Spotlight on Research: “4 Pathways to a Creative Humanities” by Dr. Brandon McFarlane

Photo: Brandon McFarlane

Photo: Brandon McFarlane

At this fall’s Sheridan Creates day, Professor of Creativity Brandon McFarlane presented apaper entitled “4 Pathways to a Creative Humanities,” articulating a vision that combines the critical faculties so often celebrated in humanities disciplines with an emphasis on creative thinking and problem solving. Brandon was kind enough to write a summary of his talk for Alchemy.

4 Pathways to a Creative Humanities

By Brandon McFarlane

We need a creative humanities that fosters a culture of innovation through deliberate, intentional creativity. This is necessary because humanists have a tendency to over-privilege critical thinking to the point that the role of creativity in research and pedagogy is blinkered. To be clear: I do not believe that humanists lack creativity, rather creative thinking remains a disciplinary blind spot that receives little attention in discussions about humanistic research and pedagogy. We need to be more explicit and self-conscious about creativity.

What is creative thinking? Well, creativity is the ability to generate new or novel ideas that have value. When we measure creativity, researchers generally measure fluency — the ability to generate many ideas; flexibility — the ability to imagine multiple perspectives; originality — the statistical rarity of an idea; and elaboration — the ability to develop ideas. There are also a number of affective and metacognitive skills associated with creativity, such as imagination, visualization, abstraction, a tolerance of ambiguity, a preference for complexity, and empathy. Similarly, there is a strong connection between creativity and metacognition: the ability to assess one’s level of learning and the ability to identify the appropriate type of thinking to solve a task. When I suggest that the humanities need to foster a deliberate and intentional creativity, I am referring to this diverse basket of skills. And here’s the good news: the humanities already provide students with creativity skills. The problem is that this tends to occur by accident; we need to do a better job of raising awareness about the humanities’ incredible ability to nurture nimble thinkers.

1) Facilitate a discussion about the role of creativity in humanities research and pedagogy.

While the humanities celebrate their ability to develop strong critical thinkers, an equal attention to creativity is missing from our disciplinary pool of knowledge. I propose that someone needs to assume a leadership role to facilitate an important discussion about creativity in the humanities. We need to encourage our colleagues to reflect upon their own creativity and how they develop creative thinking skills in their classrooms. In this sense, we need to create a forum where humanists can share case studies, ideas, and strategies to rapidly develop a body of knowledge that others can adapt and apply for their own purposes. So, who’s up for organizing a conference?

2) Reconceptualize what constitutes a creative product in the humanities.

To date, scholars have privileged a limited array of academic genres for disseminating research that are almost exclusively targeted at academic audiences, such as the book review, research essay, critical edition, doctoral thesis, and monograph. I have two concerns here.

Firstly, the hierarchy of genres stifles innovation. Graduate students and tenure-track professors are discouraged from exploring alternative forms of dissemination because they are granted a low status in funding applications, on the job market, and in tenure hearings.

Secondly, the hierarchy of genres is mirrored at the undergraduate and graduate level. Often, students are provided with few opportunities to produce a creative product other than a research essay or conference presentation. In many programs, there is an assumption that the only thing humanists do is write research essays and the only career worth pursuing is to become a professor. Many programs offer a token creative writing credit, which is often limited to a pool of elite and high-performing honour students. There is an opportunity to expand our conceptualization of humanities research to recognize the importance of being able not only to critically analyze culture but also to transfer that knowledge to produce creative and applied research. By providing students with a wider variety of creative challenges, we can not only deliberately develop their creativity but also better prepare them for alt-ac opportunities.

3) Create deliberate opportunities to develop creativity skills in the classroom.

The humanities are developing creativity skills but this endeavor may not be an explicit and deliberate goal in the classroom. Pursuing cultural experiences has been demonstrated to enhance imagination, empathy, mindfulness, and creativity; similarly, students are often challenged to think through an issue by assuming broad and diverse perspectives. Students in the typical literary studies or history classroom are developing these skills just by doing the work. There is an opportunity to emphasize how the humanities are uniquely capable of developing cognitive, metacognitive, and affective skills.

I often test learning objectives by imagining how a student can mobilize them in a job interview. I believe that the average student would struggle to explain how his or her humanities courses helped him or her become more imaginative, empathetic, or creative. If scholars struggle to articulate the role of creativity in the humanities, it is unrealistic to expect our students to do so on their own. While we do not need to redesign of all our courses, we can at least begin explicitly devoting class time to deliberately nurturing these skills and explaining the value of in-class activities and assignments in terms of fostering creativity skills.

4) Shift from a culture of crisis to a culture of opportunity.

There is no doubt that the humanities have been in state of crisis since their inception. Paul Jay’s The Humanities ‘Crisis’ and the Future of Literary Studies demonstrates that the rhetoric of crisis has produced a long history of adaptation and innovation. I agree with his central thesis and I do not deny the value of the rhetoric of crisis, but I question if it is the best way to go about things.

Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. What matters is how we frame the problem. Historically, humanists have chosen to perceive change as a fundamental threat rather than reframing each challenge as an affirmative opportunity. This tendency is also mirrored by our research practices: one of the major sub-genres in humanities research is the problematic — a paper that identifies but doesn’t solve a major problem. It seems to me that too many humanists are content to critique but offer very few solutions beyond ‘raising awareness’ about an issue.

A second concern regards the notion that a state of crisis diminishes creativity. One of the areas of creativity studies examines “creative press,” which refers to external and internal pressures that diminish creativity. The negativity and end-of-the-world rhetoric have the potential to overwhelm constituents and encourage students and scholars alike to avoid taking risks. I would argue that this line of thought also applies to the jobs crisis: the marketplace and workplace of high-anxiety is significantly diminishing the creativity of humanists and encourages safe, reactionary responses. The rhetoric of crisis and a conservative attitude towards innovation are causing real damage to aspiring and practicing humanists. This needs to change.

Thirdly, by consistently framing the state of the humanities as a crisis, we present an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the domain to broader society. The rhetoric of crisis implicitly gives value to critiques from social conservatives and neoliberals. Worse, if the public image of the humanities is a domain in crisis it discourages students from pursuing a humanities education and legitimizes the misconception that the humanities have little economic or social value. What type of parent would want their child to spend 30k to study in a program that is in a state of crisis?