Why are creative approaches so marginal in academia?

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and academia these last couple of weeks. Next week I’m going to post on how and why we can and should be more creative in academia, but, before I do that, I wanted to process some of my thoughts about why we aren’t more creative in the academy.

So far, I’ve come up with five broad, interconnected reasons:

  1. The system has not been built for us to do it
  1. We aren’t used to doing it
  1. We don’t know what to do
  1. We think we can’t do it
  1. No one likes to fail

1) The system has not been built for us to do it

The word in my postgraduate common room is that peer-reviewed journal articles are what really count and what will take you places. And a monograph. And then more journal articles.

Academia has traditionally operated through journals, books and conferences – a fairly small selection of platforms. And success in academia has typically been measured in terms of success in these outlets. If we are to be successful, we know what we’ve got to do, so there’s not much space for divergence.

But that’s just half of it.

Where does a PhD traditionally begin? With the literature review. So even if we wanted to take a radical, creative approach to our research, we begin by filling our heads with stuff that’s already been done in our area, and in the methods that have been used to do it; the system requires us to spend a long time looking inwards and backwards. Rarely are we encouraged to look sideways.

What is more, we gain credibility in our research from building on the work of established scholars in our field. So if we didn’t do that, how would we be credible?

2) We aren’t used to doing it

We have certain ways of doing things, we know how to do them and we are good at them. Our colleagues do things that way, our superiors do things that way, undergraduates do things that way. I mean, a monograph is really just a lot of steps along the same path which began with a first year undergraduate essay, isn’t it?

3) We don’t know what to do

We are used to taking our cues from our disciplinary forefathers and mothers; we know what to do. If we decide we are going to be creative, suddenly there are no limits; everything is possible. We can do anything. But what does anything and everything mean? What are our options? Where do we begin?

4) We think we can’t do it

This one’s a barrier to creativity which transcends the walls of the academy. Often when I’m talking to friends about my artwork, I will suggest they have a go at doing something creative to which they reply:

“oh, I haven’t got an artistic bone in my body,” or words to that effect.

The world is divided into two kinds of people: those of us who think we are creative and those of us who think we are not. The thing is, those of us in the first group know something that you lot in the second group don’t: you’re wrong! Nevertheless, if you think you can’t do something, you’re less inclined to have a go.

5) No one likes to fail

In one of his TED talks, Sir Ken Robinson describes how in today’s education systems ‘mistakes are the worst things you can make’. We grow into people who are ‘frightened of being wrong’. Being creative requires us to do something new, something different, something where we are not certain of the outcome, where we might get it wrong, we might fail. And because we are frightened to make mistakes, we avoid doing things that might lead us to do so. Especially when we think the stakes are so high (reputation, career…)

With all this in mind, it’s not that surprising that creative approaches have remained so marginal in academia.

However, all is not lost; in fact, things are looking decidedly hopeful.

Interdisciplinarity and impact might be unpleasant buzzwords in the minds of many, but, buzzwordiness aside, the do open up spaces in which creative approaches are more esteemed, if not encouraged. Technological advances, the move towards more collaborative work, and the rise of social media are also developments which work in creativity’s favour.

Now is the time to be more creative! And we really should. In my next blog post, I’ll explain the whys and hows: exciting times ahead!



One thought on “Why are creative approaches so marginal in academia?

  1. Pingback: How and why we can and should be more creative in academia | newbroguesandblisters

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