Transcript, Part 1, Jessica Hunter and Kris Stanec

In Part 1 of our interview with Dr. Jessica Hunter and Kris Stanec of the Colorado College’s Creativity & Innovation Initiative, we discuss the College’s rich history of innovation from its founding in 1874 as a coeducational institution open to all races to the establishment of the Block Plan in 1970 to, more recently, its campus-wide Creativity Initiative. Then, we discuss in detail the Initiative’s four building blocks of creativity: tolerance of ambiguity, openness to experience, willingness to risk failure, and, lastly, the ability to find unexpected connections between distinctly different concepts across domains and disciplines.

In Part 2, we talk with Jessica and Kris about the Initiative’s innovative programs, from the Creativity Lab to the Creative Confidence projects, plus many more.

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Innovators, Artists, and Solutions interview series of Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: And our guests today are Jessica Hunter, PhD, who is director of the Colorado College’s Creativity & Innovation Initiative, and Kris Stanec, MA, director of the Creativity Lab.

Jessica Hunter is an educator and curator with over 20 years of experience working within academic and museum contexts. Since 2006, she has worked with faculty across disciplines at Colorado College. To design experiences and assignments that weave creative problem solving and visual literacy activities into courses across disciplines. She holds a BA in art history from Colorado College and an MA, also in art history, from the [00:01:00] University of Colorado. She completed a PhD in creativity from the University of the Arts in 2022, where she explored the intersections of art, perception, and creativity.  She has extensive training in visual literacy pedagogies and has adapted these methodologies to support interdisciplinary learning and creative development in education and museum contexts. Dr. Hunter has presented her research on creativity, visual literacy, and education at multiple conferences nationally and internationally.

Kris Stanec, MA, has been exploring creativity, critical thinking, the arts, and education for most of her life. Kris first began teaching an arts integration course at Colorado College in 1996. As a faculty member in the education department, Director of the Partnership for Civic Engagement, and most recently, Director of Museum Education at the Colorado [00:02:00] Springs Fine Arts Center, Kris has developed courses and programs that inspire people to embrace the creative process for deeper reflection and learning. As a reflective practitioner who crafts meaningful practices, she uses inclusive pedagogies to bring theory into action. Kris has worked with preservice teachers, led professional development workshops, and presented at conferences to bring creativity, critical pedagogy, and arts integration strategies to students and educators at all levels. Kris is known as a leader who created community and engages many voices to build successful, dynamic, and impactful programs.

Welcome, Jessica and Kris.

Jessica: Thank you.

Kris: Thank you.

Elizabeth: The Colorado College, which was founded in 1874, is a highly regarded liberal arts college in Colorado Springs. I’m a proud alumna of Colorado College, and an equally proud [00:03:00] English major, thank you Dan Tynan. Could you give us a brief history of the Colorado College and just speak very briefly about what a, quote, “liberal arts education” is?

Jessica: So, I think this is a good opportunity for me to state that Colorado College is located within the unceded territory of the Ute peoples, and the college recognizes and honors the original inhabitants who first settled the area. So, the land for Colorado College was given by General William Jackson Palmer, who was a railroad tycoon, abolitionist, a Civil War vet, and something of an idealist. And he planned Colorado Springs to be a beautiful city that would uplift residents in body and spirit. So he gave 20 acres in the town site for Colorado College, which you mentioned held its first classes in 1874, before Colorado even became a state.

And I think it’s interesting to note that from the beginning, Colorado College was co-educational [00:04:00] and open to all races. And this is very different from some of its peer institutions. Twelve of the first twenty-five students at CC were white women, which is in contrast to so many other colleges where they were, only admitted males, and then women had to petition for acceptance. So we’ve always been a little bit cutting edge, I would say.

