Challenging Creativity: A Critical Pedagogy of Narrative Interpretation.
The interdisciplinarity of creativity research in academia has lent itself to a proliferation of inchoate ideas, definitions, and arguments, and yet, curiously, within the public sphere "creativity" is often promoted as a socio-economic panacea, a word with power enough to heal us of the fractious vicissitudes of modern life. In the face of widespread precarious employment with which our graduating students must now contend--employment that is insecure, temporary, seasonal, contracted, lacking benefits--workers' creativity is typically celebrated as a means of negotiating the new neoliberal norm. (1) In Ontario, the recent mandate of the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (2) emphasizes its role in support of "a dynamic business climate that thrives on innovation, creativity and partnership" (2014 Mandate Letter). Likewise, the Ministry of Education's report, Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario, repeatedly calls for "increase[d] training in innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship" for secondary students (3, 6, 7). Unsurprisingly, this vision echoes economist Thomas Friedman's pedagogical imperative in a New York Times op-ed column almost word for word: the education system must teach "entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity," so as to engender a class of creative "untouchables" who have the requisite imagination to do old jobs in smarter ways ("The New Untouchables"). For many in the humanities, these more-or-less explicit ties between creativity and capital are suspect. In literary studies, we often see our role as filling out a vanguard of social critique, and we view our subject matter--the creative texts themselves--as the vehicles of such critique. Suddenly, our own pedagogical obligations come into question. How can literary educators teach modes of creativity that prepare students for their contemporary context without also tacitly endorsing the precarious world they are inheriting?
The subsumption of creativity into corporatist discourse is, certainly, nothing new. In 2003, for example, the City of Toronto published its Culture Plan for the Creative City, in which it promoted creative culture as essential to the economic health of the city (5). Citing a study prepared by economist Richard Florida and Meric Gertler (now President of the University of Toronto) for the Ontario Ministry of Enterprise, Opportunity, and Innovation, the report is founded on the premise that "arts and culture, ethnic diversity and cultural openness act as magnets to draw high-technology industries and spur economic growth" (9-10). In other words, creativity services the progress of capital. One might be tempted by such an equation, for it explicitly suggests that the creative worker and her concomitant creative acts have value and are valued by society; still, what's missing from this optimistic reading is that to transform the creative moment into a moment of economic value is also to reimagine creativity quite restrictively. Creativity becomes, in this sense, work, but more perniciously, in the discourse espoused by those such as Florida, creativity--in its Romantic connotations of flexibility, individuality, and self-direction--becomes the servant of neoliberal policy, "a fantasy of labour. ... the possibility within capitalism of work without exploitation" (Szeman 29). That is to say, to promote an amorphous form of creativity as the model of labour and essence of economic value in the twenty-first century is to more subtly transform creativity into its opposite--a sign of complicity within a given system.
In its contemporary ubiquity, creativity has become a paradoxical signifier of neoliberal conformity. "Creative work," according to Sarah Brouillette, "tends to be figured contradictorily by creative-economy rhetoric, as at once newly valuable to capitalism and romantically honorable and free" (4). Further, creative-economy discourse tends to divorce creativity from social responsibility through
its treatment of self-realization as a process that can occur in the absence of any judgment about the impact of one's work on society; ... its stigmatization of collective politics and workers' interdependence; its lionization of an elite cadre of creative innovators and sidelining or outright omission of industrial, service, and manual labor; and its insistence that the individual worker shoulder the burden of establishing a secure future. (82)
Indeed, in the midst of the "creative turn" of the new century, it is incumbent upon humanities educators to teach not simply the value of creativity but also the consequences of creativity: the ways creative work can both challenge and be co-opted by the systems through which it operates, the ways our contemporary rhetoric of creativity may occlude specific interests, and the ways creativity's multiple meanings have real stakes in the world beyond the classroom.
To move beyond the dominant and conspicuously mythologized notion of creativity as a means by which to produce employee excellence in the current economy, what Julie Blake references as the "darker implications" of creative-economy discourse (103), it is necessary to challenge the easily digestible definitions of creativity as the production of valuable novelty and the creative virtuoso as the model of a new socio-ethical imperative. Because such theoretical paradigms situate the creative act against a market-oriented backdrop, there is, unfortunately, no room for students "to use their creativity to question the economic or political foundations of society" (Blake 105). As Brouillette argues, psychological theories of creativity have historically worked hand in hand with creative-economy discourse, implementing a vision of the artist as the ideal creative type-not on account of her creativity per se but because imprecise ideals of radically individualized expression, inspired genius, and singular production serve to constitute "models of good work as a flexible and self-sufficient enterprise averse to social responsibility, human interdependence, and collective politics" (56). Thus, if we are to retain the potential value of creativity in the classroom as something more than a mere handmaiden to neoliberal models of production, educators must consciously and consistently reframe creativity in terms that do not automatically construe our students as unwitting subjects.
