How and why we can and should be more creative in academia

I spent the best part of a decade thinking there was no place in academia for paint, scissors and glitter glue. It turns out I was wrong.

Feeling my off the wall ideas were unwelcome, I’d been all set to walk away from academia after my PhD. That was until a couple of weeks ago, when I went to a university workshop on ‘creative journaling as a research method.’ Now I want to stay.

That day, enlightenment and salvation finally came, delivered by Dr Ian Cook, a tall man with thick-rimmed black glasses and stories of Lego and Guantanamo Bay. Ian talked about how he and colleagues in his department had used Lego to explore different news stories. The material nature of the activity had shaped both the process and the thinking. The team posted images of their creations on social media, and contacted some of those involved in the stories, many of whom responded; the use of Lego as a research tool sparked conversations that would otherwise not have taken place.

Not only did he illustrate that creative approaches do have a place in academia and are welcome, he also demonstrated why we should be more creative. And, unlike junior PhD student me, he’s a senior and respected academic. So, if he says it’s okay, then it’s okay! To pick out and paraphrase some of Ian’s points:

Why we should be more creative in academia

  • Processes of making and creating provide us with a different way of exploring the world
  • ‘Materiality and remembered physical experiences stimulate the imagination’ (Treadaway 2009: 236)
  • We need to make our research interesting for the people who are going to be reading it
  • What we are trying to convey might be better understood in different formats

In other words, creative approaches may give us greater insight, enable us to do better research and be better at communicating it.

Looking back over the past two and a half years of my PhD, I see my project has been peppered with creative moments which have been invaluable. These have helped me understand my research questions and talk about what I’m trying to find out with others. I’ve picked out six ideas that will hopefully inspire you.

 

1) Making sense of the literature

Reviewing the literature in the early stages of my research, I had information overload. I was trying to get my head around all of the factors that might have an impact on (Franco-)Belgian borderlanders’ speech and their beliefs about and attitudes towards language. I had compiled a long list, but it just wasn’t user friendly; I needed to see how they interacted. So I made them into a collage.

DSCN1215

(info here)

Not only did the collage help me to make sense of the literature, I have since gone back to it and used it to stimulate my own questions. Sharing it with non-experts, it has been a way for me to start conversations about my research.

 

2) Sharing a research experience with peers

I was asked to lead part of a discussion group at Cardiff University about my first experiences of fieldwork. I wanted my colleagues to feel what I had felt. So I drew a cartoon! Little bit risky!

FOXENLEDS12.11.2014 jpeg

(info here)

The storyboard format enabled my colleagues to relive my experience with me, but it was abstract enough to stimulate their own memories of fieldwork. What is more, it was so distinct from forms of presentation we are used to, it engaged and held their attention.

 

 

3) Developing a methodology

How do you get the measure of a person’s complex, composite, fluid identity? Thinking about this whilst planning my methodology, I felt a visual translation of identity might be more insightful that something gleaned from responses to a written questionnaire. I considered the dimensions of identity then thought how I could translate them into physical dimensions, for example:

Identity Cloud

  • Different traits become different colours
  • Importance becomes size
  • Interaction becomes spatial configuration
  • Fluidity becomes movement

What emerged from my reflections and discussions with peers was the idea of visualising identity through creating an Identity Cloud; a visual interpretation of the arguably intangible. Peers had a go at making their own identity clouds at a conference workshop. They described how the process of making and doing had stimulated thought and discussion.

(The image is of a made up Identity Cloud.)

(Check back for details of a forthcoming journal article about this.)

 

4) Processing and documenting the emotions tied to my own research experience

When I first moved to France for my year abroad, I started making postcards with chopped up free magazines and pens. I made them for no one but myself. When I looked back over them, I realised they were an articulation of my emotions – living abroad for the first time is pretty scary and challenging.

DSCN1212

I still make postcards whenever I’m abroad. I don’t really think about what I want to create; I just start chopping up magazines. Nevertheless, when I look back on my creations, I see that they are (sometimes cathartic) translations of emotions and experience. Looking at the postcards I created on my first trip to the field site reminds me how overwhelmed I was. I’m not sure I’d remember those emotions as clearly without the postcards, yet I think an awareness of the emotions we experience on our research journey is important in our understanding of our research and ourselves as researchers.

(info here)

 

5) Preparing to interpret my data

At the creative journaling workshop two weeks ago we were encouraged to explore part of our research. I’d brought along the questionnaire I gave my participants. One question asked participants the top five places they spend their time (it will contribute to an index for mobility). In the workshop I decided to try responding to this question visually.

DSCN1227

(info here)

Through creating this piece, I realised I couldn’t think about the places I spend my time without thinking about how I feel about them. The activity flagged up to me the fact that when I interpret my questionnaire data, I must remember that behind the quantitative responses are emotions and feelings and these may explain things better than numbers.

 

6) Sharing aspects of my research with non-specialists

Recently, I created a poster illustrating my research journey. Knowing the audience were not specialists, and that attention is precious, I wanted to do something engaging. Having decided to collect a ball of wool every place I stayed during my PhD, I made a poster telling the story of my research through swatches of wool.

DSCN1230

(info here)

The novelty, and the fact that viewers were encouraged to engage physically through touching the wool, appeared to engage viewers and passers by.

 

 

 

 

So why are creative approaches so marginal in academia?

