Creativity… with friends like these

(Photo" mike McNamara)

(Photo: Mike McNamara (L))

by Michael J. McNamara, Professor of Creativity and Creative Thinking

Who amongst us hasn’t enjoyed a little good-natured ribbing at the hands of friends and family members? Having spent the vast majority of my adult life in the Academy, these friendly jibes have included my having been introduced at dinner parties as “the full-time student who can’t get enough of frosh week” and, a personal favorite, “the guy who sits in his pajamas and writes all day.”  If you happen to be a political scientist like me, you’ve also probably been asked on occasion about your upcoming bid for Prime Minister or how things are going at the unemployment office.  Now, don’t get me wrong—I give it as good as I get it.  But things have gotten a little more complicated since I assumed my role as Professor of Creativity and Creative Thinking.  In fact, just last week, one of my closest childhood mates (who also happens to be CFO of a major company) peered into my work bag and… there it was, staring out like a dirty secret: the sticky notes, the elastic bands, the popsicle sticks, and the Play-Doh.  Ohhh, how am I going to explain all this Play-Doh?

I thought I might get out in front of this incident by sharing what it is I actually do with these materials during 9-5/Mondays thru Fridays (and yes, despite the opinions of my wife and friends, this actually IS my schedule).  Towards that end, I offer the following points.

My academic discipline IS creativity.

It goes without saying that ‘creativity’ touches all disciplines and points of academic inquiry.  Moreover, ‘creativity’ is infused throughout the hallways, meeting rooms and programs of Sheridan’s Creative Campus. But that said, it is also apparent that the study of creativity itself has emerged as a distinct, academic discipline, albeit a very interdisciplinary one. In fact, “Creative Studies” have been popping up as course offerings and academic credentials at a number of post-secondary institutions throughout the United States (see: Buffalo State, Drexel University, Saybrook, Texas A&M, University of Georgia, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston).  And so yes, while I have indeed suspended my bid for Prime Minister, I have been working with colleagues at Sheridan to develop and deliver Sheridan’s Board Undergraduate Certificate in Creativity and Creative Problem-Solving.  To my knowledge, this is the first program in Canada to focus explicitly and directly on the theories, science, processes, methods, history, and socio-economic structures underpinning creativity.  So, if the words “maverick” and “trail-blazer” come to mind, I completely understand.

I actually TEACH students how to enhance their creativity

I don’t doubt the premise that everyone is creative.  But I also know that our creative capacities can be enhanced and refined by using the established methods of creative problem-solving.  These methods include abstracting problems to their essence, rephrasing and categorizing problems as questions, segmenting the stages of thinking into discrete steps, deploying divergent and convergent thinking strategies, the use of story and thinking by analogy and metaphor.  Each semester, I witness students using these methods to overcome self-imposed constraints on their thinking in order to improve their fluency, flexibility, and to discover new ideas, solutions, and innovations.

Apparently, creativity matters—a lot!

IBM’s 2010 Chief Executive Officer Study cites creativity as the single most important leadership quality for organizations seeking to negotiate the complexities of a global world.  And Einstein famously quipped that “we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” So, if you happen to see the papier-mâché and newspaper towers in the back seat of my car, know that these projects are helping students develop their capacities for finding the new ideas, solutions, and thinking that will be needed to negotiate and address the challenges of the 21st century, including global warming, the spread of disease, the challenges of a new economy and new technologies, and growing poverty and income inequality in our country.  So take that!

Or perhaps I’m missing the point of all this good-natured banter between friends.  Perhaps, in writing this article, I have instead revealed myself to be the academic fuddy-duddy I really am.  And perhaps the contents of my work bag present my closest friends with an opportunity that is just too delicious to pass up. If so, I’ll need to get used to my new moniker, “Dr. Play-Doh.”  And if that’s the case, I’m good with it.