Faculty Views On: Enhancing Student Creativity at Wesleyan, 2011


Last year I asked Charles Salas, Director of Strategic Initiatives, to think about how we should pursue the objective in Wesleyan 2020 of spurring creativity and innovation across the university. He decided to focus on the disciplines represented in our curriculum. The term “creativity,” of course, can be vague. One department’s view can be quite different from another’s, so Charles met with a number of departments and asked them what creativity meant in their worlds and how they felt that they enhanced the creative capacities of their students. I hope many of you will read the full report, which gives a great sense of the discussions.

Fascinating! Her Resilience • an event co-sponsored by the College of the Environment and Center for the Arts with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The students on stage aren’t moving. One by one, they are activated by Anthropologist Gina Ulysse with a flick of her fingers, as if by magic, and they dance their interpretation of the creole word assigned to them. The words are taken from a voudou chant, sung with heartbreaking intensity by Ulysse. The performance “is about” vulnerability and stress in the post-earthquake environment of Haiti, and one senses that this is deeply personal for her, engaging every aspect of her being. The students have no grades at stake; they are performing out of loyalty to her and a sense of adventure: these are anthropology and economics majors exploring ideas through dance.

A creative scholar (motivated by her own life-experience) activating creativity in her students: intertwining disciplines and using the total person to bring “the visceral into dialog with the structural” (her words). This remarkable performance concluded the evening’s celebration of the College of the Environment’s think-tank on the topic “Vulnerability of Social, Economic and Natural Systems to Environmental Stress.” Earlier in the evening a panel of the think-tank participants—faculty from the natural and social sciences, two students and a post doc—discussed an essay they’d written collaboratively on the novel idea of applying an insurance model world-wide to the problem of climate change. A wild idea, produced through collaborative non-linear thinking, that no one of them would have come up with and pursued on his or her own. A creative idea.

At the College of the Environment, says its director “we are not afraid of failure, we only fear no one will try.”  Risk-taking is part of creativity, no doubt, but it’s only appropriate at Wesleyan if it’s grounded in knowledge and points toward a useful outcome. The first sentence of the new mission statement tries to make this point by juxtaposing the words “boldness” and “rigor” and ending with “practical idealism:”

Wesleyan University is dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism. At Wesleyan, distinguished scholar-teachers work closely with students, taking advantage of fluidity among disciplines to explore the world with a variety of tools. The university seeks to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.

The phrase “think critically and creatively” trades on ambiguity here:  critical thinking is valued, so is creative thinking, and so is thinking that is both critical and creative. With regards to institutional rhetoric, the emphasis on the combination is new. Critical thinking has always been deeply embedded in courses here, so pervasive that it was deliberately not singled out as one the essential capabilities expected of students. On the other hand, creative effort has been acknowledged as an essential capability and associated with the creation of artistic work—that is, creativity has been valued but not considered pervasive. The Center for the Arts’ Creative Campus Initiative has spurred us to think more about how the critical and the creative are related here.

The Creative Campus Initiative encourages the integration of arts research and practice with work in other disciplines, and the performance of Ulysse and her students is one of many recent embodied explorations here of issues in a variety of subject areas. At the same time, the very success of cross-departmental collaborations involving disciplines like dance that explicitly recognize creativity as central to their identity can all too easily lead to the compartmentalization of creativity—albeit in larger compartments. Many at Wesleyan would quickly (perhaps too quickly) associate “creativity” as involving artists—in part because the results of artistic collaborations here have been so brilliant. But to always associate creativity with the arts would be a disservice to artists and non-artists alike. Too often creativity is assigned to the arts while rigor is assigned to the non-arts. “Rigor” becomes a code word (says Liz Lerman) used by those who think of “creativity” as unserious—this, despite the fact that rigor is unquestionably part and parcel of artistic practice and creativity is unquestionably part and parcel of all disciplines, if to varying degrees.

How varied those degrees are is an interesting question. In cases where there are creative products—writings (papers, exams), paintings, or recorded performances—the role of creativity can be judged. In the vast majority of classroom experiences, however, the creativity in which students and faculty participate (actively or passively) is ephemeral; it ends when the student leaves the classroom, the residue existing only in memory and perhaps in other, less fathomable changes wrought in the mind.

One of the objectives of Wesleyan 2020—our framework for strategic planning—is to “spur creativity across the curriculum” (enhancing one of Wesleyan’s perceived strengths), and a first step has been to conduct conversations with departments about what they themselves think of creativity in their areas and what they do that enhances the creativity of their students. The idea of speaking to departments (rather than one-to-one conversations with individual faculty members) was that discussions would be less predictable and that faculty might be interested to hear from one another.

This report is not a scientific survey. Nor does it purport to represent what departments would say about creativity if they considered the topic at length in a scholarly way. What follows is paraphrased from the views—expressed informally in conversation—of Wesleyan faculty, who are referred to only by the departments to which they belong. Different departments viewed creativity in their areas differently or emphasized different aspects or contributing factors. These views/emphases are as follows:

  • Embodiment
  • Imagination
  • Discovery
  • Open-endedness
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Interpretation
  • Independence, Freedom, and Constraint
  • Originality and Newness
  • The Personal
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Risk-taking

The report is organized according to these rubrics, which are those that the faculty themselves have mentioned.

Subsuming individual faculty views in departmental ones has the advantage of making differences and commonalities among disciplines more visible; readers may be interested to see in what ways the different objects of study invite different (or similar) approaches with respect to creativity.


THEATER compared being asked about the role of creativity in its world to swimming coaches being asked about the role of water in their work. At the same time, THEATER was at pains to distinguish its expert work from that of Second Stage and other forms of student performance where student creativity is at the forefront. Creativity (especially in terms of physical and vocal performance) seemed more of an assumption than an issue for THEATER which was more concerned about whether it was first and foremost a department of ideas (history, literature, criticism, performance studies) or a department of techniques. Where a text might be treated in the English department as a literary artifact, in THEATER it’s seen as a blueprint or a score in which students may be less interested in the author’s intention than in exploring the text’s contemporary relevance. Students here seek to “understand” Chekov by actually performing scenes from the text. MEDIEVAL STUDIES too was interested in understanding medieval plays, song, and poetry through performance. THEATER went further in seeing embodied creative expression as an alternative for students for whom writing is not their primary communication skill.

