Learning through creativity

If the wall wasn’t plastered with ideas and images you were doing it wrong. It was important that everyone could see their own – and each other’s – ideas and processes

This post, from Kendra Quinn, is the last in series of guest post from students who recently graduated from the program where I teach and participated in the journey interviews for my book. Kendra, who came to Sussex via an Arts Foundation year, has a unique perspective on creative teaching and why it’s so hard to do in the social sciences. Thank you Kendra!

I recently graduated from Sussex with a degree in Geography and International Development, having previously completed an Art foundation course at Kingston University. This is not the most natural of paths into a social science degree, but as with many creative individuals who also enjoy more ‘academic’ subjects, on leaving sixth form I found myself with a predicament: should I pursue design, and take the creative route, or study other subjects of interest? I chose not to choose, and to delay my decision by applying for an Art foundation and settled at Kingston University. In the end, I decided to keep my deferred place at Sussex, so the following year I went ‘academic’, whilst friends went on to study graphics, product design, illustration, design engineering, and architecture. Keeping in touch throughout our degrees, it became clear to me that the overlaps between our different disciplines were not pursed fully, if at all, by either course.

Creative outlets

Whilst the creative degrees excelled at helping students think and design with empathy, as well as think critically around subjects and problems, my degree tended towards thinking in the abstract, about various problems, both on an individual and human level, and with a greater focus on the theoretical side of things. On starting my course in international development, I expected it to encourage me to think more critically about subjects and scenarios in which I was interested; but, being a course very much about people, I was also under the impression that it would be filled too with case studies and projects – creative outlets to allow me to think practically about applying the theory which any academic course naturally contains. Yet, I found that in the current exam/essay based culture of learning, critical discussion around the theories and abstract concepts leaves little room to be creative with how you learn, and makes it harder to still to be creative when it comes to the product of your learning; an essay, at the end of the day, is an essay, and an exam result is just an exam result. Design, often, is about asking questions – without necessarily expecting an answer. The solution is always up for interpretation. Coming from a design background, I certainly struggled with moving away from the idea that the results of my learning would definitely have an impact on a subject or discussion; modules at Sussex, on the other hand, often ended in an essay, which to me always seemed more to be proof that you were present and thinking critically – not that you’re actually adding anything to the debate.

A design course allows the individual time to prototype, to tangent and circle back, to learn from failures and use them to continuously develop a project. At each stage projects are discussed with fellow students openly, and critique is often welcomed over compliment. This is where the learning itself comes from, and the main thing I think the social sciences could learn from a design school is the ability to learn through creativity. Often a creative environment (in no small part as a result of how such courses are presented and promoted by schools and higher educational institutes) is seen as a space to present ideas through colourful images and models, etc. A lot of the modules at Sussex however did promote similar styles of discussion and presentation to those used during my foundation degree. We frequently engaged with group debate, presentation, use of different materials, etc. in order to communicate ideas. But there is a difference here, and it is fundamental: here you are presenting your learning creatively, not learning through creativity. There are a few things that I think social sciences can learn from here. Currently, students are asked to tick boxes with their essay, despite studying topics that don’t endorse the idea of right and wrong answers. Moving away from a linear results-based system might make for a more exciting environment where students can explore ideas more, rather than simply regurgitate and study arguments in the limited framework an essay represents.

Ongoing critique

Another distinguishing feature of a creative degree is the mindset towards criticism that students build and promote, from each other and their tutors. One thing that I feel puts students off speaking and expressing ideas in my degree is the negative association with feedback that essay based environments create. Creative students from day one are almost forced to share their thoughts and processes with fellow students, something which continues throughout a module/project, teaching them to use and take critique; the culture in a social science degree, meanwhile, is not about sharing. Pressure to produce a grade from one or two essays results in a fear of critique, despite this being fundamental to learning effectively. Leaning away from the assessment of a final result and more toward ongoing critique of processes and ideas might help remove the vulnerability and timidness that is often felt in students toward their own work and encourage greater contribution within the classroom.