Given creativity's absorption and mutation within public life, I focus here on the ways we might reimagine creativity in the humanities classroom, generally, and within the literary and narrative classrooms, specifically. One less-than-ideal solution would be to reassert the common claim that, in the face of a dominant socio-economic discourse that interprets human action only in terms of its use or usefulness to the system, we ought to privilege literary learning as a "specific and valuable sort of uselessness" (Laurence 4). The premise, here, is that to effect a radical separation of the humanities from larger systemic forces is to undermine the very rhetoric of use--a rhetoric that has, in the recent past, minimized the value of the humanities in public life and simultaneously sought to co-opt it into the service of a skills-based economy. However, such clarion calls, uplifting as they might be, also do real harm. Thomas P. Miller and Brian Jackson, for instance, suggest that such formulations "seem calculated to make them less appealing to working-class students, who may be more vocationally-minded" (694). This class critique, although underdeveloped, is nonetheless salient. By wholly distancing our discipline from questions of use, we risk alienating those students who--very reasonably--would avoid studying in an area that could not clearly communicate any tangible or practical benefits. While I certainly am of the mind that literary study can enrich our lives in myriad ways, the argument of valuable uselessness only obscures our contributions to public life, reproducing a certain rhetorical impenetrability rather than communicating our intensive engagement with creativity itself.
Whereas promoting the uselessness of the humanities risks leading us back into the thick of old culture wars, we might instead reinterpret our disciplines as the loci of creativity. As Brian Boyd asserts, "we need to understand the arts in particular in terms of the creativity of the past and of the creativity it can engender in the present, in our own responses to the past and the present" (585). Boyd's redefinition of our work in the arts is advantageous for two key reasons: first, he recognizes that creativity does not exist in a vacuum--that our new world is built upon past innovation; secondly, Boyd focuses on the importance of response. The creative act is incomplete without response, without the interaction of human minds. Put another way, the humanities are constitutive of creativity. Our disciplines generate their value from the ways they esteem, evaluate, and critically engage creative work. The advantage of framing our position in this way is that it posits our work in conversation--rather than at odds--with other discourses of creativity.
Acts of literary response--of critique, of interpretation, of analysis, of understanding--are not secondary to creativity but, rather, are essential to it. When we teach, we are not teaching a form of rosy uselessness: we are modeling a form of rigorous creativity potentially more useful than those communicated to us in management theory and "government diktats about education" (Blake 104). We teach, in other words, the necessity of defining creativity as critical:
Art holds our attention, not in ways that guide immediate action, but in ways that help us learn to cope with its high and often rapidly shifting patterns of information ... The play-like compulsiveness of the arts, their capacity to engage our attention, and their rapid modulation of high-density patterns of information make them one of our humanely natural ways of amplifying the power of our minds to learn and strategize how to handle information. We learn to develop the free play of mind essential to creativity and to choosing our own courses in life. (Boyd 578)
While Boyd's celebration of the arts may come close to reproducing the mythology of the artist that Brouillette warns is easily instrumentalized by creative-economy discourse, his focus on the creative audience is important. In this equation, the creative text engenders further creativity by soliciting our sustained attention, complex pattern recognition, and interpretive choice--a mode of choice that prepares us for creative engagement with the world beyond the text. Further, such creativity, as described by Boyd, cannot exist or hold any value without some type of criticality, some way of sorting and strategizing the information available to us.
Critical creativity as resistance
The problem I wish to address in this section is how one might circumscribe current definitions of creativity in ways that are ultimately pedagogically useful to literary scholars and students. Specifically, I reimagine creativity as critical in order to provide a theoretical foundation for a fresh pedagogical paradigm within narrative studies. Although there is no scholarly consensus on the definition of creativity, many researchers tend to twin the concepts of novelty and fit. Teresa Amabile, for example, describes creativity as "the production of novel, appropriate ideas in any realm of human activity" (40). For Cameron Ford it becomes "a domain-specific, subjective judgment of the novelty and value of an outcome of a particular action" (1115). Similarly, Nigel King defines "work creativity" as "the process by which an individual produces a novel and appropriate solution to a work-related problem" (83). That these definitions so clearly echo each other does not imply that the question of creativity is settled so much as it does researchers' need to categorize an object of study that proves itself especially amorphous.