The liberal arts goes back to the ancient Greeks, who considered a liberal arts education to be the ultimate mark of an educated person. At the time, it covered only three subjects: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. But today, liberal arts institutions encourage students to study a broad range of subjects, but they still retain the core aims of a traditional liberal arts curricula, again, to develop a well-rounded individual with lots of general knowledge of a wide range of subjects and mastery of transferable skills. Liberal arts colleges typically rely on student participation, and encourage a high level of student [00:05:00] teacher interaction, which is different from maybe a research institution where the typical method of teaching would be a lecture to a large group of students.

Elizabeth: I second that definition.

Jessica: That was a long one.

Michael: So if I understand correctly, the city was founded with the university in mind. Is that correct? Could, you seem to say he dedicated the 20 acres as he was founding the city?

Jessica: As Palmer was planning Colorado Springs, and it really was initially the vision of one person, like, the way the streets are laid out, where the parks are, the configuration of the city, really reflected his vision. And then he gave land to various churches, because he was a religious man and he felt that spiritual education was important, he gave land for Colorado College, he gave land for the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.

Michael: But that’s a part of his original vision for the city, was for it to have this college.

Jessica: [00:06:00] Right, was to have a center of education as well as the natural beauty and a cultured city. He really envisioned a cultured city, nestled up against the Rocky Mountains.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I should insert here that Colorado Springs is nestled at the foot of Pikes Peak, which is a spectacular 14,000-plus mountain.

Jessica: You cannot beat the view. Yeah.

Michael: Oh, just in the presence of these mountains constantly, it fills one with something. It’s hard to describe.

Anyway, now, CC clearly has a glorious history. Now it’s, I think it’s, I think it has dropped out of the U. S. World Report rankings and all that, but it’s still tied for like 25th, I believe, in the best liberal arts colleges in the nation. And third among the most innovative national liberal arts colleges. And as I understand it, and Elizabeth was in the original class, the Block Plan is a defining feature, at [00:07:00] least since 1970, when it was originally established. And I think she graduated with the original Block Plan class in 1974. Could either one of you or both tell us about what exactly is the Block Plan?

Kris: Definitely. The faculty, in anticipation of the hundredth-year celebration of Colorado College, decided to launch a major study of the actual academic program. And what they came up with was this idea that we should have a Block Plan where students take and faculty teach just one course at a time. So that was implemented. And they started using it, as you said, in 1970. Essentially what it is, it continues today, the structure is that everyone takes one class for three and a half weeks, so 18 days. And you’re in that one class, it’s essentially a four-semester hour course, and then after the course ends, you have a block break. And so that’s a chance to clear your mind [00:08:00] and prepare for the next block. So, it’s very intense and most courses have 25 or less students in them. They’re very discussion based. It’s been known to need to read a book a day or complete a full essay to turn in the following day after it’s been assigned.

But some of the unique aspects of this is that it really allows for full immersion, and that includes field trips. Of course, field classes, of course, such as geology, actually goes out into the field, brings tents and has students sleeping in the middle of these beautiful geographical formations where they can walk up and hold rocks and touch rocks and test rocks as opposed to just looking at them on a PowerPoint slide or in a textbook. But field classes are not just limited to those, we have courses that go down to the border or classes that are taught at the Newberry Library in Chicago or overseas for a block.

There was actually a recent study on what are the benefits of the Block [00:09:00] Plan and one of the ones that came out to be one of the strongest is the sense of community that’s developed from this intensity. And a big part of that related to the trips off campus that are afforded when you don’t have to take another class the same week, and they discovered that this kind of getting off campus also applied to things such as professors who take their students to their house for dinner, which happens quite often here. There’s a fund actually that provides money for professors to host a class at their house.

Michael: Oh, is that right?

Kris: Yes, and that has shown, right, through this study that it is a unique way of creating that community for learning. There’s also a great documentary, I have to say, that was just created in anticipation of the 50-year anniversary of the Block Plan, and it even just won, it was selected the “Best Film” at the Helsinki Film Festival, and it’s all about the Block Plan. So, I can send you the [00:10:00] link to that. You can download it and watch it.

Michael: So it’s all about the plan at CC?

Kris: It’s all about the formation, right, how it came to be, what it looks like, why it’s important.