DANCE emphasized the body’s creation of movement. Rejecting a dichotomy between choreography and performance that relegates movement to the interpretive or even the mechanical, DANCE saw creativity in the daily exploration of what the body can do. “Dance doing”—which involves exploring rhythms, travelling through space, spine angle and balance—was seen to be in (creative) tension with “dance making,” which emphasizes what it means to make movements in social, cultural, and political spaces. DANCE noted that in all forms of inquiry the body is present; knowledge of what one’s body can do is self-knowledge; becoming conscious of how one’s body creates movement contributes to the more general recognition that it is we ourselves who create our own worlds—and therefore have the capacity to change them. That ethical component was considered by DANCE to be crucial to their understanding of creativity as movement. The department noted that sports too promote embodied creativity, though more as a means to an end (often that’s winning) than as an end in itself. Reflecting on why one movement feels different from another was seen as more characteristic of dance than other forms of physical education.

MUSIC pointed out that research papers written by its students about great musicians of the past benefit from the fact that these students also compose and perform—in contradistinction to students of subjects with whom they have little in common. Compositional and performance skills have an impact upon traditional forms of research and writing, and MUSIC noted that its majors are well liked by law schools and medical schools because of enhanced left/right brain facility. Even with regard to historical research on music, there are many “original takes.”


HISTORY criticized “creativity” as a “soft” term and expressed a preference for the phrase “informed imagination”—by which was meant the ability to put oneself in another time and place.

In ENGLISH one of the five concentrations is Creative Writing, where “students learn that writing is a practice that involves an ongoing negotiation of the tensions between creativity and discipline, experimentation and structure, critical analysis and textual production.”  Those tensions were quite evident in our discussion. And there was considerable skepticism about how valuable the term “creativity” could be for Wesleyan. The emphasis in Creative Writing was on studying the creativity of accomplished writers: students, in the case of poetry, are mainly asked to refine the architecture that poets have put into play, thought some space is left for the wildly innovative. In ENGLISH generally the investment in criticism was judged paramount, with students directed toward the expert insights found in secondary scholarship. At the same time, “creative reading” (as if the work “demanded a new work in response”)  was valued. Reactions to “creative options” offered to students ranged from contemptuous dismissal as the easy way out (and a cause of grade inflation around the country) to the emphasis on imagination: students asked to think “how could it be otherwise?”  Sometimes students are asked to rewrite the ending of a novel or make fictional characters debate key themes.

MATHEMATICS takes a not dissimilar approach, asking students to take a series of logical steps and imagine what would happen if one of those steps were different.

PHILOSOPHY emphasized learning to raise questions that aren’t easy or don’t have predictable answers (but have justification). It saw creativity in how rigorous thought may lead to paradox and how logical thinking may lead to results that are surprising.

“Acts of imagination” were also emphasized by ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES and by MEDIEVAL STUDIES: especially immersion in the distant past—what it would be like to live there and then—similar in this regard to HISTORY. Where students in ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES are encouraged to make links (creative acts) between the “there and then” and the “here and now,” HISTORY places more restrictive limits on the creativity it will accept. When asked if a thesis on the history of a scientist who never existed would be accepted, the answer was “probably not,” though it might be praised. On the other hand, HISTORY also described exam questions very much in this same hypothetical mode: “write a biography of a chairman of a collective farm” or “compose an obituary of a mid-level party official.”  Answering these questions required a certain amount of creativity and often produced results that were surprising (in a good way). In short, there was some comfort with imaginative responses that showed understanding of the past in an exam, less comfort with such creativity in a thesis. The implication seemed to be that this was because the thesis (unlike the exam) is modeled on professional historical work.

RUSSIAN noted that its privileging of early nineteenth-century literature brought students face to face with eternal questions such as “What do men live by?” or “What are the limits of representation?” or “What is art?” —- all questions conducive to students making imaginative links to their own life situations. On the other hand, ASTRONOMY and MATHEMATICS both emphasized the role of imagination in situations unrelated to the concreteness of the student’s personal life.  ASTRONOMY’s objects of study are foreign to everyday life, and the imagination encouraged by MATHEMATICS is rooted in pure abstraction, a realm much too strange to bear directly upon life choices.

MATHEMATICS remarked upon the venerable and unresolved debate about whether mathematics is better seen as a process of discovery or a process of invention. Either way, coming up with a new, imaginative way of doing something is seen as evidence of a disposition that is highly valued by MATHEMATICS. When a student does it, it’s an “Oh boy!” moment for the teacher. The “ah ha!” moment, when the student suddenly understands something, occurs much more frequently and is obviously valued, but MATHEMATICS confessed to a certain elitism in its admiration for inventiveness above all. The student who is satisfied with just getting the right answer is seen as having no future in the field. Making remote associations between patterns in very different areas of mathematics was described as “serendipity” and viewed as typical of mathematical creativity. As noted above, taking a series of logical steps and asking students to imagine what would happen if a step were changed is a favored pedagogical technique. MATHEMATICS and COMPUTER SCIENCE seek to give students the skills (knowledge of rules) necessary to proceed in their disciplines and in others, but they also demand that students understand why those rules work: that is, they demand that students be able to prove the rules they appeal to. Since there may be many ways to arrive at those proofs, this proves to be a realm of especial creativity. More and more creativity is asked of students as they progress in the major; introductory courses may focus more on testing mastery of the subject than inventiveness, but even in the Calculus course creativity is invited. MATHEMATICS and COMPUTER SCIENCE teach students as if they were developing future mathematicians and computer scientists, though they are well aware that most of their students will go on to a wide variety of careers and may see their studies as means to other ends. But MATHEMATICS and COMPUTER SCIENCE fight against being spectator sports. They demand active learning and devise different pedagogical techniques to keep students from being too passive, even in lecture situations. A few students kick and scream; many welcome the opportunity to get away from the teaching to the test world of the high school. MATHEMATICS’s goal is less to teach mathematical results than to teach students to think mathematically, a powerful mode of thinking at once rigorous and imaginative. The assumption is that such a mode of thinking would be useful in addressing any number of problem-situations. ECONOMICS too emphasized that the seeking of numerical answers is secondary to learning how to think about problems. Imaginative “out of left field” questions are encouraged by ECONOMICS so long as they are anchored in rigor and consonant with how economists look at the world. MUSIC, while stressing discipline and constraints, was impressed by students’ imaginative choice of sound objects (for example, exploring the resonance of banisters in the stairwell) to make rhythmic exercises.

