I remember quite vividly being told in second grade that I was doing poorly in art. Not because I wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t completing assignments, but because I had been the only student who opted to paint a smile on the pigs we were making. I was thoroughly chastised for this, because “pigs don’t smile”. I realized at this point that the creative instincts which made me precocious and inventive as a child were not going to get me through the standard education system.

Creativity has long been an underrated skill. Often it is applied to people lacking the more traditionally prestigious skills of the maths and sciences. Our educational programs often drill creativity out of us, teaching us not to find our own way to the correct answer or explore new possibilities, but to follow the set guidelines and instructions from question to answer.  Throughout our education we are taught methods and theories of past researchers, but often not given the opportunity to challenge them. Students are learning how to regurgitate responses that the teachers want, often not understanding the core principles or able to actually use them in their own lives.

Then, we get to graduate school, are asked to present papers that have a clear argument and take innovative approaches but still regurgitate enough information to prove competency. Often we are criticized with not being critical or independent thinkers- of course we aren’t, we’ve been trained not to be! However creativity is necessary if we want to forward our disciplines. Success comes from creativity and innovation, rather than  rote memorization and content regurgitation.

“The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive and discoverers” –Jean Piaget

While we aren’t going to change the structure of our education system just yet, there are things we can do to put the creativity back into our own work. In an increasingly digital world, a good place to start is looking at new technology. In 2003, students from Duke University were given a challenge- if they could come up with an educational use for an iPod they would receive one free. Within the first semester over 1,000 were given away. “For example, undergraduate biomedical engineering students figured out a way to adjust the signal processing so you could put an earbud in one ear, a stethoscope in the other and diagnose heart conditions… Music students dropped their flute solos or voices into performances of famous philharmonic orchestras… to hear themselves perform with the very best. Computer science students studied (some might say “hacked”) and improved Apple’s computer code”.

So now it is our turn to start playing around with technology and put the creativity back into our work. Here are some places to start:

1. Check out the new tech and see what others are doing with it on Digital Humanities blogs. Check out ProfHacker, DH Quarterly, or CHNM‘s blogs to learn more about how people are using technology today in a variety of disciplines.

2. Try to apply new methods and techniques regardless of their original discipline or purpose. While programs are often developed with a specific use in mind, such as the iPod for music, we can use them in innovative ways to make our work easier and change the way we do research. See if any ‘fun’ tech you use can be of help in your research. How about crowdsourcing to aid in translation of ancient texts? Or creating more interactive conference posters through the use of QR codes?

3. Do creative things outside of academia. Albert Einstein said that: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music… I get most joy in life out of music.” If you engage in other activities it can inspire you to think about things in new ways. I have often found that I get my best ideas while I am outside running or indoors playing video games.

4. Play with your technology. This is the most important. Have fun with your research, try putting it into new technology and see what happens! Try visualizing it using a new tool, or presenting it at a conference in a new way. It might turn out that traditional methods are better, but you may get some inspiration in the process of creating it.

Most importantly, don’t let the man bring you down. Keep experimenting, keep playing, because who knows what technology, theory or methods may be popular in the future. Who knows, maybe there will even be smiling pigs.

What creative projects are you engaging in? How do you keep your work creative?

[Image by Flickr user Rikkis Rescue and used under Creative Commons License]


One Response to Pigs Can Smile: Keeping Creative in Grad School

  1. […] Deeply creative work is rather exhausting, especially if you are not used to think out of the box. Therefore, it is important to grow creativity like a muscle in your mind. The more you practice creative thinking in your life, the easier it becomes to see the unexpected connections in your research. […]

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