Elizabeth: That’s so great. I so look forward to it.

Michael: I’ll definitely—because I was interested in whether or not, because, I taught in a Block Plan, but that was in high school, at a private high school. And I guess the mornings were all eight-week courses, and it was full immersion in those eight-week courses. But I was wondering if CC was one of the first colleges—

Jessica: It was, yeah. It was.

Michael: Well, I’ll definitely listen to that, then. I’ll watch that.

Elizabeth: Kind of building on that, Colorado College also has a long history, as you’ve described, of discussion-based learning, that’s its foundational process. Can you share CC’s legacy of creativity a little bit prior to the launch of the actual Creativity & Innovation Initiative?

Jessica: Yeah, I’m going to take a stab at that from my perspective. And other people might have other perspectives, but I [00:11:00] can share with you what I value. Obviously, the Block Plan is an incredibly innovative mode of teaching that CC pioneered. But I think one of the things that I think is really special about CC is the interdisciplinary courses and departments at CC. Things like Southwest Studies, which is populated by professors maybe in English, or some in Geology, some in Sociology, some in Literature. And students take courses in all of those disciplines as they relate to the Southwest. So it’s a way of understanding all of these different subjects—I think there’s even an Astronomy course that’s under Southwest Studies. So how you take something like a place and think about it from multiple different angles while learning those other disciplinary methodologies. So you’re learning geology, for example, but [00:12:00] also understanding how the physical landscape affects culture, affects water, affects politics, affects art.

Michael: And is that particular sort of interdisciplinary practice, is that, has that increased over the years?

Jessica: Yes.

Michael: Okay, because I mean I was immediately thinking of creativity. If you want to inspire creativity, it’s having inter-disciplines, disciplines talking to one another as opposed to these discrete disciplines, you can definitely—

Jessica: Absolutely. So that one particular department, students can major in Southwest Studies, so they can really dig into something as amorphous as the concept of a place through all of these disciplinary lenses. We have Feminist and Gender Studies, which is very similar, looking at issues of gender and from multiple perspectives. So we’ll have Psychology professors who teach within that, Art professors who teach in that under the umbrella of Feminist and Gender Studies, Social Studies. Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies is probably our [00:13:00] newest interdisciplinary hub, a major, and again, a wide variety of professors teach under that umbrella and students can major in, in this, in Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies and think about questions that affect us globally, locally that have to do with identity.

So I think this is a really key piece of a CC education. And our interdisciplinary programs are perhaps a concentrated form of what we hope that all students will get as they take courses across the curriculum. The ability to think about a question from multiple perspectives, to be able to shift lenses fluidly, to think about the interconnection between place and politics, make those kinds of linkages.

Elizabeth: And those kinds of linkages have already been envisioned so the student, him or her or themselves, does not need to piece together that tapestry by themselves. They have [00:14:00] a roadmap.

Michael: Shifting now directly into the Creativity & Innovation Initiative, could either one of you tell us its origin story? What were the factors and considerations that led to its birth?

Jessica: So once upon a time… So Creativity & Innovation was envisioned very differently at its original inception. So it started out as a piece of President Jill Tiefenthaler’s strategic plan in 2011, and it was envisioned at first much more along the lines of a business incubator, or an entrepreneurship program, that really was looking to help students create a product or a process that could be monetized. After a few years of that, the college kind of looked at this program and thought, it’s not really what we do. It’s not really who CC is. And it’s too exclusive. Students would have to seek out the [00:15:00] program. They would have to self-select, to identify themselves as potential innovators. And that is a barrier to participation for a lot of people who might not necessarily consider themselves ready to do that. But of course, we’re an undergraduate college, nobody’s ready to do anything, right? But there’s a mindset there.

Michael: Even if they think they are.