In fact, as soon as creativity is understood as a mode of production essentially borne of the pairing of novelty and fit, it bows heavily under critical scrutiny. Both ideas need to be thoroughly unpacked. According to Lee David Martin, the dominant definition is problematic because it "obscures all that is unrecognised, unrealised, unexercised, and currently in potential from being considered as creative" (294). (3) Indeed, Martin's critique raises a significant question: do product-oriented definitions that rely upon "value" (such as fit, appropriateness), always already transmute creativity into the production of some form of capital? Moreover, to emphasize value is to simultaneously signal the necessity of judgment, of sorting the valuable from the valueless. This, for Martin, is a serious epistemic fallacy, for to incorporate the judgments of others into the creative act itself is to ignore the fact that creativity can exist prior to recognition--in a state of unrecognized potential (306). Although Martin's criticism bypasses the social character of creativity--the fact that even the most individual, idiosyncratic creative acts occur within a complex matrix of relationships with others and with one's socio-cultural context--his point nonetheless underscores a larger problem with the very concept of value. By constructing value as central to creativity, these dominant conceptions demarcate the creative enterprise within a consumptive domain. The creative act-as-product is suddenly reified as an exchangeable object. The language of value claims the creative moment as an inherently marketable and always already marketed product. Again, creativity risks slipping quickly into a ubiquitous corporatist discourse that ultimately reduces any potential creative challenges to the status quo.
Likewise, the question of novelty bears further scrutiny. It is one thing to claim novelty as an essential feature of creativity, but understanding firstly what counts as new, and secondly the relationship of newness to one's larger context is even more important. By imagining novelty simply as that-which-has-never-come-before (ex nihilo), one risks reproducing a very restrictive form of creativity that leads back to individualizing forms of inspired genius; in order for something to be created from nothing, the creator cannot rely upon other forms, other ideas, or other people, otherwise the creative act would come from something. On the other hand, to imagine novelty as that-which-is-built-upon-the-past (de novo), one risks falling into an epistemological trap: if newness is a refashioning of older ideas and things, the boundary between new and old, present and past, creative and constructive, turns out to be exceedingly blurry.
Although this dilemma sounds more philosophical than practical, it bears particular relevance to several key areas of creativity research and education. From a cognitive perspective, novelty is especially impossible to pin down as "the generation of novel behaviors and thoughts is a component of almost all cognitive activity (e.g. almost every sentence people speak during a day is one that they have never spoken before)" (Sawyer 151). In this case, novelty's ubiquity undermines dominant conceptions of creativity because, simply, such novelty is never inappropriate or valueless when it comes to our cognitive functioning. By the same token, theories of linguistic creativity tend to de-emphasize novelty precisely because the creative use of language is "pervasive in routine everyday practice" (Maybin and Swann 497). The paradox of routinized novelty is of limited use here; rather, it is the evaluative function of creative language that defines it as such (501). Thus, when novelty is construed as a marker of creativity, it often begets more practical imprecision than it does theoretical utility.
A turn back to literary studies, then, may not be uncalled for. In fact, Szeman's claim that "the reign of creativity ... poses challenges for the way in which theory and criticism operate today" can be read as much as a warning as a provocative call to action (33). Rather than merely reassert ourselves as the heroic vanguard of the arts--the fount from which all creativity doth flow--we might prioritize ourselves through a pedagogical practice that already has the theoretical rigour with which to contribute to the understanding of creativity. What I mean by this is that creativity, for us, is not new. Not only is "doing" creativity a part of our foundational raison d'etre, we also implicitly know that the promise of the new in art and criticism is ultimately misleading. Our persistent study of past forms and ideas and their relationship to the contemporary moment situates our engagement with creative discourse as especially fruitful, as it confronts the very language of marketability that threatens to transform scholarship into results-based inquiry. As Emmanouil Aretoulakis argues:
Newness is standardized in a market-oriented world. Even standards are standardized in such a world. Unfortunately, newness tends to become standardized in the humanities too, although one suspects it normally cannot afford to because standards pertain to the logic of calculability.... [T]o argue for newness is to appropriate the language of management and standardization in an attempt to prove that literary studies, like all other disciplines and sciences, need to exhibit measurable and calculable progress so as to continue to exist. (20)
To disconnect our discipline from the language of progress--of the ever-reaching, ever-seeking quest for the new and improved--is more than just systemic critique; rather, such separatism stakes out a rejuvenated mode of creativity founded in the capacity to revise and reread that which has come before. In fact, Aretoulakis's larger argument that literary studies ought to un-nostalgically "return to formalism" (28) draws upon a humanities-based understanding of creativity: insofar as a return to old forms of inquiry will never perfectly reproduce the past, it actually expands one's field and knowledge in non-progressive yet productive ways (28). By locating a form of creativity that is ultimately non-linear in scope, we push our students to recognize that creativity need not be premised upon the necessity of successive novelty; instead, we might envision the creative moment as always looking back, always critically engaged with past forms.
