Everyday & radical creativity

This representation of the analytical (left) and creative (right) brain is common but things are much less clearcut.

With the title of my book being Creative Universities, what do I actually mean by creativity? A voluminous academic and popular literature exists that seeks to define this complex and context-specific phenomenon, with its intellectual, emotional, practical and ethical aspects. In spite of this multidimensionality, there are a few commonly-cited characteristics of creativity: originality, curiosity, playfulness, divergent thinking, risk-taking, open-ness to new experiences and an ability to tolerate ambiguity and accept uncertainty.

In education, many people agree that teaching and learning are inherently creative processes, even though they might not be recognized or acknowledged as such. There are instead increasing demands from policy makers to bring more creativity into education in general and into HE in particular. These demands are usually connected to education’s contribution to national growth and economic competitiveness, often in the context of the creative industries. Another aim of creativity in education is to fully develop students’ personal potentials and to prepare them for a rapidly changing workplace. For example, Jackson Norman, founder of the Creative Academic Network, argues that ‘an education system that does not commit to the development and recognition of learners as whole, imaginative and creative beings is not enabling them to prepare themselves for a future that none of us can imagine.’ In my book, I am not looking at these economic and individual aspects of creativity but at how a socially-oriented creativity in especially the social sciences can contribute to addressing global challenges. For this, I distinguish everyday and radical creativity from its elite and instrumentalist counterparts.

Elite definitions attribute creativity to either exceptionally gifted individuals or base it on exceptional outputs, achieved through a combination of hard work and the right context, that are recognized by experts. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is sometimes cited as a proponent of this circumscribed definition of creativity. By contrast, I work with a definition of everyday creativity that is latent in everyone, meaning that everybody has creative capacities that can be developed. Ruth Richards, for example, has shown that originality is found across diverse activities of everyday life, where individuals constantly have to adapt, innovate, be flexible and try out new ideas. What matters is both process and product. According to Ken Robinson, creativity can operate on several levels: from individual creativity expressed in practices that are new for an individual, to social creativity that results in novelty for a particular group of people, to historical creativity that takes humankind and history as its point of reference. It is the later version of creativity that most closely corresponds to elite conceptions, often found in artistic or scientific breakthroughs. Alongside these, everyday creativity celebrates the creative achievements of individuals in the context of their own lives. Correspondingly, Robinson defines creativity as ‘imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.’

In education, everyday creativity is often connected to pioneers in alternative and child-centered education such as John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner and Johan Pestalozzi, who argued that education should draw out the inborn abilities of each child. In the context of adult education, Paolo Freire, whose critical pedagogy is significant for my own critical-creative pedagogy, showed the importance of education engaging people’s natural artistic and creative expressions and harnessing these for personal and social change. More recently, the Creative Academic initiative has identified being imaginative (moving beyond the immediate, obvious, conventional), original (adding to what already exists), exploratory (being open, experimental and flexible), analytical (thinking critically about new ideas) and communicative (often through story telling or visual means) as key aspects of pedagogical creativity. David Staley, in his proposal for ‘feasibly utopian universities,’ argues that creativity entails looking at things from multiple perspectives. This includes mashing up disparate ideas coming from different domains, making unusual and surprising connections across different areas or putting unrelated things together. Similarly, for Ken Robinson, it is about the transfer of knowledge from familiar to unfamiliar domains and the ‘ability to leap out of familiar habits into new idea spaces.’ Such domain bridging can be nurtured in students, all of whom have everyday creative capabilities, even though mainstream education often works against their development. It is important to make creative education inclusive and accessible to different learners, so as to enable all students to participate in creative activities.

Another common definition of creativity I am writing against is the instrumentalist version that connects it to economic competition and corporate growth. Rob Pope, in his far-reaching book on creativity, argues that this narrow conception of creativity emerged in a particular time and place – the mid 20th century West – as a modern response to problems associated with rapid social and technological change. Here creativity aims to bring about scientific discoveries and technological inventions in the service of capital; indeed Pope calls this instrumentalist creativity ‘one of the most prized commodities of capitalism.’ It has led to a human-resources view of creativity in universities, connected to employability, managerial and corporate agendas. Pope presents the 1999 publication The Creative Age: Knowledge and Skills for the New Economy by Kimberley Seltzer and Tom Bentley as a prime example of this approach. The report’s authors argue that ‘to realise the creative potential of all citizens and to boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy, we must make radical changes to the education system.’ Instrumentalist creativity in universities is therefore employment-oriented, economy-driven and governed by market logics, which connects it to current critiques of the neoliberalization of universities.

