. The panel discusses capturing the essence of Dirk Gently, but I didn’t see the loser conman and his intricate adventures that really were holistic.

It often baffles me why screenwriters diverge so far from the source material – it feels as though I discussed this recently. Do they buy the rights but forget to buy a copy of the book for the screenwriters? In this instance that doesn’t appear to be the case. Is it just that they aren’t usually looking to do a direct adaptation but more of an “inspired by” screenplay? In which case, why buy the rights and use the character names? Landis did moan about the lack of original ideas in cinema – but this is also the same guy who talks up sequels to films nobody wanted to see. Are writers trying to avoid a direct comparison between book and adaptation? Again, why buy the rights, since the screenwriters clearly have an idea for a movie/TV show and the source material is essentially made irrelevant?

In many instances, a direct adaptation would make more sense. Beloved books would often be best served by being faithfully adapted to please fans and appeal to new fans. The source material has proved itself already: so use it! Some changes are necessary, either for run-time, or translation between mediums, but this can still be done faithfully. So why doesn’t it happen more often? I personally suspect that the screenwriters aren’t being asked to do faithful adaptations for a variety of reasons, including having bosses who don’t care about the source material. In the case of Landis, I question his abilities… I sat through this adaptation, his movies Bright and American Ultra, and think it is fair to conclude his abilities are lacking.

Maybe one day we’ll see a good adaptation of Douglas Adams’ work.**

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Yeah, this adaptation wasn’t much better.

*The characters aren’t that great, but the acting is on point. So can’t blame the actors.

**Yes, I am aware of his various radio plays and the old Hitchhiker’s Guide TV series. I can’t even remember what the latter was like it has been so long since I’ve seen it.

Book review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's WifeThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you have a lot of naked adventures, wouldn’t you move to a more agreeable climate?

Henry “library boy” DeTamble is unstuck in time. He visits moments from the past and future unbidden and with a lack of clothes. Claire is his wife. She has loved him since she met Henry as a little six-year-old girl and he was thirty-six. This is the story of their complicated life together.

I’ve been meaning to read The Time Traveler’s Wife since I saw the movie on our honeymoon. Achievement unlocked before the tenth anniversary! This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally read as it is a relationship focussed story with a heart-rendingly sad conclusion. Yet I really enjoyed it.

There were two things that let the novel down for me. The first is that this book runs long. There isn’t any needless rambling or overuse of exposition, but it felt like the story had a lot of filler. None of that filler was bad, per se, but I couldn’t help but feel this novel was about a third longer than it needed to be.

The second thing was the slightly uncomfortable relationship between Henry and Claire. While I was reading there were only a few moments that felt “wrong” and that those moments were handwaved a bit too much (e.g. teen Claire and adult Henry having the hots for one another). But those moments tie to the larger issues with the relationship being fated to mess with Claire’s whole life, and to a lesser extent Henry’s. If this had been discussed more directly and given more weight I’d have been happier.

Overall, I enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife and would recommend it.

View all my reviews

How JK Rowling writes mystery

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We don’t often think of fantasy novels as being mysteries. And yet, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the mystery elements are cornerstones of the plot.

Mystery isn’t easy to do well, either, as we will see in the two videos below from Just Write. In the Harry Potter novels we see the elements Rowling used to great effect, and in the new Fantastic Beasts movies, we see how Rowling bungles those elements.

I suppose the big takeaway is that even a master writer* can mangle the craft.

*Feel free to disagree with this assertion and point out to me Rowling’s various flaws as an author in painful detail that assumes I’ve never read the Potter books. That’s why they invented the comments section.

Can you judge a book by its cover?

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The new episodes of It’s Lit are finally making it to YouTube. In this episode, Lindsay Ellis discusses book covers.

It is interesting that everyone in the reading industry* talks about not judging a book by its cover. Yet the entire industry is built around judging books by their covers.

We have the publishers and their creative team designing covers to attract readers. We have the readers browsing the stores and picking something that catches their eye. There are plenty of statistics around showing the improved sales based upon book placement in stores, whether they are face out or not, and whether they are in big piles – which makes all sorts of subconscious suggestions to shopping readers.** All of these factors are about presenting us readers with the cover of the book in the hopes that we’ll be interested enough to buy it.

But don’t judge it by its cover!!

*I honestly think we should stop using the term publishing industry and refer to the end user instead. I think we lose sight of who matters at times.

**Online stores have similar sales statistics related to cover design. Indie authors will often talk about the success of changing covers and improving sales.