Class to examine creative process

Ed Burger, professor of math, and the 12 students of his “Exploring Creativity” course are going to write philosophical treatises this fall. Though excited at the prospect, Burger’s not under any illusion that the group will give Aristotle a run for his money. “Will these treatises be great? No,” he said firmly. “But that’s not the point. It’s about the process, the act of doing it.”

While Burger may be the only faculty member offering a course about the creative process this fall, he’s hardly the only person considering how the College teaches and supports creativity. Beyond casual conversations among faculty and students, the Committee on Educational Priorities (CEP) held a discussion on the topic in 2006-07, and the fall’s Self Study for Accreditation Report included a lengthy section about “Creativity in Student Learning.”

Even the members of the College’s Board of Trustees have been getting in on the act. “They [the trustees] recognize that in this day and age, creativity is something we should be focusing on,” said Roger Bolton, professor emeritus of economics and coordinator of the Self Study for Accreditation, noting that most believe 21st century students will need flexible, creative minds to thrive in the workplace and contribute to society.

It is such flexible, creative minds that Burger hopes to develop through his new course. He wants students to reject the notion that creativity is something intrinsic and instead view it as a set of conscious habits of mind that can be developed and strengthened. “I want this to be a place where students will focus on the point of being a creator,” Burger said, adding that he hopes to help students gain the ability to “see the world as a canvas.”

While the idea may sound abstract, Burger’s plan for achieving his end is concrete and organized. He wants his class to consist of three math majors, three music majors, three art majors and three philosophy majors, all upperclassmen. The 12 weeks of the semester will be broken down into four quarters, each dedicated to one of the those disciplines. Relying on a faculty advisor for each subject (Burger for math, Will Dudley for philosophy, Mike Glier for art and Perez Velazquez for music) for guidance, the student majors will teach the rest of the class “their” subject, moving quickly from lectures to creative exercises. The students will write their own treatises, draw extensively, create original pieces of music and write unique mathematical proofs.

The interdisciplinary nature of the course is intentional. “To many, creativity is just ‘artsy,’ something that happens in music, art and poetry,” Burger said. His idea of creativity is the act of creating, a process universal to all disciplines. Forcing students to create original work in subjects they are less comfortable with is meant to encourage an understanding that when it comes to creation, “the language is different, but the process is the same” across fields.

Burger plans to connect faces with these ideas. Recently named the College’s next Gaudino scholar, Burger will use the money provided by the Gaudino Fund to bring speakers notable for their creativity in various fields to campus. Though the details have yet to be finalized, Burger said he is considering having some of the visitors speak publicly, in hopes of sparking further creativity dialogue on campus.

“I’m interested in having faculty conversations, talking about creativity specific to their scholarship,” Burger said. “It could have ramifications in terms of how we teach, but I don’t know for sure.”

A divided view of creativity

Formal, systematic consideration of the role of creativity at the College is relatively new to Hopkins Hall. According to the Self Study for Accreditation Report, there had never been an attempt at any kind of comprehensive analysis of the subject until that document was completed last October.

Primarily compiled by Bolton, the “Creativity in Student Learning” section of the report outlines a conflicting pair of viewpoints about the state of creativity at the College. One view, held by a majority of the professors interviewed for the Report, claims that Williams students produce good creative work and that the school’s curriculum encourages them to develop their creativity. A vocal minority of faculty, however, contend that Williams students are not particularly impressive in terms of creativity, and tend to avoid open-ended work that pushes them to be more so. According to the Report, “This group feels our students fall short of what they could achieve primarily because they are reluctant to take risks and to challenge the standard ways of doing things.”

When professors who have written and spoken about creativity were asked to describe the situation, their answers tended to incorporate elements of both positions.

“If I had to generalize, I’d say you’re likely to get more freewheeling stuff from a Bennington student,” said Jim Shepard, professor of English. However, he was quick to add that Williams students can often be taught to be looser and more willing to take risks.

Susan Engel, professor of psychology, also noted Williams students’ inclinations to stick with the familiar. “Students may think they want creative thinking, but when they have to do it they often get frustrated,” she said. “They’re not used to it; it’s not what they’ve done to get here – doing well on tests.” Yet Engel routinely pushes students to solve complicated, open-ended problems, like designing an ideal school based on the writings of education theorists, suggesting the College’s curriculum does push less-than-willing students towards creativity.

Glier, who helped Bolton gather the data for the Accreditation Report, takes a completely different line. “The Williams faculty is actually a very creative body, as are the students,” he said. Rather than urging for more creative students or coursework, he believes the College needs to better publicize the creativity that already exists in its community, to help support creative thinking.

To promote these ends, Glier prepared a presentation on the subject for the trustees in January 2006, a talk he described as “well-received.” As his ideas began circulating among the faculty, Glier distributed a copy of the presentation, a document that outlines his thoughts on the creative process and the importance of thinking about the context creative thinking happens in. Ongoing faculty interest led to a discussion on the topic several months after the trustee presentation in a CEP meeting.

Here, the “minority” from the Self-Study Report made themselves heard. “A lot of reservations came from the junior faculty who think it’s risky to do things in your class pre-tenure, because students don’t like it when things are too open-ended,” Glier said, noting that many claimed such assignments hurt their scores on course reviews, and thus their chances for tenure.

The CEP has not returned to the subject since, turning its focus to issues such as the Exploring Diversity Initiative and the 2020 Report. But those intimately involved with the study maintain that the conversation is too unresolved and too central to the College’s mission to be over. As the report itself notes, “The only conclusion we reached that will convince all external observers is that we need further discussion of the subject – a lot of it.”

“We’re at the top of our game for most things, standard education-wise,” Bolton said. “But going forward, it seems like creativity is going to be especially important to think about.”