ASTRONOMY encourages thesis writers to conclude by speculating on how their work could be taken in other directions in the future, and BIOLOGY assigns exam essays that address this question of future directions.

BIOLOGY noted that it had more difficulty getting students to think creatively than to think by rote. Many students arrive over-reliant on the textbook and not understanding that science is a mode of inquiry and a creative process; they need to be re-educated in this regard. At the same time, BIOLOGY was concerned that students not cross the line where the truth ends and nonsense begins.

ANTHROPOLOGY noted that students fail if they have a lack of respect for the creative process and take the creative approach because they think it will be easier. Some professors allow for creative responses to anthropological theory—poetry, art, cartoons—but students rarely take the opportunity. Of those who do, few do it really well, often just tacking it on. Still, ANTHROPOLOGY saw its methodology as inherently creative with respect to both research and presentation of results:

  1. Research: Participant observation and interviewing requires flexibility, humility, being open to surprise and things you can’t immediately make sense of. Figuring out which questions to ask takes a lot of imagination. That is, some of the main ingredients of creativity—improvisation, collaboration, and communication—are often present in field-work (which for Wesleyan students tends to be local for logistical reasons).
  2. Presentation of results: Because ethnography needs to be engaging, effective, and accessible to those being studied, it tends to be more experimental than writing in the other social scientific disciplines: it privileges multivocality, form that reflects content (one student’s narrative modeled the experience of long-distance train travel), and trying to tell a good story. Many students make use of creative writing techniques learned in ENGLISH.

DANCE preferred to see creativity in terms of imagination than discovery because of the emphasis on agency in the former: in creating movements dancers model the agency involved in creating the world, a view deemed to have political and ethical consequences preferable to those implied by discovery, which connotes uncovering that which already exists.


ART HISTORY admitted that its objects of study are often characterized as creative products, burdening it with having to say something about the creative process, but it still resisted the word “creativity” because of the implication that it is somehow opposed to rigor. ART HISTORY preferred the term “discovery,” sometimes characterizing its students as “junior detectives,” and emphasized seeing deeply and with fresh eyes. Even with the most studied of artworks (the Mona Lisa) new aspects can be discovered (one student discovered that Lisa seems to be revolving) if one looks hard enough with fresh eyes. Students of material culture are faced with an enormous variety of objects to look at and consider: Wesleyan students have done great work on objects ranging from cell phones to headstones. They’re excited to be asking questions about objects that have never been asked before. ENGLISH related creativity to “discovery” in the sense that it saw writing as a means to discover what one is thinking. ASTRONOMY most dramatically aligned creativity with discovery, confessing even to “an addiction to discovery.” The openness of the field (so few astronomers, so many galaxies!) means that students feel they are literally explorers.


Open-endedness was often viewed as conducive to imagination and discovery. MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AND BIOCHEMISTRY favored open-ended questions in coursework and emphasized the dynamic nature of the life sciences: the department disabuses students of the idea that everything is known and often presents what’s being taught as just a model that could well be discarded or changed in the future. (Occasionally students ask why they have to learn it then!)  In group meetings participants (technicians, undergrads, grad students, faculty) are asked to imagine how something could be done differently. BIOLOGY asks its students to start with a given and then look at it from all angles.

COMPUTER SCIENCE likened its approach to the creation of business models: being able to understand the big problem ("what will be a good business based on X") as a composition of smaller, relevant sub-problems and then solving those smaller problems; involving more creativity is finding a nonstandard composition of sub-problems that resolves the big problem in a better way.

ASTRONOMY, while relying heavily on observational data, emphasized their incompleteness, referring to the data as mere snapshots from which they seek to derive coherent explanations that will work for all places and all times. Its students are often excited to apply a certain mode of analysis to a star that has never been analyzed that way before. Adding to this atmosphere of open-endedness is the inability of astronomers (unlike scientists in other areas) to replicate the environments they study here on earth, making their data relatively uncertain as well as incomplete. In ASTRONOMY students can quickly approach frontiers of knowledge and be asked to come up with some answer that’s in the ball park. COMPUTER SCIENCE emphasized the openness suggested by massive amounts of data from which information must be derived; it helps students, faced with chaos, to createorder.

HISTORY felt that it enhanced creativity in students by emphasizing that past actors have always faced many alternatives, that the present (and by implication the future) is the product of many choices, and that cultural logics can be every different: in Japanese history, for example, students learn the logic that associates rainbows and marketplaces.

PSYCHOLOGY stressed the importance of understanding how emotions can be different in different cultures; PSYCHOLOGY asks students to push the boundaries of what they have taken for granted—in this regard, it is helpful to ask students to read articles with very different perspectives and make links between them rather than decide which one is right and which wrong. ROMANCE LANGUANGES AND LITERATURES held that thinking in another language shows students that there are other ways of organizing the world and was impressed by the enhanced capacities of students returning from study abroad. DANCE felt that that its attention to embodied creativity in diverse cultures undermined any one world view in favor of diverse ways of knowing.

The COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES indicated that tutorials often begin with a provocative hypothesis (such as “the meaning ‘citizenship’ in the old regime) that lead to open-ended, free-flowing discussion. ART stressed the importance of being open to possibilities. Artists work on many things at once and have to be open to unexpected connections. They also deal with openness in the sense of doubt. The work of ART students is often presented to larger publics than that of other students, and it is difficult to predict what reactions will be.

DANCE emphasized the openness of modern dance and saw that field as especially receptive to creativity. In privileging “physicality and creativity” and the exploration of what the body can do, DANCE rejected the exclusive assignation of creativity to the choreographer.  In the field of modern dance especially, dancers feel that through each public performance they are changing the field, that they are creating new knowledge by doing something different. At the same time DANCE noted that for dancers to understand what it is they’re doing that actually is new requires an understanding of what their predecessors have done and seeing themselves as part of a larger trajectory.