Against this instrumentalist notions of creativity I follow Sarah Amsler in arguing for radical creativity that works outside of mainstream growth agendas. It can be harnessed to imagine and work towards a number of alternatives I am exploring in the different chapters of my book, which are presenting more radical, heterodox proposals to address current social, economic and environmental challenges. I believe that nurturing students’ creativity and imagination is vital if they are to participate in realizing these proposals. As mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead wrote almost 100 years ago:

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful. . . . A university which fails to impart information imaginatively has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.

‘The Aims of Education’

A different kind of theory

What do we see in winter trees – negative or positive spaces?

I have been working on the theoretical framework for my critical-creative pedagogy. Once again, I find myself drawing on Gibson-Graham’s writings in their book Postcapitalist Politics, where they interrogate contemporary (leftist) theorizing about capitalism and neoliberalism to argue for a different kind of theory that can better support the emergence of alternatives. Following their lead, I develop a theory that at the moment goes by a number of possible names: capacious/expansive/generous/generative/reparative.

I fully agree with Gibson-Graham’s observation that ‘we are trained to be discerning, detached and critical so that we can penetrate the veil of common understanding and explore the root causes and bottom lines that govern the phenomenal world. This academic stance means that most theorizing is tinged with scepticism and negativity, not a particularly nurturing environment for hopeful, inchoate experiments’ (618, all quotes are taken from this GG article). More specifically, and drawing on Eve Sedgewick, Walter Benjamin and Saul Newman, Gibson-Graham find the sources of such negative theorizing in academic paranoia that is all-knowing to protect itself against surprises, in melancholia that looks back towards certainties, and in moralism that aims for the purity of powerlessness. Taken together, these practices ‘render the world effectively uncontestable,’ which also forecloses the possibility to develop any kind of credible alternatives.

To develop their own alternative theorizing, Gibson-Graham draw on Sedgewick’s writing on weak theory that supports rather than discredits the emergence of alternatives. In contrast to strong theory that dismisses experimental or alternative practices as always already co-opted, tainted or inadequate, which in turn reinforces dominant political-economic structures, weak theory adopts a beginner’s mind that refuses to know too much. It has a reduced reach, localized purview, attenuated explanations to create spaciousness into which possibilities can grow, rather than foreclose them from the outset with overwhelming or destructive critique. Such weak theory is undertaken with a ‘reparative motive that . . . cares for the new’ (619).

Because I don’t really like the connotations of weak, I am exploring different terms for my theoretical approach. I like reparative in reference to a theory that seeks to repair rather than discard, that is about diagnosing problems, failings, punctures etc and then taking a partial, humble but proactive approach to addressing them. It is not about grand, absolute or technical solutionism but about finding work arounds, accommodations, fixes, however incomplete and imperfect they may be. I also like generous or expansive because this theory has an experimental and open stance, an attention to multiplicity and ambiguity. It seeks connections and collaborations. It is willing to consider rather than judge, interested in building rather than tearing down. It embraces the unexpected and celebrates surprise. And I like generative because it is about creating something, imaging and working towards new possibilities.

Whether to practice reparative/generous/generative theory is not only a pedagogical decision but also ‘a political/ethical decision that influences what kinds of worlds we can imagine and create, ones in which we enact and construct’ (619). It is a commitment to being willing to become a condition of possibility rather than impossibility, to use academic practices to nurture the experimental, to support the new and to care for the emerging. It does not mean suspending critique, but to put it second-place. But it also does not mean to deny or ignore the existence of oppressive and exploitative systems and structures that work against the realization of possibilities. Rather, an alternative theory ‘simply encourages us to deny these forces as fundamental, structural, or universal reality and to instead identify them as contingent outcomes of ethical decisions, political projects, and sedimented localized practices,’ as Gibson-Graham put it in their own explorations of Postcapitalist Politics.