Jessica: It’s all experiment. It’s all a new thing. So in 2016, the college hired Des Stone Menendez, who is a CC alum. She was a serial entrepreneur and a consultant for businesses, and they charged her, the college charged Des with re-envisioning C& I, Creativity & Innovation. And she’s the one who really came up with this idea that we’re going to tear down these perceived barriers. That innovation is, everybody is innovative, everybody is creative, it’s not just applicable to a business or a [00:16:00] start-up. She’s the one who really added creativity into the mix. It was just called Innovation before 2016. Because creativity is the fertile ground from which innovation arises, but if we don’t cultivate the conditions under which we can be creative, innovation isn’t going to happen. So she made that connection.

And the pillars of her original vision were creative problem solving, risk and resilience, mindfulness and change-making. And all of those pieces exist in the program today, as it iterated forward, we still carry that initial foundation with us. But I think that the brilliant piece was the decision not to build a fancy innovation center on campus, an edifice that one must cross in order to…

Michael: What, no edifice?

Jessica: No edifice! No hallowed hall. No center of creativity.

Michael: No temple of creativity. [00:17:00]

Jessica: Right. But that we would take Creativity & Innovation into the classroom by collaborating with faculty to integrate creativity-building activities, workshops, assignments, discussions into courses all across campus, across all divisions. I was hired in 2018 to do that, to really start that academic engagement program because I had been doing that with the arts here since 2006 and I had a methodology to test out with Creativity & Innovation.

So, often, very often, students will have experiences with Creativity & Innovation, and they have no idea who we are. They, they don’t recognize it as a particular program, it’s just people come in and we do this thing. And it’s almost designed to be that way so that it’s, it feels organic and intrinsic to whatever the students are already [00:18:00] doing. We also have co-curricular programs that support student innovation and entrepreneurship, but I’d say the core of what we do really is coming to the student, not asking them to take the initiative to come to us, and to make it relevant to what they’re studying and to their lives.

Michael: Okay, so you send people into each classroom at some point in that class’s existence?

Jessica: I wish we could get into each classroom.

Michael: Okay, but at least—

Jessica: We’re working on it! We’re working on it.

Michael: Oh you’re working, you don’t have enough personnel yet.

Jessica: No, we don’t have enough people. So, Kris does that, I do that, the Professor of Creativity and Innovation, Jane Hilberry, does that.

Michael: Right. But then you also, it sounds like you also work with the existing faculty—

Jessica: Yes.

Michael: —to at least try to inspire them to bring some creativity into their course construction.

Jessica: We work with them very closely. Those that want to do this, of course, there are people who don’t and that’s fine, but we have a lot of faculty who are very interested in learning how to do this. [00:19:00] And having us support the creative development of their students. And just to that point, since 2016 when we re-envisioned Creativity & Innovation we’ve worked with 127 faculty members in 258 blocks to engage 6,806 students.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Michael: Okay, so could you, I’m not asking for a mission statement, but obviously you have a certain goal here to infuse a liberal arts education with this powerful creative element so that each student now thinks of creativity as a vital part of the educational process.

Jessica: Absolutely.

So could you just talk more about the goal of the program? You might not be there yet, because you don’t have enough personnel, but what is the goal?

Jessica: Our mission is to support, cultivate, and amplify creative teaching and learning on campus. And part of that happens in the academic program, part of it happens in students’ sort of personal explorations.

Michael: Yeah, and do you have a particular [00:20:00] vision of what that would look like, if it was realized?

Kris: I think we’re doing baby steps of that right now, and I think that’s always been a part of our process. We always operate through the creative process by envisioning something, trying it out, testing it, right, piloting something, iterating it, saying, okay, this is working, this isn’t. So I see us on this upward trajectory of really working towards amplifying, again, the, the things that work as we find them to work in higher education in our specific context.

Michael: Oh, okay. So when you go into a classroom and you influence a class, you then evaluate—

Kris: Oh, yes.

Michael: —what that influence did and go. “That didn’t work.” “That was wonderful. Let’s repeat that.”

Kris: Definitely. We are constantly iterating, reflecting, having discussions about what worked, what didn’t work, and then changing it and trying it, or putting it aside and trying something different.