What proponents of creativity qua capital have never considered is T. S. Eliot's description of poetic creativity in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." In the 1921 essay, Eliot remarks that "tradition" is consistently misunderstood. It is not "blind or timid adherence" to the successes of the past; rather, it involves a "historical sense ... a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence" (43, 44). Further,
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.... [W]hat happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. (44)
Here Eliot reminds us, firstly, that any act of creation bears responsibility to the past. Creation in the present--aesthetic or otherwise--is something built upon. Moreover, the meaning of that creation--its value, its appreciation, its judgment--derives from its relationship with the past. Somewhat more subtly, Eliot suggests that creativity is inevitably historical and social, which is to say that the creative act is contingent upon one's critical engagement with a larger socio-cultural context. To be set "among the dead" is to recognize the very myth of individual and individuating creativity. One's act of creation is instead constituted through a much larger matrix in which the critical is as fundamental to creativity as it is inevitable.
The misidentification of creativity as a wholly individual endeavour is what makes it particularly co-optable by neoliberal models of work, models which thrive on the isolation of workers from any larger sense of belonging or responsibility to a collective. When Eliot warns us not to reduce the creative tradition into a simplistic stereotype of itself, he is also affirming the individual's place within a larger cultural context that stretches horizontally through both past and present. Just as the poet must possess a "historical sense," so too is any act of creation always already embedded within past forms. Indeed, despite a twentieth-century genealogy of creative theory that has typically centred upon the individualized, always-flexible, and virtuoso creative persona, literary modernism was already expressing its suspicion of such formulas. As Vlad Petre Glaveanu more recently has argued, the crude distinction between creativity and tradition is a "false dichotomy" (57). Not only is a sense of tradition constitutive of the creative act, it is precisely this yoking that generates the criticality that I am arguing is indispensable to a larger theory of creativity. What I mean by this is that as soon as we begin to understand tradition--and its concomitant facets of context and culture--as a generative feature of the creative act, then very quickly the necessity of response, of judgment, and of analysis becomes inseparable from creativity itself. Creativity exists in dialogue with culture, always a response to the systems that produce it and circumscribe it.
Glaveanu's insistence that creativity is a form of "cultural participation" is illuminating because he emphasizes the socio-cultural character of creative expression. Creativity is not, in this equation, the individual production of new and useful artifacts; rather, it is the engagement of people with cultural artifacts, "employing culture to generate culture" (48). Central to this social understanding is Glaveanu's concept of "audience." Whereas popular definitions of creativity imply a hard division between creatoras-active-producer and user-as-passive-consumer, Glaveanu describes creativity in terms of its relational, iterative, and interactive qualities:
[T]he creator is him/herself "audience" for all the creations of others and "audience" members become creators by using new and existing artefacts ... [C]reator, audience and creation exist and function in a socio-cultural setting described by social relations and accumulated cultural artefacts. (51)
The implications of this formula are manifold: first, the creative interaction is here refigured as a horizontal and dynamic relationship between actants rather than vertical and unidirectional; second, the creative act is always already part of a socio-cultural matrix, thus complicating the mobilization of the concept for neoliberal models of individualizing and self-motivating work; third, Glaveanu's injection of "audience" highlights the complex relationality involved in any creative act. To be a member of an audience implies both the inevitability of judgment--of criticism--and also the responsibility of participants to each other and their larger sociocultural context.
Achieving Excellence, the Ontario Ministry of Education report, insists that "creativity and critical thinking," as supplements to the more "foundational" skills in reading, writing, and mathematics, will "lead to excellence" for our students (5). What sort of excellence is never clearly stated; however, the paratactic coupling of "critical" and "creative"--occurring more than once in the document--exposes a particularly worrisome motif within popular discourses of creativity: the "and" between "critical" and "creative" implies a non-causal relationship between the two concepts; criticality and creativity may exist side by side, but they bear no further relation--one may potentially function without the other. However, what both Eliot and Glaveanu indicate through their disparate methodologies is that the critical is constitutive of creativity. Many might interpret this proposition as, at best, counterintuitive or, at worst, self-contradictory because it appears to connote limitation and constraint (as opposed to freedom and flexibility). Still, I argue that the capacity to critique one's context--to situate oneself within a socio-cultural space and produce reasoned judgments--is the origin and precondition of creative expression. And, as I hope to show in the next section, such critical creativity is a fundamental feature of the pedagogy of narrative interpretation.
Why teach narrative theory? Interpretation and discursivity
While I know that the teaching of narrative interpretation is, by most accounts, a small field within a larger domain and that certainly not all literary scholars implement the methodologies characteristic of narrative theory, my hope is that a general understanding of interpretation might galvanize a more thorough examination of our larger role in delimiting the conventional discourse of creativity. If, as I have claimed above, creativity and criticality cannot be so easily torn asunder, and in fact the critical is constitutive of creativity, then the teaching of narrative interpretation proffers a unique and productive moment in the development of students' creative competencies. Not only does the act of interpreting narrative rely, in large part, on the creation of meaning through the interaction between text and audience, it also requires--if it is to be persuasive--a fundamental knowledge of discourse and domain.