If, after reading this, you have any suggestions of which of my three or four terms works best, please let me know. Thank you!

New academic subjects

This tapestry in my office keeps reminding me of the richness of academic work

I have been working on a draft of the book’s first chapter, which explores different strands of critical and decolonial pedagogy and how they relate to the critical-creative pedagogy I am developing. As I am writing, I keep coming back to what kind of educators or indeed academics would be interested in teaching in a critically hopeful way, which I want to explore in this post.

This book journey really started when I first read Gibson-Graham’s article on ‘performative practices for other worlds,’ when I was still working in Auckland. I was immediately struck by the article’s hopefulness coming from their advocacy for a ‘reparative, non-judgemental affective stance that might enable us to inhabit a diverse . . . landscape of possibility.’ This deeply resonated with the kind of academic I wanted to be, although finding that identity was not easy. I had been disciplined in the highly competitive and critical intellectual climate of the Anthropology department at UC Berkeley, by supervisors steeped in post-structuralist theory. I therefore could relate to Gibson-Graham’s observation that ‘at present we are trained to be discerning, detached and critical so that we can penetrate the veil of common understanding and expose the root causes and bottom lines that govern the phenomenal world. This academic stance means that most theorizing is tinged with skepticism and negativity, not a particularly nurturing environment for hopeful, inchoate experiments.’ To move away from this scepticism asks that we occupy not only a different stance vis-a-vis theory but also a different academic identity, one that is not uncritical, but less critical and more affirmative. It is about not knowing beforehand whether experiments will fail but holding spaces of possibility open long enough for them to have a change to germinate and maybe grow.

Working in a small Development Studies postgraduate program at the University of Auckland, I increasingly found myself wanting to critique less and create more. My journey was slow, but as Sarah Amsler, whose work on the pedagogies of possibility has been another source of inspiration, reminds us in this paper: ‘it is legitimate to dreams in steps rather than leaps.’ To me this means that we can undergo personal and professional transformations at our own pace, as long as we don’t stand still or go backwards. Amsler elaborates that ‘rethinking the meaning of the higher educator may require the unlearning of traditional approaches to theoretisation which privilege performativity over humble co-operation, abstraction over praxis, individual knowing over collective learning, and monological solution-given over dialogical inquiry.’ It demands a substantial change in how we think about what we do as academics: how we teach, with whom we conduct research and how we relate to colleagues, professional staff, students and the world beyond the academy. For me these changes have mostly happened in the classroom, as I have moved away from standard lectures and seminar discussions to introduce the creative, interactive and experiential activities that are at the heart of my book.

Such changes take courage, as we open ourselves up to discomfort, critique and the possibility of rejection or failure. Indeed, courage is one of the words used by all educators writing about transformational teaching, including Paolo Freire, the Brazilian humanist educator. He reflected on the fear that gives rise to such courage and what both might be signs of: ‘ the more you recognize your fear as a consequence of your attempt to practice your dream, the more you learn how to put into practice your dream!’ In his Letters to Those who Dare to Teach, Freire also emphasized the importance of teachers’ humility grounded in respect for self and others, self-confidence, a renunciation of fatalism, and above all persistence to always ‘begin anew, to make, to reconstruct, and not to spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind.’ Making and reconstruction, rather than just critical deconstruction, are important ingredients of a critical-creative pedagogy.

Of course, none of these practices are happening in a vacuum, and in the UK we work in a highly neoliberalized and managerialized university system. I have also written previously about my particular location at the University of Sussex, with its performative radicalism. So where are the possible spaces for actions within these institutions, or as Boaventura de Sousa Santos put it, how do we teach revolutionary ideas in reactionary institutions? At Sussex, academics still have much freedom in designing our own courses (or modules as they are called here), with only a short form to fill out to show Learning Outcomes and assessment information and approval given by sympathetic managers at the school level. This translates into openings into which we can insert creative and subversive practices, and while I was heading up the International Development department, I very much encouraged the teaching of critical hope among colleagues. As I will show in my book, this has led to many experiments in our collective teaching with the aim to unsettle, provoke and disrupt, with enthusiastic reactions from (most) students. Enacting these hopeful academic subjectivities, however cautious they might be, will always be fraught with contradictions and ambiguities, as is any working from within the belly of the beast. But we can also think of these as forms of prefigurative politics within the academy, where we enact in the here and now the visions we have for the future.