Michael: At some level you’re, I guess—

Kris: We’re creating. We’re in the creative process, yes. Modeling. Hopefully. Exactly.

Jessica: And that is part of [00:21:00] what makes this program difficult to describe when people say what are you, what do you do? A lot of what we are and what we do is responsive to the needs of the faculty and the students. And we only just this year are rolling out some formal programs that really take the information that we’ve gotten from all of this academic outreach and tried to put some arms around it and frame it in a particular way. But it’s taken a—

Michael: That implies that, at least for me, it’s that you, it’s not like you can go to this, or maybe you can, you can go to this college in Italy that has some creativity initiative, and you can say, “Here’s my work there.” It sounds like a pretty original—

Kris: I’d say it’s original, but I think it’s also very replicable and, right, and I think that’s part of the process of the piloting and iterating is always thinking about context. So something I think could indeed be replicated in other places, and then iterated to really make certain that it fits the needs.

Michael: But this is an example of innovative education.

Kris: We think so.

Michael: [00:22:00] And it’s also an example, I would say, of an entrepreneurial, it has that entrepreneurial spirit where you’re constantly testing and revising and looking for what’s really going to work best.

Jessica: Yes, exactly. Like I said, we rolled out, we’re rolling out—I don’t anticipate that we will always have those particular programs, that as the needs of the campus shift, as we learn more, as we learn more about what students want and need and what’s effective, we might iterate those well beyond the parameters of what they are right now.

Elizabeth: Speaking of what students want and need, just to contextualize a little bit for our listeners internationally, I am sure that we are all in deep agreement that, quote, “banking style” approaches to education—Jessica, you mentioned universities often use the lecture format, the teacher speaks and the student just absorbs—but these banking style approaches to education rely on, quote, “knowledge dumping” or rote learning that, [00:23:00] in many ways, squelches creativity. The late great British psychologist, whom I’m sure you all know Sir Kenneth Robinson, spoke passionately about how most conventional schooling beats the creativity out of the learner. In his many TED Talks and writings, he references the plummeting of creativity across the age spectrum. And I use these statistics when I work with early childhood educators because at age three to five, when children are in preschool, 98% are genius level creative. They’re just brilliant. By age 10, that statistic has gone down to about 32, between eight and 10 years old. By age 13 to 15, only about 10% retain this genius-level creativity according to Sir Kenneth Robinson. And then by age 25 and above, a paltry 2% of people are still at this genius creativity level. But happily, as you all are describing, and there are [00:24:00] many constructivist pedagogical models that nurture creativity and creative thinking and critical thinking, you’ve been talking a lot about what I think are, could be called constructivist elements. But could you zero in on that term “constructivist” and tell us more about the Creativity & Innovation Initiative’s constructivist elements.

Kris: Sure. For the listeners that might not be familiar with constructivism the theory kind of dates back to theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey even. And it posits that one gains knowledge by actively constructing the understanding of something, specifically through doing and reflecting as opposed to passively listening. So if you take an example of trying to learn about electricity, right? One way of doing that is through a textbook through lecture, right, PowerPoint slides. Another way, the constructivist approach, would be to hand students a battery, two wires, and a light bulb and say, “Figure it out.” [00:25:00] Right? And then through the doing, through the exploring, then they have to come up with ideas about why is this happening? What’s working? And of course, constructivism leads to higher motivation and other things.

At C&I, we really believe that students can construct their own meaning of creativity, as opposed to us defining it and giving them a handbook on how to do it. We really use a recursive model. We don’t have a linear pathway for them. For example, Jessica will talk in detail a little bit later about the Creative Confidence Project, but it essentially starts with an immersion where students for two full days run exercises. We’re in a cohort together, so we’re creating community and doing these exercises together and then spending some time going back and thinking about these creative thinking exercises and reflecting on what does this mean for them in their lives, in their academics, and then jumping back in and trying another creative exercise. And [00:26:00] so this kind of constant flow, sometimes we call it the messy middle, where you step in and out of trying things is how we set up a lot of our programming.