As an example of the overlap between creative courses and social sciences, here are two examples from my studies. At Sussex we had a module called Disasters, Environment and Development; this module involved an essay and a group project in which we had to design our own ‘serious game’ that helped the players understand risk in the context of disasters and weather phenomena.  For the module my group designed a card-based game. The cards were split into ‘weather’ cards, ‘crop’ cards and ‘Life’ cards, and we used pebbles to represent a player’s assets. Each round, a ‘weather’ card with a hazard, along with its potential cost, is revealed. Each team decides to protect themselves or to take a card from the crop/life pile which has either a positive or negative effect on their assets. If the hazard occurs and the team did not protect themselves, they lose double the initial cost of the card. Essentially as the game goes on the teams learn that they are more likely to ‘survive’ the game if they protect themselves from the weather card every round. As a group most found it was challenging to build a game that educates and reveals something to the players. But the building of a game was useful, in that game building was a great way of learning about and presenting risk. You are, in a sense, studying yourselves in order to learn about the topic; by understanding your own behaviour toward risk and the variables that determine that, you can learn more and apply yourself better to the case studies discussed in the literature.  I think that the creative elements to social sciences courses work better with the students if there is an incentive for building or creating something. So, you are learning through creativity rather than just creatively representing what has been learnt.

A project I did on my foundation course reminds me of the kind of work that I understand creative modules at Sussex to be aiming toward. Tutors gave us a crime profile of a city and the brief was to design housing that would help the reduction of the specific causes of the crime, or the crime itself. I think this premise is obtuse, but it led to a lot of research into the social infrastructure of the city, the socio-economic struggles of its citizens, and the style of policing. I was given the favelas of Maceio, Brazil, and created a sort of modular low-cost housing system which eliminated blind corners and created shared patios to promote community. This aimed to reduce some of the chaos that comes with the building of informal settlements without reducing the appeal. The key aspect of this project was that the research had to be translated into a physical solution. 

Learning from each other

Having studied in two environments, with two very unique approaches to learning, I’m convinced that both can learn a lot from each other. I hope in the future to see more overlap and conversation between creative courses and the social sciences. The similarities between the module and project described above show how both are approaching similar topics and ideas through completely different lenses. What the social sciences can learn from design thinking is an empathetic and individual focus on the journey of a project and its value – not only an end result. I also feel that the sense students get from creating and completing an individual project, the sense that they have contributed and made a real impact on the discourse surrounding a subject, is far more empowering and incentivising than the more rigid student/teacher dynamic that is more common in an ‘academic’ learning environment. Likewise, perhaps creative courses can learn from the depth of theoretical study and critical skills that are more widely applied in a social sciences environment.

International Development – My Voyage Through Uncharted Waters

This is a guest post by Lydia Bennett-Li, who graduated from Sussex this summer and was a participant in the research for my book. In this post, Lydia reflects how her year-long placement at an Indian research organization has shaped her post-university journey and better understanding of the challenges of international development research. Thank you Lydia!

My journey as a student of International Development (ID), as I am sure every ID student would agree, was and continues to be a voyage through uncharted waters.

I decided to apply to ID fairly last minute. Like many prospective students I have met over the years being a Global Studies Ambassador, I was drawn to study ID as a result of reading, watching and learning about issues in the developing world. I must admit, I was naive in this sense. My understanding of ID at the time was limited to rather stark issues, such as education, hunger and inequality. It was only after commencing the course and learning from experts in the field, that I truly began to understand the complexities and contradictions of the developing world. While learning in this way opened my mind and broadened my understanding of ID, it also led me to become increasingly confused as to what I should do with myself post-university.

A photo taken during my time working in Goa, India

I knew by the middle of my second year, that I no longer wanted to work for a charity, or as an academic, or as an ID practitioner. I decided to take a year out and work for a mental health research organisation in Goa, India. I worked within a large substance-use disorder project, that was designing a mobile-based intervention for hazardous drinking among Goan youth. During my time in this project I learnt an incredible amount. From core research skills, to project-based management, I was able to gain some genuine, practical skills that I knew would put me in good stead for a career in ID research. However, I just did not enjoy working in research. I loved my team, and I loved that our work was aiming to have a positive impact on youth in the area, but I struggled to enjoy the bureaucracy that came with the project. I was shocked at just how important the funders of the project were in the decision-making processes, and was unsettled by just how much finance seemed to impact our work, sometimes with considerable ethical implications. I decided to do some research into the finance side of research projects, and other charity-based programs, and came across the huge world of audit. 