There was general agreement among faculty that interdisciplinarity at Wesleyan is cultivated as a habit of mind, and while there was some doubt that undergraduates grasp the disciplines (and hence their integration) as well as their teachers do, the consensus was the interdisciplinary habit of mind contributes to creativity here. Programs such as AMERICAN STUDIES and EAST ASIAN STUDIES are self-evidently interdisciplinary. The COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES brings together students who debate questions of social theory from different disciplines, debates which often foster creative argumentation. ATHROPOLOGY felt that its creativity benefitted from its (inter)disciplinary character: seeing itself as much one of the humanities as social sciences, with ties to archaeology and natural science via biology.

PHILOSOPHY noted the benefits of applying philosophical thinking to objects of study normally associated with other disciplines. It also noted how philosophical ideas are often applied by students to other fields: for instance, the recent use of Kant in creating an art installation. ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES surmised that that studying a foreign language helps students with their writing skills in English.

RELIGION linked its emphasis on openness to its varied disciplinary influences: including the anthropology of religion, the philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, textual study, and psychology. HISTORY too emphasized its relationship to other disciplines. In many institutions where History is considered a social science—as it is here—creativity in the study of history isn’t privileged, but at Wesleyan (home to the journal History and Theory) HISTORY is proud of its long and distinguished record of rejecting the “Just the facts please” approach. The wry opening sentences of its self-description on the website makes this clear:  “History is not a body of facts to be transferred — temporarily — from the erudition of a professor to the memory of a student. It is a way of understanding the whole of the human condition as it has unfolded in time.”  That way of understanding has long been open to new approaches and methodologies, leading scholars to look at issues from new perspectives. HISTORY feels this especially keenly from its experience in PAC (and with the COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES) where it lives with GOVERNMENT and ECONOMICS. This proximity reinforces its sense of difference from (and creative tension with) these social sciences in terms of the reliance upon scientific models.

THEATER referred to the fact that the degree offered is a BA, not a BFA, which means that its work is done with connections to the liberal arts always in mind. Half of THEATER students are double majors, and they are encouraged to bring in ideas generated in other courses, let them gestate, and with learned technique, “make them happen.” The prevalence of double majors in CLASSICS was also cited as helpful with regards to creativity. Different frames of reference can result in very creative work, as with a recent double major in music who looked at the compositional qualities of the Metamorphoses.

DANCE noted the creativity emerging from engagement with different genres of dance through history and from around the world. DANCE took especial satisfaction in its work with faculty from other disciplines in deepening understandings (of the genome, for example) through physical engagement and aesthetic embodiment.   

CLASSICS described itself as not hyperphilological, noting its involvement with history, archaeology, philosophy, and ancient Christianity. The influence of History and Theory has moved teaching in the direction of the history of reception and made it more open than other Classics departments to new combinations associated with anthropological perspectives and gender and sexuality studies.

EAST ASIAN STUDIES’s Pro-seminar 201 for sophomores involves a number of professors from different departments who take turns addressing a central theme from the perspective of their different disciplines. Each of these modules requires an essay—critiqued by fellow students and then rewritten—and then a longer final essay that encourages students to draw connections among the modules.

ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES celebrated the involvement of artists in the College of the Environment and the multiple forms of expression promoted there. ART students are studying others parts of the liberal arts curriculum and are expected to bring those parts to bear on their art. ART also saw enormous benefit in its close relationship with ART HISTORY, since art students who understand artistic traditions are better able to situate themselves within the art world.

BIOLOGY mentioned that students make connections across the curriculum that professors would never have thought of. At the same time, BIOLOGY expressed the concern that students often spread themselves too thin.


Openness in terms of flexible application of different frames of reference was associated with interdisciplinary work certainly, but also with interpretive work within disciplines. Literary departments—ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES, RUSSIAN, ENGLISH, CLASSICS —all emphasized the creativity inherent in writing, interpretation, and looking at the world through the lens of another culture. PHILOSOPHY noted that the study of a concept like ritual in a distant context (such as ancient China) can resonate with students looking at Middletown. With respect to philosophical texts generally, PHILOSOPHY emphasized how one text can raise questions about another. In RUSSIAN, a popular technique is to ask students to write a parody of the parodies they’re studying or to plan their own Russian novel. In ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES students act out a funeral for a protagonist who dies, and MEDIEVAL STUDIES may ask students write the missing chapter of Gargantua in the style of Rabelais. In ENGLISH students are asked to rewrite a scene from one play in the style of another, deriving creative results by applying different frames of reference and making connections between classes and by being asked to formulate their own questions about passages. In CLASSICS students write their own wills conforming to the convention of Roman will writing.

Literary disciplines had different attitudes toward the role of primary texts and creativity. CLASSICS and ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES both celebrated the creative interpretation generated by direct engagement with small portions of primary texts. These departments (unlike ENGLISH) seek to avoid secondary sources, preferring that students come up with their own interpretation and thereby make the text their own. In CLASSICS the lack of evidence about ancient contexts lends itself to the exercise of the imagination when interpreting primary texts. With translation there’s always the tension between the literal and seeing what’s really going on. CLASSICS tries to create an environment in which students feel free to give oddball reactions, and it injects a bit of fun into the curriculum—be it a trip to Goodspeed Opera House to see “A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum” or a visit to NYC to meet antiquities dealers. Fun was seen as conducive to the use of imagination.

Like ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES and CLASSICS, COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES emphasized the excitement students felt when confronted with primary sources (great books) and the freedom they have to react from their different points of view. In contradistinction to those departments, however, COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES noted that its remarkably heavy reading load forced students to learn to peruse text and think broadly (one reason why they’re successful in Law School). COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES shrugged off the accusation of “intellectual conservatism” due to its emphasis upon great books of the past and argued that the “creativity” it enhanced was that of “intellectual elasticity and resourcefulness.”   

MUSIC saw creativity emerging when students became involved in music not at all their own, such as Gamelan. Broad exposure to many different kinds of music was valued in this regard, as was work with graduate students.