If you are interested in reading how all of this might look in practice before my book comes out, here is a bravely reflexive account by Wendy Harcourt at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, chronicling her redesign – very much in the spirit of a critical-creative pedagogy – of a flagship MA course around postdevelopment and the reactions of staff and students to it. I took much heart from one of the student comments she received: ‘you can’t imagine how students treasure the professors willing to take the kind of risks you take.’ Enjoy the read!

The Sussex Spirit?

Opening page of the Sussex 2025 Strategic Framework document

I have undertaken most of the empirical research for my book at Sussex University, where I have been working since 2014. In this post, I want to unpack this particular academic location a bit more.

The University of Sussex, a public university just outside Brighton, was founded in 1961 as the first of the new or ‘plate glass’ universities set up by the UK government after WWII. The term was coined by Michael Beloff in reference to the new architectural style of these universities –  using steel and glass rather than red brick and a traditional Oxbridge look. The Sussex University design by Sir Basil Spence (who incidentally also designed the new Coventry Cathedral after the original was destroyed during a massive Nazi air raid in 1940 and the Beehive, the seat of the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington) was  inspired by the beauty of the surrounding South Downs National Park  (which also makes Sussex the only UK university to be located in a National Park). It was more of a combination of the old and new as many of the university’s buildings are dominated by red brick (now mainly greyed by age and pollution), with the initial buildings organized around a  central quadrangle with modernist arches. Today, while students might still appreciate the modernist architecture, they mainly get lost in the mazes that have been purposely designed in many buildings.

What was new about Sussex was its break with academic traditions through progressive and interdisciplinary teaching, materializing in a school system that was unique for the times. Sussex also developed a reputation for student radical activism, supporting anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam war struggles (including a group of students preventing then government advisor Samuel Huntington from speaking on campus in 1973 and throwing red paint over a visiting US diplomat). Closer to home, student dissatisfaction was manifested through boycotts of assessments as a form of social control, student protests, (rent) strikes and the periodic occupations of administrative buildings, as chronicled by Ed Goddard, a Sussex alum. Students also enjoyed concerts by legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. The forerunner to the School of Global Studies, where I teach, was AFRAS (School of African and Asian Studies), which became known for challenging existing ideas around race and gender, hosting scholars and activists from global South and counting among its alumni activists such as Helen Pankhurst.

In the late 1960s, the United Nations asked a team of experts at Sussex for science policy recommendations, resulting in what became known as the Sussex Manifesto, which was deemed as too radical to become the foreword for the UN World Plan of Action for Science and Technology in Development. It nevertheless influenced UN thinking around this confluence and was used for teaching courses in universities in the Global North and South. Forty years later, a new Manifesto was issued as the result of collaborations between academics at SPRU, IDS and Global Studies, all of which are contributing to Sussex being repeatedly ranked first in the world for Development Studies. In 2018, the university divested from fossil fuel investments after a long Student Union campaign and last year it declared a climate emergency.

If that sounds too much like all is good at Sussex, it is because it isn’t. The current Vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell, became known as the ‘neoliberal beast’ during the first wave of staff pension strikes in 2018, when he was the only vc to openly side with the UUK, which was also in contrast to his former much more critical academic views on neoliberalism. Sussex became a hotspot of protests during that strike and the most recent ones and many students supported striking faculty members. The university’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science continues to be funded by fortunes made from the opioid epidemic, and a domestic violence case involving a staff member and his doctoral supervisee was initially handled in grossly inadequate ways. More generally, the Changing University Cultures report commissioned by Tickell in 2017 speaks of the performance of activism and shows the persistence of structural inequalities around race, gender and sexuality, institutional privilege and deep divisions between staff and senior management at Sussex. Still, the university’s strategic vision for the future, called Sussex 2025, wants to harness the ‘pioneering spirit’ of Sussex, however superficial this might be.