Learning about how charities, corporations and other organisations are obliged to report on their finances, and in some cases their social activity appealed to me hugely, and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand just how it all worked. I learnt about financial reporting, fraud, social audits, ISO standards and more. Over time developed a keen interest in pursuing a career within which I could create positive change both globally and locally, through ensuring that the financing of development projects, international aid, CSR and other such things, is both ethically sourced, and ethically spent. I applied for a number of graduate programs in financial audit, and accepted an offer with a Big-4 Accountancy firm in London. I am somewhat unsure as to how I will fit in within a global corporation such as my new employer, especially given my background in ID and understanding of the impact that these such corporations can have in the developing world. However, I feel that the best way to make change is from within.

A visit to Mumbai with friends during my time in India

I am excited to now be starting this new chapter of my career. Although I feel I will be diverging from a career directly working within the field of ID for now, I think that spending the next 3 years qualifying as an Auditor, will put me in a good position to effectuate change within the field of ID in years to come. I am lucky though, as I will be able to continue to exercise my passion for development through the non-profit organisation I co-founded while I was working in India. Generation Mental Health was created out of the recognition of two gaps. The first being a significant gap in representation of the diverse mental health needs of different communities worldwide. That is to say that leadership in the field of global health is heavily skewed to the global north, making policy, treatment and more often culturally inappropriate. The second gap we recognised was the gap in opportunities for young people from these diverse communities to undertake capacity building opportunities necessary in order to make change at the broader level. Myself and my fellow Founder and Co-Founder realised after reflecting on our own positions, that it was only because of our western educational backgrounds, and our families financial statuses that we were able to embark on international placements at such a young age. Without the reputational support of our universities, and the financial support from our families, it would have been impossible for us to take a year out of our lives to work and learn in India. As such, we created Generation Mental Health, whose mission is to build the next generation of leaders in global mental health through providing funded capacity-building opportunities to young community leaders, especially those from low-resource settings. 

From left: Jackee Schess, GenMH Founder; Sonali Kumar, GenMH Co-Founder; Myself, GenMH Co-Founder

Although Generation Mental Health is just over a year old, we have achieved an incredible amount since our conception. Our team and advisory boards now span over 5 continents, our campus chapters have fully launched and are expanding across campuses in the US, and our Michigan Campus Chapter will be hosting our very first conference this November (2020). I am proud to be a part of this wonderful and exciting organisation, not only does it bring me closer to my passion for development and mental health, but it allows me to learn new things every day. 

Studying International Development, for me, has been a challenging yet career-moulding experience. While I now will embark on the first step of my career in an industry outside of ID, I hold close to my heart the knowledge, ethics and critical eye that I have gained through my studies. International Development is, as far as I am concerned, not a degree with the sole purpose to get you a job at the end of it. Instead it is a process of learning, critiquing and learning more, which I will keep with me for the rest of my life. 

Lydia Bennett-Li


Double trouble in a good way

What Does it Mean to Double Major in College and Should You?
Credit: collegeraptor.com

This post is written by Cristina, one of the students I interviewed this year for my book. Having just finished writing my economics chapter, I was particularly interested to learn about Cristina’s experiences of doing a double degree in Economics and International Development. In this post, Cristina talks about her having grown up in post-crisis Spain as a motivation to study Economics but realizing that it was International Development that gave her the necessary critical perspective on it.

Hello, my name is Cristina, and I am a very recent Economics and International Development graduate from Sussex. This combination of subjects was an option whose implications I did not fully understand, until the very first day I arrived at Sussex from Spain and started the course.

Why study economics?

I knew the reason I wanted to study economics: my whole life had always revolved around it. It presented itself in most of my life experiences, many times with or without explanation, while also happening to most of my generation. The economic financial crisis of 2007 hit Spain very forcefully when we were mere kids, but still mature enough to understand what was happening around.

There was not a friend I knew that any of their family members weren’t unemployed. I recall most of my friends, from the age of 9, were already familiar with terms such as stock market, bank bailouts, and risk premium.