Independence, Freedom and Constraint

CHEMISTRY interpreted creativity in its area as “independence.”  Students eventually are turned loose in the lab and are encouraged to pursue their own ideas; the results can be found in the posters in the hallway. Students learn to organize themselves and their methodologies in their own ways to get things done. BIOLOGY made the point that research faculty serve as models for students, exemplifying independence and creative drive; and ART compared students watching faculty practitioners to kids watching their parents engaging in conversation: they want to do that.

Students in ECONOMICS have a variety of electives on which to base research topics; students can be asked to go out and collect data on a company of their choosing. Students in BIOLOGY often moan at first when sent out to study an animal of their choice with only the vaguest of guidelines, but in the end it is often these explorations that they most love.

COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES in particular emphasized the intellectual autonomy it fosters—and pointed to the high percentage of its students who become scholars as a result. Having its requisites front-loaded in “sophomore bootcamp” expands the scope of options available to juniors and seniors and gives them more freedom to create interdisciplinary majors of their own choosing and pursue topics of especial interest to them.  ART HISTORY emphasized that students need to be given the confidence that they can frame and pursue questions on their own and challenge received wisdom.

MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AND BIOCHEMISTRY emphasized the helpfulness of research funds that can be leveraged to create an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to do their own research because they are given opportunities for expression: funds such as travel money for presentations or supporting poster sessions.

RUSSIAN noted that there is no creativity without constraint, yet if it’s too rigid, creative people drop out. As with grammar: you need to study it, but if that’s all you study, then …. 

PHILOSOPHY too pointed to the example of grammar, emphasizing its necessary role in expressing anything well, creative or not. MATHEMATICS and ECONOMICS also made the analogy to language and compared their demands for structure to the art/literary world where it behooves artists/writers to first know the canon before transgressing the boundaries. ART HISTORY also pointed to the necessity of imposing disciplinary constraints, though not so rigid as to deny the possibility of new (and appropriate) interpretations.

MATHEMATICS and ECONOMICS were joined by PHILOSOPHY in emphasizing the fact that rigorous logic can force students down unexpected and surprising pathways. MUSIC noted that creativity needs boundaries; for example, charging students (a la John Cage) with making a piece with only 3 notes proves to be a simple exercise that gets creative results.

PHYSICS (in an email after the NSM presentation on creativity) explored the comparison of art and science: “at least in physics and in art, much training comes before real creativity is possible. Students who choose to take introductory courses must buy into the premise that there will come a time when creative application of the principles will replace rote learning. In science, and even more in other disciplines, mastery of the rules precedes—and is a license for—the breaking of the rules. (Of course, in science, there are a lot of rules that can’t profitably be broken. Science is more writing sonnets and less writing free verse. But there is still plenty of room for creativity.) ….  Here’s the rub:  there must be some reward while one is acquiring all that training. What is it?  What is the source of ‘buy-in’?  A partial explanation is that ‘some people just like science.’ That surely describes most of us who are professors. How about others?  Should we ‘bother’ to do something to attract others?  We have our ‘get a taste of science’ courses in the form of our General Education courses. What about creativity in those courses? …. the trick is to get people to creatively employ whatever they have learned so far….  ‘creative’ problems we ask are viewed by (many but not all) students as ‘trick’ problems. But finding the ‘trick’ to solving the problem is precisely where creativity comes in!  Students are ready to employ their knowledge creatively at very different stages in the learning process, and some students just want to know whatever facts and problem-solving techniques are necessary for some sort of professional certification (e.g. medical school). So:  interest comes first, then learning, then creativity, but all these things can mutually reinforce one another.”

MOST DEPARTMENTS emphasized the student thesis or capstone (where independence is obviously key) as the foremost locus of student creativity. RUSSIAN in particular emphasized the creativity involved in choosingone’s own thesis. For ART, “what creativity is” is a question they have students ask and answer in the senior thesis. HISTORY associated creativity with the selection of a thesis topic (often one that bears upon the life experience or personal interest of the student) in selecting the questions to be asked and the evidence to be used. The thesis was seen by HISTORY as the best opportunity for students to do original work.

Originality and Newness

I walked into the CHEMISTRY meeting just as a vote was being taken to award High Honors to a thesis notable for its “originality and creativity.”  This student overcame various obstacles to pursue his own idea about neurotransmitters and actually succeeded in executing it; he is now on his way to study computational biochemistry at Columbia. The senior research project is where creativity in CHEMISTRY most notably manifests itself. But creativity in the sense of originality and newness is not expected in introductory science. Expecting such creativity in chemistry from a student who has not spent years preparing was compared to dropping a student who knows no Spanish in the center of Madrid. And even with the proper preparation, when students do start to ask creative questions, these are likely to be questions that were asked by others 25 years ago. Questions raised by students may reflect creative thinking in that they are new with respect to the experience of those students, but these questions are unlikely to be ones that push the boundaries of the field. That said, exposure in the laboratory to graduate students who are charged with advancing the field was considered by CHEMISTRY to be helpful.

ENGLISH and RELIGION also problematized creativity with respect to originality and newness. ENGLISH stressed the difference between what may feel creative to the student and what is actually insightful. This went for departments too, with ENGLISH smarting over the fact that a paper it considered poor (on a topic well-known to it) was deemed highly creative by another department (which presumably knew the topic less well). RELIGION pointed out expressly that in describing “creative” contributions by students, a distinction should be made between what is original with regards to the student in a personal sense and original with regards to the field in which the student is working.

ASTRONOMY recalled an original project in which the student had great metaphysical ideas but had failed to master the analytical tools needed to connect those ideas to the data. The ostensibly creative approach, it remarked, can sometimes be an excuse for not doing the hard work of learning.

ART rejected “originality” as a useful concept since nothing is 100% original and great work doesn’t have to be original (as with appropriation art in the 1980s). At the same time, ART conveyed the excitement of watching students respond in their medium (sculpture) when confronted with questions they have never seen before. ART HISTORY, long burdened by the legacy of the genius, saw in the originality of artists, not the distancing of the artist from sources, but rather a high degree of condensation of sources. This originality is therefore not mysterious but historically accessible—though only to those versed in historical and artistic traditions and conventions.