Michael: As someone who’s worked with Howard Gardner and his multiple intelligence theory, as well as some of his ideas around creativity, as well as who’s worked in schools and worked with faculty on Theodore Sizer’s Essential School Model, which has students answering open ended questions and presenting exhibitions where they are constructing answers to these larger questions, I am somewhat familiar with those models. Can you maybe speak about the perspectives and the pedagogies that you’ve used that sort of challenge sort of traditional education?

Kris: Sure, I can give you an example specifically of one way that we are challenging the status quo, and that is through a project called Visual Notebooks that we [00:27:00] started researching and developing last year. Visual Notebooks consists of a daily prompt given at the very beginning of a class for about 10 minutes. Students respond through mark-making, is what we call it. Not drawing, right? Usually the expectation is people say, “Draw this.” Right? And we try to take that word out of our vocabulary. Mark-making is much more about exploring color, lines, patterns, right? Things that are much more abstract and non-representational. So it’s this kind of freeing output of the current experience or process of thinking. So, they spend 10 minutes or five minutes answering a prompt in a visual notebook with materials, very specific materials that Creativity & Innovation purchases: watercolor crayons, essentially, and a water paintbrush that has the water in the brush, right? So very specific materials for specific reasons. And then after that kind of five minutes of [00:28:00] processing and thinking about the prompt, then they turn to someone next to them and share how it was that they were thinking or what came forward. It’s not about interpreting somebody else’s, it’s not about trying to communicate, creating something that communicates to somebody else. It’s just about being in the present moment.

Michael: But they’re thinking visually, you’re saying.

Kris: So they’re thinking visually.

Michael: ‘Cause they’re marking the page in some way.

Kris: Exactly.

Michael: Could you give us an, give me an example of a prompt?

Kris: Sure. I love the first one. The first one starts out with just saying draw three lines and three shapes and then use the brush to smear the lines together. See what happens. And then put those down and look at it and think about how does that relate to your life. How does what is on that page, that visual piece, right, relate to something about you. And so that first one again, very open ended. But there are constraints, right? Only a few lines, a few shapes. And in the process of sharing them, how they think about how this [00:29:00] relates to who they are and sharing that with someone, right? They’re creating a sort of intimacy, right? A community in terms of sharing something about themselves.

Michael: A Rorschach test or something. Their own personal Rorschach. Could get quite personal.

Elizabeth: So the mark-making comes first and then the imbuing with it with meaning and relevance and—

Kris: So that’s exactly how it starts. And it is fairly sequential to start with, because we have found in our testing of this that many people struggle with the idea that mark-making has to look like something. And so it actually, for some people, feels very high risk. And so to minimize that risk and to make it a safer space, many of the prompts in that first week are very open. There’s one about noticing one’s senses that comes from a recently published book on doing ethnography, sensory ethnography. So it’s about embodied practices and finding just short, brief ways to tap into [00:30:00] how they can use other ways of knowing, essentially, and put those out as a way of, again, capturing what they’re thinking about something.

And as the prompts continue, they connect more to the course content, they connect more to other creativity skills, and literally for the entire block, students start their morning by working in their visual notebook. And many professors then have them process other things in the class or make analogies between the process they just used and the process that they might use in that discipline.

So it’s, to me, it’s fascinating how because it has an openness to it, people are really able to make it into something that’s important for them. And so this, we’re again saying, getting away from the status quo, right? Trying to help students, we’re piloting it mostly in our entry level courses, so CC 100 courses as a way to help students understand, there are many ways of [00:31:00] knowing. Decolonizing those traditional methods of education in which it’s passive and you listen to a lecture. Not that we do a lot of that at CC anyway, of course, everything, there’s a purpose for everything, not that that should be completely eliminated, but it really provides a space for students and faculty to process together in ways that they might not have considered before.