Therefore, while choosing what to study as an undergraduate degree, I immediately decided I wanted to study Economics, as I felt the need to understand the reasons for most of the events I experienced growing up. I also realised that I needed to study something complementary to truly understand the effects economic activity have had worldwide, choosing, therefore, to undertake International Development as a joint honours degree. The need to study both subjects and the clear difference between the two degrees (Economics and ID) started to be significantly noticeable once I started the course.

On one hand, studying Economics was an absolute enjoyment from the start. It was fascinating. Even though it sounds corny, it felt like studying a living and working piece of philosophy. Everything said in class, even though it was obscured with difficult and complicated symbology and terms, once uncovered its meaning, just made sense. Every term, formula or concept formed part of this big system that worked perfectly. No matter what question or part you didn’t fully understand, it was perfectly explainable by economic theory. It was intriguing, interesting, and above all, very satisfying. The greatest example for me of this was being able to understand one day the Taylor’s Rule, represented by the following formula:

 it = r* + π* + β(πt – π*) + γ(yt – yN)

Even though at first it seemed confusing and intimidating, once you understood what each value and concept meant, the formula was easy to read and interpret, and therefore easy to understand its use. The formula simply translates to the notion that nominal interest rate (it) equals the real interest rate (the interest rate of goods and services), inflation, and the difference there is between current inflation and economic activity to the target inflation and full employment level. This makes the interest rate, the most needed, sought and used tool in economic policy to be easily manipulated to the needs of the economy. Once this concept is imparted in class, macroeconomics works as this effective subject which you can tweak and change to make it work inch-perfect.

Why study international development?

Development, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. The course from the start was made of  very different, very complex modules that were difficult to see as interconnected. While one module would focus on British colonialism, the next ones worked on issues such as the Washington Consensus, Palestine, intersectionality, the SDGs, or randomised controlled trials.

Furthermore, each issue uncovered deeply rooted and incredibly painful-to-study societal problems. With each class, you would explore elements that would shake to the core beliefs and concepts that you had never questioned. Understanding the economic, social and political reasons for most of our society’s main problems was a hard and difficult process to undertake.

However, at the end of this learning process, you were able to interpret issues in a deeper, more multifaceted way. Poverty could no longer be interpreted as a sad isolated incident, but the consequence of a confluence of factors, much of which stemmed from race, class, gender, religion, or nationality. Soon enough you were able to see the connection between all the different development modules and the global interconnection of injustice and structural violent systems.

What happens when you combine both subjects?

Double Brainstorm With Clouds And Lightning Stock Illustration ...
Credit: Dreamstime.com

This began to impact my Economics learning. Suddenly, the perfect functioning of the economy wasn’t real anymore. How can something that is proclaimed to be the exact and perfect solution to our problems sustain a world with such imperfections? How can these two realities co-exist? I then realised the Economics we were being taught was neither real, neither perfect, neither moral. Taking it back to the Taylor’s Rule, the cornerstone of economic policy, it wasn’t anymore this understand-able element. What does a natural rate of unemployment mean? Why is Economic theory based on a natural rate of unemployment (apart from the one needed to account for people trying to change jobs)? Does it mean that some people need to be unemployed so the economy sustains itself? This can further be associated with the neoliberal Walrasian Equilibrium notion where the market is in itself efficient and self-sufficient. When studying Macroeconomics 2 you learn the natural rate of unemployment is the rate at which the real wage in wage setting equals the real wage implied by price setting. This directly translates to the notion that if the market is to be sustained by supply and demand rules, people are going to be left out of having a job, a salary, and the means necessary to uphold a decent life. It further continues with the principle ‘The lower the unemployment rate is, the higher are the wages’. This, if analysed just translates to the notion ‘that the larger the unemployed pool is, the more desperate they are, and hence, the lower we can pay them.’

These premises were taught in class as notions that cannot be discussed or put to question, as they are the basis to our economic science, and taught as fixed theories as if it were Physics or Chemistry. Neoliberal economics are elements that need to be challenged, as most of these principles, based on perfect ideals, can, and do cause irreparable harm if put into practice.

I have only started to question these beliefs due to my International Development modules and the knowledge they imparted. Being able to study the effects of economic policy made me able to question economic policy, and the effects it caused in not only developing, but also developed countries, all over the World. The necessity to impart different academic aspects into University is crucial if wanting to acquire students with a critical and thorough vision of what they have studied.

