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Taking the Measure of the Creative Campus
Four years ago, while still at Princeton University, I started teaching a course on the social conditions of creativity in art, science, and business. Teaching about creativity is a lot like teaching about health and nutrition—it has certain spillover effects outside the classroom. Nutritionists see “bad health” all around them—in grocery stores, in restaurants, and in their cupboards. Likewise, I started seeing obstacles to creativity all around me—especially on campus.
During this time, I was asked to help plan an American Assembly public affairs forum focusing on the creative campus. The meeting was intended to highlight the important role that colleges and universities play in the larger arts ecology—as commissioners of new work, as employers, as training institutions, and as presenters of performing arts. Rather than just celebrating and promoting the arts, I felt it was important that the assembly raise questions about whether campuses were truly creative places. And if they were, how would we know? My article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Creative Campus: Who’s Number 1?” explored this question—focusing on the arts, but examining the conditions for creativity in other disciplines as well (Tepper 2004). Creativity thrives on those campuses where there is abundant cross-cultural exchange and a great deal of “border” activity between disciplines, where collaborative work is commonplace, risk taking is rewarded, failure is expected, and the creative arts are pervasive and integrated into campus life.
Beyond examining the conditions for creativity, it is important to think about how to explore and assess these conditions. What would a research agenda on the creative campus look like? In the absence of an established research community, what ideas, methodologies, and approaches might be useful in pursuing such an agenda?*
Underlying Social Dynamics of the Creative Campus
Every April, the MacArthur Foundation awards $500,000 “genius” grants to twenty extraordinarily creative people—artists, scientists, and social entrepreneurs. The awards come with “no strings attached,” giving individuals the freedom and resources to pursue their talents and ideas. It is a remarkable program. But, from a sociological perspective, it reinforces the dominant myth of the individual creative genius (the scientist alone in her lab or the artist in his garret) and ignores the social structure that underlies creative work. It is important to recognize and support the creative luminaries, but it is equally important to understand the often invisible pathways along which creative work flows.
As it turns out, the methodology that is most in vogue right now in the social sciences—network analysis—is well suited to help figure out the underlying social dynamics of the creative campus. Network analysis is used to map relationships or ties between people, ideas, organizations, products, or just about any other part of social life. Such analysis has been used to understand such diverse phenomena as microbrew pubs, terrorist cells, and the friendship circles of high school teenagers as well as a variety of creative enterprises, from Broadway theatre to astronomy. These efforts to describe the linkages that lead to creative breakthroughs can identify important nodes in a network, such as the creativity brokers who connect artists and scholars who might not otherwise collaborate or even know of one another. Network analysis can also identify the gaps in a network, or the presence of multiple clusters of independent creative groups.
A rigorous network analysis of the creative activity of our campuses would reveal, I am sure, fascinating and unexpected patterns of activity. We would find robust creative work in unforeseen places, and creativity brokers who were not immediately obvious—a new assistant professor working in a nontraditional field or a campus “arts presenter,” for example, rather than a seasoned department chair or associate dean. In a well-known essay in the New Yorker, “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” Malcolm Gladwell (1999) demonstrates that the self-effacing seventy-year-old grandmother and former cultural commissioner of Chicago is in the middle of a dense network of creative people as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Isaac Asimov, William Saroyan, and Lenny Bruce. Lois Weisberg is a creative “connector” who belongs to many different social worlds and, consequently, has been directly or indirectly involved in the development of literally hundreds of creative enterprises and the success of dozens of creative careers. Ultimately, network analysis can not only help identify the Lois Weisbergs on our campuses, it can also help university leaders identify the deep structure of creative activity so that they can better leverage resources to support and foster this work.
We want to understand broader patterns of creative work, but it is also important to understand the individual experiences of our students. Are they engaged in creative pursuits? Do students leave campus having had a meaningful and important artistic experience? And, perhaps most importantly, do they develop a heightened curiosity about the world during their years as undergraduates?
When I arrived in Nashville last year, a colleague asked what I thought of the Vanderbilt students. I was teaching a freshman seminar on the culture wars and I remarked that I was impressed by the poise, curiosity, and engagement of these eighteen-year-olds. He told me to wait until I taught a class of upperclassmen, explaining that most students quickly lose that heightened inquisitiveness and begin to look for the shortest means to their intended ends—the least they need to do to get the “A.” By their senior year, students have been socialized to keep their curiosity in check. Moreover, they have filled their schedules with an overwhelming amount of cocurricular activity and part-time jobs. In short, many have lost their intellectual focus and creative passion.
This pattern, of course, is not unique to Vanderbilt. In an effort to get a national picture of student engagement, scholars at the Center for Postsecondary Research at the University of Indiana have been examining the extent to which U.S. college students are engaged both inside and outside of the classroom. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which is administered each year by the center to more than 300,000 students across several hundred campuses, provides insight into how students spend their time (whether attending arts events, playing sports, or volunteering), whether and how often they interact with faculty, and whether they talk about school material outside of class. These are extremely important questions, and schools can certainly make better use of NSSE in assessing the creative climate of their campuses. But are there other ways of measuring less tangible student outcomes—like creativity, curiosity, and a passion for learning?