Why teach narrative theory in the literature classroom? And why might it be relevant as a hermeneutic model across a range of humanities disciplines? If people are already routinely interpreting the narratives that surround and make up their lives, already talking about and coming to conclusions about meaning, then what is the value-add of narrative theory? In Teaching Narrative Theory, David Herman, Brian McHale, and James Phelan argue that one of our main pedagogical goals must be "justification," or "the value--the productiveness for interpretation and analysis--of ideas from narrative theory" (6). While this is certainly true, we have as a scholarly body been fairly weak at communicating such justification. Indeed, we need to do more than market ourselves as "one aspect of the multiple bodies of knowledge to which [undergraduates] are being introduced through their coursework as a whole" (Herman et al. 7). Narratologist Suzanne Keen suggests that teaching narrative theory contributes to "a near-universal set of aims" all undergraduate literature teachers share:
To help students move from a synoptic mode of comment to analysis, to avoid the treatment of characters as if they were only portraits of real people, to select textual evidence that illustrates arguments (avoiding simple plot summary), to support observations about themes with accurate discussion of techniques, and to train students in the conventions of literary critical discourse. (19-20)
Without disputing these pedagogical goals in the least, I wonder if this justification of our discipline is really enough. Keen doesn't point to the value of teaching narrative theory itself, only its supplementary place within the larger field of literary studies. What's missing from such descriptions is a substantive justification that addresses not only the practical skills we offer our students but a specific pedagogical grounding that attends to our students' particular contemporary moment. In that sense, the intersection of narrative pedagogy with the so-called creative turn provides a fruitful point of departure, as narrative theory is already so intimately entwined with the study, analysis, and theory of creative texts.
In order to grasp the role of narrative pedagogy as it relates to creativity, it is first useful to consider the multiple ways in which narrative is approached by theorists. Hanna Meretoja illustrates that there are two diverging perspectives of narrative's role in the world, what can be loosely described as the epistemological and ontological views. On the one hand, the epistemological view suggests narrative is "a cognitive instrument for imposing meaningful order onto human reality or experience," that narrative is something told after experience (89); on the other, the ontological view asserts that narrative is "constitutive of human existence," that narrative is lived (89). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully tease out the intricate consequences of this issue, Meretoja's disruption of this dichotomy is revealing. Even if the world we experience is not narrative, our experiences are nonetheless always interpretive: our existence is inevitably mediated through the "signs, symbols, and texts" generated by our socio-cultural context (Ricoeur, From Text to Action 15). In other words, whether or not narrative is ultimately something told or something lived, it is always already an "interpretation of experiences which are already interpretations," what Meretoja labels "a double hermeneutic" (98). Such a turn to interpretation thus posits narrative's value as ultimately creative: "We are always already entangled in stories, weaving our personal narratives in a dialogical relation to cultural narratives, both of which are objects of constant reinterpretation" (96). The act of interpretation--both essential to and inseparable from lived experience--is thus an act of critical creativity. It comes into being as the construction and reconstruction of meaning through the responsive engagement with those narratives that already overwhelm, encircle, and mediate the subject.
Often, when we ask students to submit critical work, to interpret a text, we assume that the concept of interpretation speaks for itself, but interpretation can mean various things. For Jon Elster, interpretation is a type of explanation, a means of "proposing and verifying hypotheses about meaning" (5). John Dilworth expresses a much broader definition: "anything that does something with a content or subject matter, rather than merely reproducing it untouched" (21). Citing Hans-George Gadamer, Meretoja argues that narrative interpretation is a process of "always-understanding-differently" (100). While each of these definitions differs in both scope and specificity, they do share a common thread, namely that interpretation is structured upon a practice of creative transformation. To interpret a narrative is to be unsatisfied with the (con)text one encounters--unsatisfied not in the sense of displeasure but rather in the knowledge that unarticulated possibilities of meaning exist for the subject. It is precisely this moment of disparity that we need, as educators, both to better explain and to further encourage in our students, for it is a moment of inchoate creativity that develops through a deep and sustained immersion within one's (con) text. Nor is this creative moment ever a wholly individual enterprise, as it requires of the interpreter a thorough understanding of her encounter with the text as an encounter with otherness, that is to say, as an encounter with a text whose structure, story, and values are inevitably different from her own. While we certainly respect innovative interpretations, we must also focus our pedagogical energies on developing students' recognition and response to these narrative structures and teach them that a critical creativity always begins with a thorough awareness of the systems of meaning.
Indeed, in teaching interpretation we are teaching our students not simply to be productive innovators of the new and useful, we are teaching them, in Glaveanu's terminology, to be members of an active and creative audience, aware at once of their relationality within a system of meaning as well as of their capacity to potentially shape that system through creative action. Thus, to teach interpretation is to teach more than a set of critical skills that may or may not be useful throughout one's education. "The hermeneutic way of thinking, which stresses that interpretations have real, material, world-constituting effects," Meretoja insists, "challenges the dichotomous view that we either interpret the world or change it" (101). Creativity-through-interpretation becomes much more than mere production; it becomes a mode of narrative contestation, a recognition that changing the world always already begins with reinterpreting the structures through which it is constituted.