Academia and activism: a student’s story

“I studied International Development with Spanish”. The sentence that often requires a deep inhale prior to saying it and tends to lead to blank faces and a polite smile. Admittedly, I had no idea that my degree existed before I found it a few months before applying. I also had no idea that I would graduate with this degree let alone with a concept of myself being an activist. This thought bubble is a journey through my 3 years of studying, campaigning and volunteering. I suppose having just graduated my thoughts have turned to reflections on how my degree was taught, what activism means and the links and contrasts between academia and activism. I’ll write a bit about these reflections and my experiences and will hopefully convey why the question “What did you do at uni?” could have a sentence long, or day long, answer. 

University of Sussex campus, the place where a lot of these thoughts and reflections started

I left school with the thought that university wasn’t for me as I hadn’t come across a course that I thought would interest me for 3 years and I didn’t like the idea of getting in debt for the sake of it. I was, and still am, interested in so many different things and did not want to narrow down and focus on one subject. When I found International Development at Sussex it seemed to be a varied option that would suit me. I remember looking at the module list choices for the course and thinking that each one of them looked so interesting I wouldn’t know how to choose (I now always would advise to-be students to do the ‘does the module list look exciting’ test before applying to anything). Broadly speaking, I studied anything related to how the world has changed, is changing, and could be changed. And since it is called International Development, different aspects of the course could be related to anywhere on the planet and any of its inhabitants. Critical thinking and taking a holistic approach was a theme throughout most modules but each module had multiple different contexts, opinions, theories, examples and angles to consider the content from. My modules have included studying the history and legacy of colonialism, environmental perspectives of development, theories of race and ethnicity, international education, research methods and development economics. Due to this wonderful buffet of options, I think the course and its mix of topics about people and places could be used in so many scenarios. Recently, I have come to realise how well matched studying International Development is with involvement in activism.

Alongside the course, I joined the Sweatshop Free Campaign which aimed to raise awareness of workers’ rights abuses in the electronics industry and get Sussex to affiliate to a worker led monitoring organisation called Electronics Watch (which they did-yay!). I also co-founded SEASALT Housing Co-operative, the first student housing co-operative in the South, and have gained a lot of skills and knowledge in the housing sector, particularly community led housing. These activities have been referred to as activism and I’ve come to see them as such.  Before University I had always been active in writing to my MP, joining initiatives and voicing concerns but had never thought of the word activism to describe this. I think all too often the word activism is overshadowed by radical activism or direct action and stereotypes take over. This certainly is a respectable type of activism but I sometimes feel like it dominates people’s minds about what activism is and sometimes even scares people off. To me, activism is simply being active and acting about things that matter to you no matter how you do it. I suppose I have reached this conclusion since being called an activist and these voluntary roles being called activism. If I were to say to people that I was involved with activism at university, I doubt the emailing and formal meetings necessary for the Sweatshop Free campaign and planning application proof reading necessary for the Housing Co-operative would spring to mind. Without going too much on a tangent about activism, the point I’m trying to get across is that I feel the term itself is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Acknowledging the wider umbrella of what falls under activism is really important and activism should be used as an inclusive term for active actions that may not be action packed- but still create an impact.

SEASALT Housing Co-operative banner at an event

So for me, being at university wasn’t just the course, it was also these activist activities, extra lecture series, and societies. It was having the space to think about, talk about and read about the world and people around us. I joined the campaign and the Housing Co-operative primarily to gain some new skills and meet new people. Only during the last few months have I come to appreciate quite how much I learnt from them and quite how relevant they have been for studying International Development and vice versa. To go back to the analogy of the International Development course being like a buffet, I suppose the involvement in the activist areas feel like the crockery and cutlery. They help the food-the thoughts, knowledge, analysis, critical thinking, be used and organised. And just like a buffet without food, my experiences and knowledge gained in the activist roles would be less wholesome without the course. This analogy is perhaps a slight exaggeration but the sentiment is there. Now that I’m applying to jobs I really see that the academic side of university and the activist side complement each other. 