The Personal

ANTHROPOLOGY noted that the “creative” is often associated in the minds of students with “the personal.”  While some of the best projects are personal (as with one based on a childhood photograph), these are informed by theory. If students think it’s enough “if it’s just about you,” that’s problematic. The personal must be tied to theory. ART HISTORY made the same point, noting that students given the freedom to relate their personal experience to architectural principles (for instance, Japanese garden design) have gotten a poor reception when their work proved to be merely personal. ART HISTORY likely rejects work that is idiosyncratic. PHILOSOPHY similarly expressed reservations about ties between the personal and the creative. With respect to ethics, in particular, students may object to having their opinions criticized or being asked to justify them. Such students may feel that their creative thinking is being constrained by the demand that it stand up to scrutiny; likewise they may object to having the problems they address handed down to them through the philosophical tradition. Students sometimes assume that with philosophy—unlike a scientific discipline—they don’t need to worry overmuch about doing the conceptual groundwork before arriving at creative insights. PHILOSOPHY disabuses them of this notion.

ART was particularly hard-nosed about the inefficiency of what it referred to as “mere creativity.”  In its world 90% of work ends up on the cutting room floor and students often are surprised to find the experience so miserable. Without frequent failure, however, there’s no success in the end, and for that reason room to fail is critical. Drawing I is required of all students, and many a story there is “written in tears.”  ART saw itself as different from Art School where “mere creativity” finds a friendlier home. Students here often find that their expressions of the personal are less interesting to audiences than they might have hoped. ART isn’t reluctant to tell students that just because the work is personal doesn’t mean it’s worth anyone else’s time—even their own.

The personal is an issue with RELIGION as well, where lived experience and self-awareness are key for students. On the one hand, students must bracket their own religious beliefs in order to achieve some empathy for religions other than their own; on the other, it can be energizing to bring their own deeply emotional commitments to a problem. DANCE noted the power of connections between personal sensitivity, emotion and physical expression. ROMANCE LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES mentioned that creativity has its dark pathological side, and students are sometimes forced to come to grips with things with which they aren’t comfortable.

AMERICAN STUDIES suggested that what faculty can do to drive (or make room for) creativity is to “Meet the students where they are.”  That is, if a student loves dance above all, a project bearing on that passion is likely to be more creative. MUSIC was divided on this issue. Those invested in improvisation begin by asking the student “What are you interested in? What do you hear when you hear music?”  Intuition comes before discipline; there’s no one way. Others emphasized discipline: a lot of musical training is by rote, imitation is important, students can’t just do whatever they want.

Communication and Collaboration

MUSIC likened learning African Drumming to learning language from parents at home: students use the instruments to talk, to participate in the ongoing conversation of the ensemble, with the lead drummer engaging others in responses/reciprocity. Creativity was also seen in the collaboration of students writing songs together.

While CLASSICS sees the merit of collaborative work in principle and sponsors a table for conversational Latin, it finds that little collaborative work is actually done in its area. In THEATER students often find their own creative process of work by seeing other students at work and learning from them; and in this sense it’s very much laboratory work. PHILOSOPHY pursues part of its work through conversation and finds that unexpected ideas sometimes emerge from those interactions.

Journal clubs were a source of pride for BIOLOGY and MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AND BIOCHEMISTRY. At these clubs undergrad and grad students take a recent journal article and are asked to take it to the next level: to imagine together what the next step might be and to design an experiment around it. Each and every professor hosts a weekly group meeting in which participants (technicians, undergrads, grads, professors) critique each other, imagine how something could be done differently. MATHEMATICS too has a Journal club, and ECONOMICS pointed to student investment clubs in which entrepreneurial students seek to implement their research projects and get leadership experience.

COLLEGE OF SOCIAL STUDIES pointed to the energetic nature of its seminar discussions—discussions which in the case of the Friday tutorials carry on into the receptions that follow. Those receptions with food and drink (the two I witnessed anyway) were remarkable for their loud and lively conversation. Weekly gatherings of CSS students (including Monday evenings at the house of a senior, talks by its alumni, and banquets) add to the sense of intellectual camaraderie. EAST ASIAN STUDIES saw creativity in the inviting, open environment at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies where students interact socially with lecturers, conduct outreach to grade-school students, work together on a student journal, and act as curatorial assistants in setting up exhibitions. ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES, in thinking about creativity, expressed pleasure at the increased numbers of students hanging out together at the College of the Environment.

MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AND BIOCEHMISTRY noted that, while creativity is more salient at higher levels of expertise, it is built into the curriculum at all levels. Two examples in particular were cited:  MB&B 209 Research Frontiers designed around informal discussion of topics of current interest in the department and future research areas for students, and MB&B 195 Honors Introductory Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics in which students make the connections between diseases and their molecular bases. In the lab, said MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AND BIOCEHMISTRY, there are two modes at play: the technician mode and the artist’s mode (with student’s pursuing their own projects/ideas), very much a parallel to the tension inherent in creativity between convergent and divergent thinking. This emphasis on the laboratory as a fundamentally cooperative (and hence creative) space was shared by CHEMISTRY and BIOLOGY. ENGLISH was intrigued by the term “laboratory” and mused about its applicability to the Humanities.

PSYCHOLOGY reported some original work produced through faculty-student collaboration (on word-recognition) that the faculty would likely not have come up with without the student. MEDIEVAL STUDIES treats courses as conversations and invites students to contribute to faculty research; co-authored articles result. ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES noted that the scholar/teacher model generally promotes creative interactions. ECONOMICS pointed to a number of successes in collaborative research between faculty and student, most of which do not result in publications only because of the nature of the publishing process in the field: extensive revisions are normally required, sometimes taking years, and by then the student is gone.

ART attributed the success of its graduates (in a wide variety of areas) less to creativity per se than to the skills (problem-solving, organizational, documentary, and conversational) that they develop in the course of making and exhibiting their work. Any successful exhibition requires having worked well with many others in the art world. DANCE emphasized the creative results generated through the collaborative work of choreographers, dancers, musicians, costume designers, visual artists, and lighting designers. By the time dance majors are seniors, they are responsible for (and graded on) how well their collaborations are working. This skill of making the most out of interactions serves DANCE well when they explore the physical engagement with ideas with faculty from other disciplines.