Returning, then, to the question of why teach narrative theory, I am arguing that narrative theory in particular offers undergraduates a clear site of practice and experimentation for systemic critique, understanding, and the creative reconstruction of meaning. This is because of our concept of discourse, a term--although certainly not exclusive to narrative--that carries great pedagogical utility in its context. One of narratology's key scholarly contributions is the distinction between story and discourse, loosely the distinction between what is told and how it is told. More specifically, story denotes "the narrated events (actions and happenings) and existents (characters and setting)," while discourse refers to "the rearrangement or treatment of the events and existents on the level of presentation" (Shen 566). Thus, to separate narrative discourse from story is to begin to teach students the ways in which narratives are composed, patterned, and empowered. To explicate discourse--to attend to it in a sustained way--is to show students how narrative generates its effects, how it solicits certain types of responses and precludes others. We are, in a word, showing students the power and functioning of narrative systems. When we introduce students to narratology's complex vocabulary--terms such as focalization, heterodiegetic narration, metalepsis, analepsis, or free-indirect style--we are offering precise domain knowledge and the language of a critical creativity whose creativity derives specifically from the potential for systemic critique. And this is exactly what the neoliberal discourse of creativity forgoes: to reductively celebrate creativity as the production of new and useful things obscures the necessity of reimagining discourse itself, of questioning the ways our socio-cultural context limits us in order to creatively revise, reframe, and refashion it.
The resemblance of narrative discourse, as an interactional system of representation, to the Foucauldian conception of discourse, as both mediating and constraining our thoughts and actions, is significant. Whereas in the classroom, students may not immediately recognize the stakes of their interpretive endeavours as they attend to narrative discourse, what they are actually doing is learning how discourse itself is mutable and manifold. As soon as students recognize that story can be represented in an infinite number of ways, and that changes in discourse (say, the choice between hetero- or homodiegetic narration) inevitably affect narrative meaning, they similarly begin to recognize that narrative itself is a form of interpretation, a patterning of content that reveals not only the power but permeability of discourse.
Fostering this sense of discursivity, then, ought to always be a fundamental pedagogical impulse in the development of critical creativity. In fact, Rodney H. Jones argues that "interdiscursivity," by which he means the recontextualization of meaning through competing forms of discourse, is the key to creativity. Specifically analyzing forms of linguistic creativity, Jones asserts that
Attention to interdiscursivity allows us to make the link between specific texts in specific contexts and the societies and cultures in which they are produced and consumed. It helps us to uncover how ideology operates in the ways we use language, and how by creating new interdiscursive links, speakers and writers can sometimes reveal the cracks in the operation of ideology. Finally, it reminds us that creativity involves not just the creation of novel texts and intertexts, but of novel interdiscourses and thus, new ways of speaking, thinking and being.... Creativity is to a large extent a matter of finding our way around constraints or limitations placed on us by the Discourses within which we operate. (477)
By approaching our own teaching practice in narrative theory as something more than the development of a particular terminology that is particularly useful in a particular type of course and instead beginning to think of our classroom as a crucial site of practice for discursive awareness (and thus critical creativity), only then do we begin to communicate the precise relevance of our own hermeneutic practice. When our students learn to interpret through the lens of narrative theory, they are learning a creative practice borne of domain-specific expertise, which cognitive research confirms is central to creativity (Sawyer 149). Moreover, by teaching narrative interpretation as a mode of creativity that is ultimately responsible to the text, a re-creation and recontextualization of meaning that must attend to the discourse(s) through which the text is constituted, we are simultaneously encouraging exactly the type of social responsibility that researchers such as Brouillette rightly fear is so easily excised from popular conceptions of creative work.
To bring into students' consciousness the idea, firstly, that the act of interpretation is a creative enterprise, secondly, that its criticality rests in the ways it creatively responds to discourse, and thirdly, that through interpretation we simultaneously construct ourselves as agents responsive and responsible to a (con)text is no small feat. Nonetheless, these are, I argue, the social and ethical underpinnings of our pedagogy. Paul Ricoeur's argument that one's very identity is formed through narrative interpretation is thus timely: "Just as it is possible to compose several plots on the subject of the same incidents ... so also it is always possible to weave different, even opposed, plots about our lives.... In this sense, narrative identity continues to make and remake itself" (Time and Narrative 248-49). The stakes of teaching creativity in this sense are quite high--we teach our students how to reinterpret themselves and their place within the world.
