Keeping Creativity Alive in the Ivory Tower

I have taught for 19 semesters straight – yes, almost 10 years – two or three classes per semester, sometimes with a lab. That’s 19 sets of midterms (2-3 per semester per class), 19 sets of final exams, probably close to 2000 students, and many thousands of homework assignments, papers, and projects to grade. Now, in my 20th semester of employment, I get to take a breather.

I get to remind myself what it’s like to have time to think. I have time to think about what it means to be productive, how that’s different from my everyday work, and what it takes to be creative in this academic life.

I like this ‘thinking time.’ But it’s not without it’s challenges. I’ve conditioned myself over the years to measure productivity in terms of the number of things I can cross off the long to-do list each day – many of those items involve class prep or grading. I am a master of lists –  one could say I have a Ph.D. in making lists and crossing things off. I even write things down just to cross them off. So here, in the midst of my sabbatical, there is something less than satisfying about only beginning two things on my list for the day.

Sure, they are big items. It’s no small task to make those final revisions on the paper that’s nearly ready to go out the door. Nor is it a small task to draft up the details of a new research project. These are not things I can do in a day, with so much focus, when I teach.

I am not alone in considering this, and there are recently a number of articles posted online about this (which, BTW, I would not have had the time to read if I were not on sabbatical). There is most certainly a myth that permeates academic culture – and is reinforced by the community of professors – that as a professor, you should be a steady fountain of  creative (ie, grantable) ideas, proposals, papers, and general knowledge. In a sense, our whole evaluation system is based on the idea that you are a steady producer. There are reward systems, books, articles to help you do this – and counselors and life coaches to help you become this.

But the simple fact is that for most of us, it doesn’t work this way. Creativity comes in fits and spurts. You feel guilty and, admittedly, frightened, when the creative well appears to dry up – and it’s easy to forget this isn’t a permanent situation. Creativity is something that’s difficult to force, and difficult to schedule, so it’s hard to know exactly when you’ll get things flowing again.

Ultimately, the purpose of a sabbatical is to recharge the creative well – conveniently, every 6th year. But in an age of budget cuts, competition for money and students, high faculty turnover, and administrators more accustomed to running businesses than schools, sabbaticals are considered a privilege, more than a necessity. This could become a problem for those of us, normally creative, motivated people, who really do need to recharge the well.

If universities are becoming businesses, it needs to be understood that the business of learning and teaching needs to operate a bit differently than industry. As faculty, we are lifelong learners. But to maintain productivity, there needs to be time to let ideas bake – time to taste-test some new projects, time to let the dregs settle out to come up with the real gems. (I suppose they let people do this in industry, too, but those people are usually paid a whole lot more.)

There are a couple of recently published articles about the types of environments that help students learn best (NY Times and Washington Post). Both articles get at the importance of pacing learning and the necessity to take breaks in order to process and remember. While these articles are geared at educators, and help us consider what might be important in planning how we teach, they are no less relevant to us in considering how we learn best as faculty.

Everyone wants to be more productive. Everyone wants to be more creative. Everyone (in academia) would like to do this through their work. But, ultimately, when you’re bogged down in writing reports for non-academics about how well you’re doing as an academic entity (as seems to be the new modus operandi in higher ed), you’re really not going to get much done. Too many little things get in the way of the big, important stuff (also lamented in this blog).

I wonder what this means for the next stage of my career, and which of the creative activities I value I will have to forego in order to manage my time without losing interest and time to pursue the things that drew me to this career in the first place.

Academia is really more like the Eiffel Tower than the Ivory Tower - If you're not careful, you'll bump your head on the scaffolding or fall through the gaps.

Academia is really more like the Eiffel Tower than the Ivory Tower – If you’re not careful, you’ll bump your head on the scaffolding or fall through the gaps.

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