RELIGION knows from evaluations that students enjoy hearing from each other. PSYCHOLOGY recommended that in judging class participation the most important factor should be the students’ contributions to the liveliness of the group discussion: how they do in letting others talk, not just how much they talk themselves. You can never go wrong respecting Wes students, said PSYCHOLOGY: give them the opportunity to be creative by breaking them up into small groups, ask them to come up with discussion questions of their own, give them time not just to answer questions but to explore them.

BIOLOGY pointed out that tutorials may provide more opportunities for creative work by the student than does the classroom, but it is the laboratory where small groups generate the most opportunities for creative thinking: the students are familiar with each other, have a shared vocabulary and a shared motivation, and none of them knows the answer. This notion of shared activity led BIOLOGY to use Moodle as a venue for students to record their thoughts and feelings about the readings.

Wesleyan students were considered as, if not more, creative than students at other schools, and every department had its favorite examples. AMERICAN STUDIES and ENGLISH were especially impressed by creativity outside of the classroom, noting the many extracurricular projects students undertake with each other’s assistance, from student bands to theatrical productions, from student journals to the Anarchists Radio Collective.

AMERICAN STUDIES made reference to problem-based learning in which the professor takes on the role of facilitator, students work in collaborative groups on open-ended, often ill-defined problems, and students take responsibility for their own learning. But AMERICAN STUDIES also saw problems with this for both students and faculty. For example, when students were told to “go find a performance on campus—anything from a baseball game to a party—and describe the community it creates,” some panicked; they wanted to be told more specifically what to do. And faculty, for their part, may feel that investing effort in creative pedagogy won’t pay off because teaching is not rewarded generally and because collaborative work with students is not considered “scholarly.”  In this regard, it was remarked by HISTORY that investing in creative pedagogical approaches may be particularly risky for the untenured.


AMERICAN STUDIES, ANTHROPOLOGY, and PHILOSOPHY reported a disturbing trend toward uncreativity in students here (and probably everywhere). PHILOSOPHY reported that where Wesleyan students of old had no trouble “thinking for themselves,” students today are more oriented towards trying to figure out what the professor expects them to say. This was attributed to the ethos of the standardized test, which has permeated high school education. Students have been trained to work within guidelines that lead to expected results, and when those guidelines aren’t clear, they flounder. AMERICAN STUDIES speculated that the increased selectivity of Wesleyan admissions meant that those students good enough to get into Wesleyan are used to the straight and narrow, afraid of creativity, afraid to make a mistake in a world in which a B or B+ is considered a disaster. Students today are more anxious, in need of reassurance, constantly asking faculty “Is this ok?”  HISTORY too lamented the fact that so many students come to them to ask, “what they need to do to get an A.”  Obviously fear of failure and refusal to take risks are major obstacles to enhancing student creativity anywhere.

ASTRONOMY noted that some students are at first frustrated when told that many interesting problems have no known answers, and it regretted that some are content with just doing everything right without speculating on what it might mean. At the same time ASTRONOMY saw this as more of a problem for frosh and sophomores than for seniors, suggesting that students gain confidence as their work progresses. That a large percentage of its students go on to do graduate work is a source of pride in ASTRONOMY. ECONOMICS too noted that older students were more receptive to creative approaches than younger ones. One team-taught course in which the professors debated questions and deliberately refused to agree on answers appealed to seniors but outraged the frosh. ECONOMICS recognized that some students were just after A’s, but considered them a drag on the classroom; it observed that current students tended to be less critical and more vocationally oriented than their predecessors. Foreign students, in particular, were likely to have been especially rewarded for sitting back and to arrive at Wesleyan with even less experience in exercising their creative capacities. That said, ECONOMICS surmised that current Wes students, while less creative than their predecessors, were still more creative than their counterparts at other schools. The spectrum of student creativity had shifted, thought ECONOMICS, but Wes students remained at the high end. MATHEMATICS did not support the idea that the Wes students of today are less creative than their predecessors, though it readily admitted that some students were much more creative than others. MATHEMATICS judged that its students were not obsessed with being right all the time, quite willing to fly ideas (sometimes too willing!), willing to bring in perspectives from other disciplines, and interested in the larger questions rather than just acquiring skill sets.

ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES pointed out that while risk-taking may be important in creativity, avoidance of risk is hardly irrational. You see the creativity in retrospect: the risk-taking that worked out. Much risk-taking does not work out; risks come back and bite you. Students who are thinking critically may well decide that the creative route is not for them. ENGLISH noted that even when students are offered so-called “creative options” (say, a curatorial project versus an archival one), few take them. The impression in many departments is that Wesleyan students cannot abide failure. PSYCHOLOGY reported that when some students analyzing their data arrived at negative results, they couldn’t live with it and tried to modify the results!

How could Wesleyan create a learning environment is which achievement is prized yet failure is ok too? PSYCHOLOGY had some recommendations: first and foremost, praise the effort rather than the individual. Too much praise of individual students may raise their self-esteem, but it also sets them up for failure. The stressful nature of the learning experience should be recognized. Students take risks when they raise their hand, they venture out on a limb when they take a course, when they generate a hypothesis. If you want creative thinking from them, create incentives (or disincentives) in which risk-taking is fostered. This is hard to do in big classes, easier in groups of 2-3 where the syllabus is not the document. Distinguish process from product and reward students who promote the liveliness of class discussions (which often means drawing out their fellow students). Beware of putting students in a pressure cooker, set proximal rather than distal goals, and periodically ask them for self-appraisals.

CSS believes that the fact that its sophomore year is pass/fail leaves students more free to make outlandish arguments and that this sense of freedom stays with them (and serves them well) as juniors and seniors. Accustomed to going out on as limb, CSS students who go on to graduate school were considered to think more broadly and creatively than their more narrowly disciplined counterparts from other schools.

Concluding Notes

In discussions with faculty the point was not to begin with a definition of “creativity” or even to seek one that would have general applicability. The point was to see what comes to mind when faculty think about creativity intheir areas.