It turns out that a group of educational psychologists at James Madison University’s Center for Assessment and Research Studies, led by T. Dary Erwin, have created a new measure called the “curiosity index.” The index consists of sixteen self-reported items that measure both breadth (seeking out new information from multiple sources) and depth (exhibiting sustained inquiry about a certain topic). Curious students would likely rate high on such statements as “I find myself fascinated by lots of different things” (breadth), or “When learning something, I try to gain the fullest possible understanding of the phenomenon” (depth).
In addition to survey research, there are other methods for assessing creative engagement on college campuses. For example, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has advanced a very influential theory of creative activity based on the notion of “flow”—the sensation that individuals feel when they are fully engaged with a task in which they experience a sense of exhilaration and deep enjoyment while working through a challenge or puzzle with poise, skill, and some level of mastery. Scholars have attempted to measure flow among students, scholars, and artists. The technique typically involves giving a sample of individuals beepers that go off at random intervals throughout the course of day. When their beepers sound, these individuals record in a diary or journal what they were doing at the time of the beep and reflect upon the perceived challenge of the activity, their sense of efficacy, and the emotional and intellectual “affect” resulting from the activity.
To the extent that colleges and universities are interested in fostering more “flow-like” experiences among their faculty and students, it might make sense to employ Csikszentmihalyi’s journal technique on a regular basis among a sample of faculty and students. What types of experiences lead to heightened intellectual and creative engagement? In what contexts and under what conditions? Do students achieve a state of flow when listening to music, watching a theatrical presentation, talking to classmates, or listening to a lecture? Like network analysis, flow diaries can, over time, begin to identify where the creative synapses of campus life are firing and where they are not.
If we look beyond the walls of the academy, we will find that management scholars and consultants have been trying to measure the climate for creativity and innovation within such industries as aerospace, high-tech electronics, consulting, information systems, and engineering, and at other “creative economy” firms. These studies, using a variety of methods, have much to offer those of us interested in the creative campus. Perhaps the best known instrument is KEYS: Assessing the Climate for Creativity, which was developed by Harvard professor Theresa Amabile (Amabile et al. 1996). KEYS, along with several other similar assessments, examines whether an organization encourages risk taking, whether creativity is adequately recognized and rewarded, whether resources are available to move new ideas forward, whether there is unhealthy internal competition or a negative political climate, and other environmental factors. Many instruments also measure the “creative vibe” of an organization, capturing such attributes as the liveliness or dynamism of a place, or levels of playfulness and humor. In fact, some of the most interesting recent work attempts to measure the “creative energy” in an organization by first mapping all interactions between workers (network analysis) and then figuring out which of those interactions produce feelings of high energy and which are energy detractors (Cross, Baker, and Parker 2003).
The Nature of Art and Creativity
I would like to argue that the arts provide a particularly useful window into the creative campus. The arts have long been recognized as important catalysts for creative work across domains. I believe that a network analysis of the artistic life of the campus will reveal artists, artistic brokers, and arts enthusiasts working in unexpected places throughout a campus. In fact, the relationships formed because of and through the cultural life of a campus may well serve as conduits for other types of creative flows and ideas. Likewise, I think a study of student engagement, “curiosity,” or “flow” on a college campus will be intricately connected to artistic and expressive activity. And certainly the arts create the dynamism, playfulness, humor, and “high energy” that organizational scholars have been searching for and measuring in the world of business.
Of course, the “big research agenda” would not only look at the conditions for creative work, but would also examine how the creative or artistic life of a campus contributes to the educational and social life of a university or college. How does artistic and creative expression produce social capital, build trust, increase tolerance, and produce a sense of community? In what ways do the arts (or other creative outlets) help students forge a sense of identity and develop their own unique worldview? There are also questions about the link between the creative life of universities and the larger cultural, social, and economic milieu. How do the artistic and creative skills learned in college help train future knowledge workers for the creative economy? And in what ways do college campuses serve as catalysts in the larger arts ecology—as incubators of new work and as sources for the diffusion of new artistic or aesthetic ideas?
The creative campus is not just a fashionable alliteration. Universities and colleges have established task forces on creativity (the University of Alabama is one example); hired arts “czars” (as at Columbia University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill); created new trans-institutional or cross-domain centers and institutes (as at Vanderbilt University and the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign); and adopted courses, fellowships, or learning experiences focused on creativity (as at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Ball State University). These actions are predicated on the belief that creativity may be an underappreciated and underutilized asset on college campuses. If the right social conditions, institutional structures, personal relationships, and opportunities for personal expression can be created, stimulated, and nurtured, then we can make our campuses more invigorating places to work and learn. But we must match our entrepreneurial zeal to create new programs and new structures with an equal commitment to use our campuses as laboratories to learn more about the nature of art and creativity—both the conditions that foster it and its consequences for our intellectual, social, emotional, and political lives.
Amabile, T. M., R. Conti, H. Coon, J. Lazenby, and M. Herron. 1996. Assessing the work environment for creativity. Academy of Management Journal 39 (5): 1154–84.
Cross, R., W. Baker, and A. Parker. 2003. What creates energy in organizations? MIT Sloan Management Review, 44 (4): 51–56.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Gladwell, M. 1999. Six degrees of Lois Weisberg. New Yorker, January 11: 52–63
Tepper, S. 2004. The creative campus: Who’s no. 1? Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (6): B6.
Steven J. Tepper is the associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.