When thinking about how this has occurred, sometimes it is a chicken-or-the-egg situation- I can’t discern which came first, academia or activism. And other times it’s a scrambled egg situation- I can’t discern whether the ingredients were academia or activism. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the clarity is lost on the details because the mutual usefulness and value is clear. For example, during academic studies, I have been particularly interested and passionate about participatory development as an approach and have enjoyed it when modules have touched on this. Outside of campus, as part of SEASALT Housing Co-operative, I have received training in, and participated in, community engagement and consensus decision making. I feel that this practical, hands on involvement has given me some tools to implement and visualise how participatory development approaches could be enacted, but this is closely entwined with the knowledge and understanding gained from the lecture theatre and readings. In fact, my interest in participatory development and autonomous grassroots organisations sparked from academic study may be why the co-operative sector particularly caught my curiosity in the first place.

Another example is that during the Sweatshop Free campaign I sometimes took a step back to question if what we were doing was the best approach and had appropriate, targeted outcomes. Pre-University me would have probably got on board with a campaign for workers’ rights without really thinking about the impacts or complexities of the issue and just assuming it to be ‘right’. I was slightly naïve and lacked a lot of insight about what lies under the world’s surface- I had never properly studied colonialism before for example (which as a British citizen, I am still shocked that up until the age of 20 I could name more famous Tudors than Countries in the former British empire). Student and graduate me sees these issues with a more nuanced and critical mind-set. The passion for issues related to workers’ rights has remained, but what has changed is my realisation that nothing is as obvious as it may seem and most issues don’t have quick, easy fixes. Studying International Development therefore encouraged me to look at the campaign from different angles and step back to ask questions. My involvement in the campaign later also influenced me to write a dissertation about Electronics Watch in a 3rd year module called Business, Development and Corporate social responsibility. That dissertation was the first time in the course I had linked activism and academia and it was a really interesting piece of work to write and I would argue that academic knowledge is valuable in activism. I analysed the Electronics Watch model using academic literature but also touched on aspects of the campaigns and activism to encourage affiliation.  

Sussex Sweatshop Free banner at freshers’ fair

International Development as a course was therefore successful in increasing understanding, awareness and knowledge about an array of topics, people, places, ideas and theories. It engaged with case studies and made students think critically. However, I think there were some missed opportunities to integrate practical, creative skills and alternatives to teaching and learning. As the above examples from my experiences hopefully suggest, academia and activism go well together and influence each other. Seminars often revolved closely around discussing readings and the contents of the lecture which is interesting, but moving beyond gaining knowledge to learning how to apply it would make some modules far more relevant to the world beyond academia. I always enjoyed learning about case studies where the norm was broken and the unexpected happened, and learning in situations where the norm was broken. Within practical and creative activities, I think it is important to relate academia with lived experiences of students to make it feel relevant and to avoid perpetuating issues sometimes found in development. For example, we were once asked in seminar to write what we would include in an educational curriculum for a country that most of us had never been to. Although the activity was arguably practical and creative, it would have been far more appropriate to talk about countries we had some familiarity with. This would have applied academic knowledge to lived experiences and avoided a subconscious sense that knowledge gained at a Western institution is more important than hearing the lived experiences of people in the country in question. I recognised and appreciated when modules were taught in creative ways, going further than just discussing academic literature with a list of questions and pushing us to be creative in our responses too. The idea of creative universities and taking a good look at how social sciences are taught at universities is overdue and will only improve what and how students learn.

Learning about such examples and in innovative ways also plays into the idea of ‘critical hope’, which I think is essential in International Development. Critical thinking is really important but sometimes it is easy to criticise, evaluate and overthink to a point where you feel you’re verging on entering a pit of despair and having an existential crisis. By learning that there are alternatives, innovative models and approaches and learning some tools to see how these could work is vital. With a focus on hope, being critical is conducive to finding an outcome rather than being critical for critique’s sake. My involvement in activist work has hugely helped with learning tangible techniques and gaining experience relevant to the course but also the course has helped me engage better with activism. I leave Sussex with optimism about the future and an appreciation of the different aspects of my education. I leave with an identity as both an activist and a graduate and will carry my critical thinking glasses wherever I go. And these glasses are probably the reason why I think there is scope to improve and broaden the societal concept of activism, the joining of activism and academia and the course itself. I also leave Sussex with a potentially lengthy answer to “What did you do at Uni?” which often leads to blank face and polite smiles.