A pedagogy of creative audience
Literary study will maintain its relevance not by accepting the creative-economy rhetoric that percolates through our disciplines but by showcasing our students' interpretive competency and simultaneously communicating the ways interpretation is vital to a critical creativity. What this means on the practical level is complex. Significantly, the notion that traditional forms of classroom work that seek to train and evaluate students' domain knowledge--essays, lectures, close-reading assignments--are inherently uncreative and produce students who can regurgitate ideas but not critically reconstruct them is not necessarily supported by classroom evidence. For example, Maria Jerinic, who describes her attempts to introduce alternative, creative assignments into a Jane Austen course, channels her inner T. S. Eliot and admits that "traditional" research papers are oftentimes creative: "I felt it was both creative and risk-taking for the kinesiology major to think about the tension between Enlightenment and Romantic ideals in an Austen novel, and writing this paper enthralled the student" (Wintrol and Jerinic 63). Moreover, despite the successes of an energized and engaged classroom environment, Jerinic acknowledges that "one needs to know a subject well in order to respond creatively, so cutting the time devoted to developing that knowledge might be irresponsible" (64). There is danger in our growing acceptance of "creative" assignments as a quick fix in developing students' creative competencies, especially if we don't first acknowledge the necessity of domain-specific expertise as a prerequisite to such assignments.
Again, research is quite clear on this front: creative performance hinges on domain-specific components (Kaufman and Baer). And, as Keith Sawyer recognizes, "Domain-specific expertise ... involves automatized routines, developed as a result of training and expertise (152). While traditional forms of learning in the literature classroom may be less exciting, their structures of routinization may produce better long-term results in the development of a critical creativity. When educators such as Bill Hutchings and Karen O'Rourke celebrate problem-based learning (PBL) as an ideal pedagogical form for literary studies, they speak of it as "being true to the creative nature of the subject" (82). Although it is certainly necessary to foster a spirit of free inquiry, such declarations misconstrue creativity, simply, as freedom. Instead, as I have demonstrated above, in order to preclude creativity's co-optation into neoliberal models of work, one might instead recognize the creative-as-critical, which is to say, knowledge of the way one's discursive context limits the subject is a necessary precondition to one's creative response to such discourse. "Enculturation," according to Glaveanu, "is ... the engine and the sine qua non of creative production" (63). What celebrations of PBL as an antidote to our classroom woes forget is that these models rarely work without a foundational domain knowledge--a sense of the disciplinary, socio-cultural context of which such inquiry is a part.
To equate creativity in the classroom with freedom is to merely reproduce the creative-economy rhetoric that mythologizes the individual's flexibility as the proper creative response to her own precarity. Likewise, much recent pedagogical literature emphasizes risk-taking as fundamental to the development of one's creative competencies. Teresa Cremin points to "the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty, take risks, and engage artistically" (415). Wintrol and Jerinic, for their part, "encourage honors college students to take risks and engage with the course material in creative ways that develop their critical thinking" (50). However, educators must interrogate the consequences of imagining risk as a central facet to creativity. By privileging risk over criticality and the capacity to examine discourse, we potentially reproduce a version of product-oriented creativity in which novelty becomes students' main objective. Of course, encouraging students to take risks is part and parcel to their development as independent and critical thinkers. The undergraduate classroom is, at its best, a space of experimentation and practice where students can test out new ideas and critical actions with relatively low stakes--at least when compared to the world beyond the classroom. The form of hermeneutic creativity that I have outlined above, while not sacrificing the idea of risk, de-emphasizes its centrality to the creative moment and instead promotes a form of creativity that is responsive and responsible to the creative text to which it attends. Thus, in the sense that interpretation comes into being as a creative response to the text-as-other, I argue that the form of creativity we need to teach and more deliberately communicate to our students is one that interprets the creative act as always already social, always embedded in the creator's role as both audience and producer.
If, as Glaveanu claims, the creator is not only a producer of cultural artifacts but also inevitably an audience-member, then it is essential to foster this double-consciousness within the classroom. To do so is to stress students' accountability to a larger socio-cultural context. As such, I locate especial pedagogical power in exercises that emphasize the necessity of critical listening amidst the practice of production. Veronica J. Austen's incorporation of creative writing into her literature courses is becoming more common amongst colleagues, as it seeks to erase the somewhat arbitrary divide between creative writing and criticism:
By experiencing the process of writing, students will begin to recognize that there are multiple ways to convey a certain message but that each manner of conveyance bears a different effect. Consequently, they will have the experience necessary to form interpretations of why published writers have made the choices they have made in constructing their texts and, thereby, assess what the effect of these decisions has been. (141)
Whether Austen's students recognize it or not, they are engaged through such assignments with narrative discourse. They develop domain-expertise through the close analysis of the ways narrative techniques constitute specific meanings; moreover, they learn that the creative act is imbricated upon one's capacity to listen to a narrative text, to see their own creative writing not as exclusively new but, rather, as formed in dialogue with the creativity of the past.
