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Skidmore College

Creative Minds: One first-year seminar

December 18, 2013

“Creativity is the ability to solve a problem in a new or inventive way. It is the ability to make connections between different ideas, to be curious about the world, to apply knowledge in one discipline to a problem in another discipline.” – Emma Sonberg ’17

"True creativity is tricky, because it is disruptive; it breaks with the past and therefore meets resistance." – Professor of Sociology John Brueggemann

Evert and class in Tang
Evert and class in the Tang

It’s a drab November morning, and psychology and neuroscience professor Denise Evert and the 16 first-year students from her Scribner Seminar “Creative Minds” (syllabus) have carpooled across town to visit Master Brian Miller, founder of Cutting Edge Martial Arts. Evert, a high red belt in Tae Kwon Do, has asked her teacher to discuss creativity with her class.

Creativity in fighting? Hmm. OK. After an animated pep talk, Miller ushers the class into a dark, unheated back room to watch videos featuring extreme martial artist Matt Emig and grand master Elton Trower, who breaks through solid wood doors and pierces Coke cans with his fingertips.

The footage renders the students speechless, both because what Emig and Trower do is mind-boggling and because the connection with creativity is elusive. Like self-defense, “creativity was originally a survival tool,” says Miller. “As knowledge spread, humans made adaptations to existing ways of thinking about and doing things. They set new standards. They constantly came up with newer and better.”

On screen, describing his gravity-defying flips, spins, and tumbles, Emig says, “I’m just trying to take things to the next level . . . to do something that’s never been done before.” And Miller declares, “That’s it. Competition is the underlying source of creativity, whether it’s music, car design, or martial arts. We are all trying to one-up each other.”

Sure, maybe—but Miller doesn’t have a corner on the truth about creativity.

When government professor Kate Graney visits the class in October, for example, the first-years learn that curiosity about daily life in Tatarstan inspired her sabbatical research and led to her book Of Khans and Kremlins: Tatarstan and the Future of Ethnofederalism in Russia. (Tatarstan is one of the countries of the former Soviet Union that’s ethnically based, with half its population being descendants of the Mongols.) Graney is dubious that the data-crunching of political scientists reflects the soul of Tatarstan’s people. “It’s messier and more complicated than just numbers,” she says, which is why she spent several months living there, “soaking and poking, asking questions that led to new answers and more questions. That was my creativity.

For Mason Stokes, it was “passion that overrode pragmatism when it came to deciding to be an English professor.” And passion coupled with tenacity when it comes to the doubts and struggles of writing his second novel, The Rent Boy. “The idea that you are awaiting the muse for creative inspiration, that the muse hasn’t spoken to you, I don’t buy it,” Stokes says in response to a student question about so-called “aha” moments. “The only way to be a writer is to write every day. You need to work on a voice, your voice.”

But where does one’s voice come from? According to art professor Paul Sattler during his class visit, "The inspiration for my art can come from social anxiety, loneliness, occupational pressures, memories of being a student, family structure, and anxiety related to our chaotic world.”

Which reminds the class of their Saturday field trip to Manchester, Vt., to visit Albert Levis and his Museum of the Creative Process, “dedicated to understanding the psychological properties of creativity, bridging art and science to gain insight into human relations, interpersonal and interpsychic conflict.” Levis carries wounds from the loss of family members in cultural and religious conflict during his boyhood in Greece, and he acknowledges that much of his life has been a “healing process,” of understanding why and then sharing his insights with others.

Says Evert, “There are so many different ways of knowing the world, and that’s what I want my students to embrace. Levis was far outside the realm of their experience and of conventional thinking. There’s a metaphor for everything for him. The museum’s sculptures and murals represent to Levis aspects of conflict resolution from various historical, cultural, and religious perspectives. Whether you agreed or disagreed, it was thought-provoking, and it forced the students to challenge themselves with new ways of thinking.

“That’s also true of the class visits from my Skidmore colleagues, each of whom represents a different discipline—sociology, political science, literature, art, and physics. What lens on the world, and on creativity, do these disciplines offer?”

* * * * * *

“To compare a work’s creativity with another’s is like comparing apples and oranges. Every work has its own merits, and creativity should not be tested.” –Jack Mullin ’17

"The scientific process is inherently creative, and can lead to a new understanding of the universe." –Professor of Physics Mary Crone-Odekon

Competition, curiosity, passion, flashes of insight, discipline, conflict, anxiety, tragedy. What truly drives creativity? How do we measure creativity? How is creativity viewed across cultures? Can we learn to be more creative?

Back in midsummer as Evert was planning her “Creative Minds” seminar, she admits to being “scared to death. The idea of creativity can be pretty amorphous, and I imagined students thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” But she was happy to find them “quite accepting of there not being many concrete answers. The point is that students need to embrace being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Our understanding of the world doesn’t come in nicely wrapped packages to be opened and the contents revealed.”

“My major takeaway is that there is no one true definition of creativity,” says Mike Coffel ’14, the seminar’s peer mentor and a double major in neuroscience and psychology. “There’s the individual perspective, the socio-cultural (group) perspective, and then there are discipline-specific perspectives —linguistic, artistic, scientific. It’s virtually endless.”

Fortunately for the sanity of students, Evert frames the visiting professors, field trips, and other course content with a foundational source, R. Keith Sawyer’s The Science of Human Innovation: Explaining Creativity. It’s a book that pulls together much of the current literature on creativity, including the latest scientific research and the social and cultural contexts of creativity.

In one TD talk, the class watched Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb. A musician, Limb wondered how the brain can be creative, so he put professional jazz musicians and rappers in a functional MRI machine to find out if it showed a difference between a memorized melody and improvisation. Turns out different parts of the brain ramp up and are far more active during the freestyle, creative segment.

The fMRI results generate exciting questions about measuring or improving creativity (can it really be done?). In the end, Evert is less concerned about what her students know (or think they know) about creativity than she is with the bigger picture: “In the grand tradition of the liberal arts, has their perspective been transformed?” she asks. “In what way does their experience in this course impact how they think overall? How they tackle college? Their lives?”

“I define creativity as the willingness to do something different than the general public without worry about the consequences of doing so.” –Dan Kapp ’17

“You can measure creativity by presenting people with real-life situations.” –Emily Matsuda ’17

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