As part of this, the university has launched a management-driven Pedagogic Revolution that is more style than substance at the moment. Still, there are interesting teaching initiatives on campus such as the Active Learning Network and a great number of passionate and committed educators, many of whom I am lucky to work with in the International Development department and who have inspired my own teaching and this book. Working out the extent to which such individual, smaller-scale initiatives can have a meaningful impact on transformative teaching will be an important part of my writing. Here, I am guided by the wise words of fellow anthropologist Margaret Mead:

never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens [educators] can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.

Where am I coming from

I first started using this map when we moved to NZ and had to show our kids where that was

In my first post, I wrote about my teaching experiences that inspired me to write Creative Universities. Here I want to write about some more personal adventures that have nourished my interest in alternative futures.

I grew up in former East Germany, in a small town 20 km from Weimar, the birthplace of the Bauhaus. Its radical experiments in education have been informing my own interest in arts-and-design based education. Weimar was also home to many German writers, musicians and artists and in school, we studied Goethe’s Faust from cover to cover. Much less enlightened, you can see the Glockenturm of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp from Weimar. I left home about six months before the Wall came down in November 1989; what has stayed with me from this upbringing is a skepticism of all state-sponsored socialist projects, a yearning for travel that has since brought me to all corners of the world and an affinity for repairing things (since that is what everybody did in a place where new things were hard to come by). I was therefore particularly excited when a repair cafe opened in my home town a few months ago, where I volunteer once a month.

A gap year in Montreal turned into Canada becoming my second home for 10 years. During that time I also discovered Latin America and anthropology. For my undergraduate and MA studies I conducted research in Northwestern Argentina, with traditional healers and a community of Kollas, an indigenous peoples who were fighting for the restitution of their lands. Learning about indigenous ways of thinking and being has become an enduring interest in Latin American alternatives, as for example articulated in the work of Arturo Escobar.

Upon finishing my PhD, which had brought me to the San Francisco Bay Area at the height of the dotcom bubble with its techno evangelism and rampant greed, and attempting the impossible task of surviving on short-term contract teaching and research for a few years whilst raising a family, we packed up and moved to New Zealand. It allowed me to re-connect with some of my German roots when our kids attended a local Steiner school with its child-centered and arts-based philosophy. I also discovered the power of Māori and Pacific culture, which furthered my interest in indigenous cosmologies and plurality. Swapping the sunny beaches in Auckland for the grey coast of South-east England has now brought me to Lewes, a town where Thomas Paine first developed his revolutionary ideas.

It is from all of these sources, travels and experiences that I draw in my work. I hope to do all of them, and the amazing people that have been accompanying me along my journey, justice in my writing.

The Journey Begins

I have been teaching in the field of Global Development for the past 15 years, beginning as a Teaching Assistance for Michael Watts at his Introduction to Development and Underdevelopment course back in 1999, when I started my own PhD in Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Ten years later I joined the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a small postgraduate program under the welcoming directorship of Yvonne Underhill-Sem. It was here, teaching primarily Kiwi, Pacific and Asian students, that I first heard students talk about their disillusionment with our critical take on international development, which left them with little to no hope to realize their desire to make the world a better place through working in the field. Granted, I knew already that the field was deeply problematic and that many of the students’ desires were build on naive assumptions whose realization had often brought the students to our program in the first place. But as an educator committed to transformational teaching the reaches beyond the classroom, I could not help but feeling that something was amiss.

This continued after I joined Sussex University in the UK in 2014, in the International Development department which has a large undergraduate program as well as several MA courses and a thriving PhD community. Especially as Head of Department for three years, I had many more conversations with students and colleagues, which clarified my thoughts on the importance of educating students around the idea of ‘critical hope’ – a combination of critical analysis of the international development regime and its historical and current inequities and of informed awareness of existing alternatives within and without this system to guide students in imagining and working towards alternative futures.

Creative Universities: Reimagining Education for Alternative Futures, which I will be writing over the next year, is the result of this 20 year journey, showing how I, and many of my colleagues, have put teaching critical hope into practice in the classroom.

Thank you for reading this blog!