What I seek to practice in my own teaching is the deliberate explication of these creative values so that students both practise critical creativity and also develop an awareness of its larger significance beyond the classroom. Thus, in my introductory course, Understanding Narrative, I offer students the option of creating an adaptive interpretation as a final project. According to H. Porter Abbott, an adaptive reading can be an interpretation "freed from concerns for overreading or underreading" or even a creative retelling of a story in a completely different medium (228). As a method of cumulative assessment, it provokes students to closely analyze the discursive methods of one of the course texts and produce an interdiscursive rendering of that narrative. Not all students choose this adaptive option--many, as Wintrol and Jerinic acknowledge, are much more comfortable with a traditional essay. It does not preclude their creativity. Critical creativity comes in many forms, and so long as their interpretations are responsive to the subject's discursive context in the production of meaning, I have few qualms with respect to their burgeoning creativity.
Still, the value of the adaptive assignment rests in the ways it asks students not only to read discourse comprehensively but to account for the ways in which discourse constructs meaning; further, as students create their own adaptations in response to the primary narrative, they begin to recognize that their role as audience--as critical reader and respondent-is an inherent part of the creative process. This interpretive work with narrative discourse develops a productive form of creativity that has only minimal interest in originality. Adaptation, after all, inevitably forgoes some degree of originality for the opportunity to reimagine and reshape the past. Instead, students learn a mode of creativity that is specifically empowered through systemic attention. To attend to narrative discourse--its analysis and reconstruction--is to attend to the systems of a text; thus, students learn through this assignment that critical creativity is a function of, firstly, acknowledging the discursive conditions that demarcate the creative artifact and, secondly, challenging those conditions in order to produce new meanings.
On the whole, my students recognize their own acts of creation are inseparable from the acts of others; moreover, without a fundamental knowledge of narrative systems--of discourse--they could not have ever adequately responded to, refuted, or otherwise challenged those narratives in the first place. Indeed, this is the beginning of a more comprehensive and critical understanding of creativity, an understanding that is equipped to challenge other creative narratives that are quickly reduced to ghosts of themselves within popular discourse.
The positioning of literary studies within the creative economy depends not only on how we communicate our discourse to the public but on how, on a daily basis, we teach our students to respond to their world. What I have attempted to outline is a series of interrelated theses that bear direct relevance to the issue of pedagogy: How do we teach creativity in ways that do not simply slip into the service of a neoliberal ideology, and thus how do we prepare students to creatively engage the systems that shape their existence and constitute their relations with others? Although I have used the teaching of narrative theory and interpretation as a focal point, it is my hope that the pedagogical paradigm underlying such practice will translate to other areas within the arts and humanities, if it doesn't already. We need to make our interventions in creativity both deliberate and palpable to our students. I suggest, then, that in the development of course material, educators might consider these foundational ideas, which I offer as a summation of the above discussion:
1 Creativity is always constituted through criticality. The capacity to critique one's context and produce reasoned judgments is essential to the creative act, otherwise creativity mutates into spectral version of itself, a handmaiden of neoliberal policy.
2 Critical creativity is intimately tied to discursivity. That is, a deep understanding of discourse--of the systems that constitute our being in the world--is fundamental in fostering students who can creatively engage and challenge their sociocultural contexts.
3 Teaching critical creativity is the teaching of how to be an audience. The literary classroom can be imagined as a site of critical creative practice, which is to say students' interpretive and analytic responses to texts should be construed not simply as the production of valuable novelty but as a rigorous engagement and interaction with creativity of the past and present. To do so is to attend to the responsibilities of the creative act within a larger socio-cultural matrix.
If these pedagogical principles are embraced and consciously communicated within our classrooms, our students may, at the very least, be more prepared to engage with the popular rhetorics of creativity that saturate public discourse. Above and beyond this, however, it is my hope that such narrative pedagogy will generate truly creative responses to the economic precarity that sadly awaits our students in this contemporary moment.
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(1) In the Province of Ontario, 44 percent of workers aged twenty-five to sixty-five in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA) are precariously employed, according to the May 2015 report published by the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group (The Precarity Penalty 5).
(2) Since renamed as the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.
(3) As Martin illustrates, the emphatic twinning of novelty and fit in dominant definitions of creativity has much to do with the influence of psychological research and the perceived need to measure and record creative output: "This form of definition was proposed as a pragmatic stop-gap because creativity was regarded as difficult to define. This enabled researchers to continue empirical work on creativity with the simple premise that they could 'know it when they see it' " (296). Imre Szeman, similarly, points to Richard Florida's "use of patents as a means to measure [creativity]" in conjunction with an "unembarrassed description of creativity as pure utility, transferability, and economic functionality" (32). Such positivistic approaches are, in turn, easily co-opted by neoliberal models of creative labour.
For a comprehensive genealogy of the relationship between creativity, psychology, and management theory, see Brouillette's chapter, "The Psychology of Creativity."
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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