The benefits of being creative are evident, and clearly people are being creative in the academy, but it’s definitely not the norm. I’ve been thinking about why this might be, and so far I’ve come up with five reasons (which I went into more detail about in a recent post):

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

Nevertheless, there’s never been a better time to try something different!

Now is the time to go for it!

As I said in my previous post, ‘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.’

What is more, beyond the academy others are getting on the bandwagon: in their document on ‘Digital Investigation and Intelligence: Policing capabilities for a digital age’ (April 2015), the College of Policing and partner agencies state ‘we need to engage with artists and innovators to help us think creatively and see things differently.’

If we don’t dare to try new things, how far will we get? Einstein was of the opinion that ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ was tantamount to insanity. And Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, wrote a book about how creating an environment where people aren’t scared of failure is key for enabling creativity. 

Now, whilst I’m a fan of glitter glue and have A-level art to my name, I realise not everyone is in this position. But creativity is not limited to the art room – Lego, for example, requires no drawing implement. Everyone has the potential to be creative, and it’s something that must be practised and developed.

To finish I’m going to give you some ideas for ways to kick-start your academic creativity.

I’d also love to hear what you do to help you feel and be creative – do feel free to comment or tweet me. I’ll get our collected ideas together in another post!

20 ideas for kick-starting your academic creativity

Take little steps

1) If you’ve never done it before, submit a poster to a conference. It’s a well established format, so it’s not going to upset the academy; it’s just going to help you practise taking risks.

2) Physically chop up something you’re working on into sections and re-arrange it in different configurations; not just linearly. Keep rearranging and see what emerges when you change the connections in your research.

3) How much colour do you have in your work? Invest in a pack of felt tips or crayons and use them freely. Maybe get some stickers too.

4) Take a draft of a piece of your writing and illustrate it with stick people and images in the margins. Reflect on what emerges.

5) 1) Raid the recycling bag for magazines, then 2) think about any aspect of your research, then 3) start cutting and sticking without worrying about the outcome.

Seek out creative spaces

6) Find the space where your mind wanders and go there.

7) Seek out ‘interdisciplinary’ events or projects: discipline boundaries have already come down and there’s a sense of openness and exploration; an ideal space in which to take a risk.

8) Want to try delivering something in a new way? How about in a seminar in your institution? It’s not too formal, and you’re amongst familiar faces.

9) Want to try delivering something in a new way? How about in a seminar somewhere else? People have (maybe) got less of an idea of who you are. There are no preconceptions. What a way to make a splash!

10) Find public engagement opportunities. Engaging the public with our research requires us to bring them into the mix and that means we have to think differently.

Think differently

11) Play helps with innovation (Gross & Do 2009). Get out the Lego, plan a treasure hunt, turn your research into a Monopoly-esque game, make a costume and act out an aspect of your research.

12) Question why you’re not doing something differently. Is there a good reason why not? Would there be a good reason to do it differently?

13) Do you do any crafts (knitting, candlemaking…) or have any hobbies (baking, orienteering…)? Have you ever tried doing an aspect of your research with or through them? Try it.

14) Think about your research journey. Think about what’s happening and what you’re doing and feeling. How could this awareness shape what you’re doing and where you’re going?

15) Got a totally radical idea you love, but scared to go for it? Is what’s stopping you really a valid reason not to?

Learn from others

16) Seek wisdom and inspiration from people writing and speaking about creativity. Rod Judkins’ ‘The art of creative thinking’ is packed with ideas, and there’s a wealth of inspiration to be found in TED talks.

17) Go out and seek inspiration: visit a gallery, listen to a piece of music, go to a museum, go for a walk.

18) Have a conversation with someone about part of your research you’d never imagine having that conversation with. What comes out of it?

19) Talk to the people in your office, your institution, your network. And people who’ve got nothing to do with your area. What different things are they doing?

20) Look at how your or your friends’ children tackle a task. Try emulating their approach.

Kick-starting your academic creativity

(pdf here)

Don’t forget: I’d  love to hear what you do to help you feel and be creative – so feel free to comment or tweet me and I’ll get together a blogpost on our collected ideas.

References

Gross, M. & Do, E.Y-L. (2009) Educating the new makers: cross-disciplinary creativity. Leonardo 42(3), 210-215.

Judkins, R. (2015) The art of creative thinking. London: Sceptre.

Treadaway, C. (2009) Materiality, memory and imagination: using empathy to research creativity. Leonardo 42(3) 231-237.

 

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2 thoughts on “How and why we can and should be more creative in academia

  1. Thought I’d share some other tips/ideas for creativity
    1)Do something boring. Have a shower and let your mind wander.
    2)Rename something. I forgot the term flash mob in conversation and so I made up people bomb and now that’s stuck with me
    3)Reimagine a word/concept/idea as a colour, shape or sound.
    4)Do something you really have to concentrate on. This used to be practising the piano and I found concentrating so hard on one thing freed up my mind after
    5)Play with your food. Make a face, spell a word with alphabetty-spaghetti, eat things in alphabetical order, pick an ingredient to cook with and build a meal out of that
    6)Play pictionary by yourself, draw something you want to say
    7)Get some wordy fridge magnets and tell a story
    8)Emoji it. Say something completely in emoji.
    9)Embrace problems. Baker friend was getting his baking paper stuck to his loaf so put in nori sheets in between = hipster nori bread.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Thinking in Visuals – creative research communication – Travelling Hopefully

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