Definitions obviously are just a mouse click away. Here’s a definition of “creativity” from the online Dictionary:  “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination: the need for creativity in modern industry; creativity in the performing arts.”  The examples given (industry, performing arts) are significant, reflecting current concerns. For “creativity” has a history. Discussion of creativity in this country, jump-started by the shock of Sputnik and focused on engineering, was appropriated in the 1970’s by humanists interested in questions of personal growth and well-being (see David H. Croply, The Dark Side of Creativity). Since the 90’s the “creativity discourse” seems to have been focused once again on the practical—in particular on products—with creativity seen as the means to being more competitive and improving the quality of life. It remains to be seen if the destruction caused by “creative financial practices” on Wall Street will lessen our trust in creativity generally. 

In the discussions with Wesleyan faculty there was a strong sense that the term “creativity” suffers from lack of clarity and a certain fatigue due to overuse in American culture. That said, there was little opposition to creativity in principle so long as it could be broadly defined (as in the rubrics above).  Part of this may have been politeness on the faculty’s part.  “Creativity” finds resistance in academia for many different reasons: a perceived lack of seriousness, doubt that it’s rooted in a set of teachable competencies, concern that it would suffer from institutionalization and thus would be healthier remaining at the margins, suspicion about the corporate uses to which the term is currently being put, or adherence to twentieth-century critiques of creativity as based upon humanist/bourgeois notions of genius and subjectivity. Perhaps because they were largely anticipated, these critiques did not derail our discussions.

Still, for many faculty the terms “imagination” or “inventiveness” might have been less problematic than “creativity.”  Certainly for HISTORY. Which is not to say that HISTORY thought those terms interchangeable. If by creativity we mean (with philosopher Berys Gaut) the disposition that results in making something original and valuable, then imagining (actively grasping relevant possibilities, playing with different hypotheses or ways of making things) can be thought of as a vehicle for creativity. Taking the historical imagination to be the vehicle for the disposition to create original and valuable historical work, then the preference for the vehicle over the disposition may simply reflect distaste for the way the term “creativity” has been utilized. For most, the term “creativity” suggests that something is produced; if an idea remains at the imaginative level and never results in a product of any sort, the idea is commonly not considered creative.

Regardless of resistance to the word “creativity,” it is clear from these discussions that creativity broadly conceived is part and parcel of the curriculum here and tied to critical thinking. Indeed, “imagining and exploring alternatives,” which is often taken to be a component of critical thinking, was frequently associated in our discussions with creative thinking. In any case, there was general consensus that disciplines, rather than being opposed to creativity, provided a framework for it, and that the faculty who balanced the teaching of skills with stimulating the imagination of their students to experiment, to explore, to play with new ideas were serving those students well.

Writing was seen to be a locus of creativity in almost every department, from ECONOMICS (which noted the importance of getting economic messages out to the public and the utility of writing workshops in this regard) to ENGLISH, where a resident writer has said: “I find out what I have to say while I’m figuring out the best way to say it.”  In so far as composing text of any sort involves a process of discovering what it is one thinks, every department here participates, however differentially. Of course, much that students write or say is a creation of a sort, but if it is deemed by the faculty to have little merit, it doesn’t get the medal of “creativity.”  This poses a pedagogical challenge. While some student productions  (be they papers or paintings) are found to be empty and not judged “creative” regardless of how personally new they were for the student, it was also thought important to give credit to such students for trying to push beyond the boundaries of their previous achievements.

As for the discussions, I was struck by two things in particular. (1) Regardless of how resistant faculty were to the subject of creativity in the beginning, it wasn’t long before that resistance dissipated. Faculty often remarked in the end that the discussions had been less predictable and more enjoyable than anticipated. It’s my estimation that faculty, in talking about their experiences in the classroom, found themselves in touch with their own passion for learning—itself a crucial if indirect contributor to student creativity. By modeling a passion for learning in the classroom, Wesleyan faculty spark the desire for such passion in their students—a desire that is necessary if students are to make use of the opportunity to develop their own creative capacities. And (2), many departments observed in passing that they viewed their seniors as more creative than their first and second-year students—observations indicative of the enhancement (purposeful or not) of student creativity across the curriculum. These observations are welcome, particularly since there is a perceived weakening of American higher education in this regard.  The perception is that American students today, in being trained, are becoming encultured to be satisfied with established knowledge – as well as becoming increasingly preoccupied with grades or just passing the exam. The degree to which Wesleyan is different in this regard is of considerable interest.

Ways of enhancing student creativity mentioned in the faculty discussions include:

  • Emphasize that disciplines aren’t fixed
  • Be open to structured exchanges between the arts and other disciplines
  • Promote sense of exploration (faculty exploring problems alongside students)
  • Fight against being a spectator sport
  • Make provocative hypotheses
  • Encourage out of left-field questions so long as they are anchored in rigor
  • Allow students the freedom to play with ideas, ambiguity, paradox
  • Be watchful of the stress students feel
  • Have some fun (light-heartedness not antithetical to rigor)
  • Encourage students to speculate, take intellectual risks (recognizing that for students these are also emotional risks)
  • Support faculty who might be most insecure (junior faculty) in taking pedagogical risks
  • Strengthen the place of “creativity” in teacher evaluations
  • Pass/fail
  • Reward good thinking appropriate to discipline, not just getting answers right
  • Counter-factuals: ask how it could be otherwise
  • Praise the effort, not the individual
  • Encourage making connections from other disciplines, applying different frames of reference (including cultural ones), and making remote associations; celebrate serendipitous results
  • In class, break students up into small groups and reward collaborative skills
  • Problem-based learning, where professor acts as facilitator
  • Support collaborative research and different sorts of capstone experiences
  • Promote student autonomy
  • Meet students where they are; encourage them to make imaginative links to their own experience
  • Support students in the presentation of their work, be it poster session or at a conference
  • Allow for different modes of expression, from writing to physical expression
  • Model interest in the content being taught and, in general, a passion for learning

None of these is without difficulties or downsides, and if faculty were asked to reflect at length on creativity and pedagogical practice, this list would doubtless be different.

If the discussions themselves were a step in the direction of making progress on our Wesleyan 2020 objective of spurring creativity across the curriculum, the report can be considered step two. If faculty are interested in seeing how their colleagues view creativity, that would be a positive sign—and provide a basis for the next step of developing a framework for supporting pedagogical proposals for further enhancing the creative capacities of Wesleyan students.