Michael: Sure. The prompt that you gave, it also sounds like it allows them to discover what they’re thinking. Because they’re creating shape before they’re thinking, really, and then they’re asked to interpret the shape, and that’s bringing out something within their own personal unconscious, if you will.

Elizabeth: So as somebody who’s worked with young children for 30-plus years, I must put in a pitch for the colossal importance of mark-making in the very young child. It is this gigantic leap into symbolic thinking—

Kris: Completely.

Elizabeth: Into just a state of mental acuity that is… [00:32:00] extraordinarily important.

Let me ask you another more targeted question. On the website for CC’s Creativity & Innovation you talk about how Colorado College is a highly selective college. The student body has achieved high GPAs and rigorous coursework. That’s how you get here as a, as an applicant. Yet the pressure of all that high achievement track results in both students having high stress and, ironically, low confidence in their creative abilities. Can you elaborate on this lack of creative confidence among students and perhaps even faculty?

Jessica: I think you mentioned exactly what happens in the traditional education system that, you know, they get the creativity beaten out of them. The way that you succeed in middle school, high school, to get to college is by following the rules and understanding what it takes to get an A and checking the boxes.

Our students all know how to do that. They know how to [00:33:00] navigate the system. They know how to get an A. And after a while, that becomes the only goal, right? Is just to get that A so that you can move on to the next thing. And the consequences of that is that, the students are habituated out of being curious. And then they don’t really get as much out of their education as they could without the pressure to get those A’s so then you can get out of here and go to graduate school. And it’s always in service, education for them is always in service of the next step, and that is extremely stressful for them. It takes all the fun out of learning, and learning should be fun. And we forget that somewhere around middle school, I think, it stops being fun.

They’re very anxious about failure. They believe that they need to be perfect to succeed and they, many of them are surrounded by people who seem perfect because they’re highly successful, right? So we tend to hide the failures and the messy parts [00:34:00] from younger people, especially people in authority, who don’t share those bits. So the students don’t really have a road map or a guide as to what does it mean to really learn something rather than just memorize it?

We have a student who works with us who mentioned to me the other day, this broke my heart, right, this wonderful, delightful, brilliant student. And she was talking about how there were so many classes at CC she would love to take, but she knew she wouldn’t get an A in the class. And she needs the A’s because she wants to go to graduate school. And that’s the context that we’re working in.

So where do we make space for curiosity? And where do we make space for failure? And how do we help students understand that the parts of them that they may think are unqualified or not good enough are actually the parts of them that yield the richest results. That’s the place where you’re going to find what you can uniquely bring into a situation. So that’s, I feel [00:35:00] like in a way our program pushes against kind of the traditional methodologies and metrics. When we work with faculty to create assignments that involve a creative process, those assignments are not graded by the product.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Jessica: Because we’re not teaching craft. That’s the arts. Arts teach the intersection between creative process and craft. We’re not interested in craft or product. We’re interested in process. And to just take some of that pressure off. You might be evaluated by how exploratory you are, how many questions you asked, how many ideas you brought into a particular process or project, not by how well you regurgitate information or by the perfection of the final product.

Michael: So you’re working specifically with faculty to get them to change their grading criteria to focus more on process as opposed to product?

Jessica: In specific instances. Yeah. Yeah. They still have to, there are standards and [00:36:00] practices that they need to adhere to. I tell you, most of the faculty that I talk to would love to get rid of grades. They would love to.

Kris: Many of them are exploring ungrading as other systems, there are several systems out there that change this traditional structure of evaluation.

Michael: So this student who is worried about, Oh, I can’t take this course even though I’d love to take it because I probably wouldn’t get an A in it. Can you reassure that she could take it and still not? Or is, what happens?

Jessica: We don’t have any control over the curriculum.

Michael: Okay, yeah, I’m just, yeah, no, because I understand what you’re saying quite well.

Jessica: But I think there’s, there’s just some structural issues about the way that higher education exists in the United States. And the expectations of what a high performing school does and how it behaves.

Michael: Right, absolutely.

Jessica: So there’s a little bit of a barrier there between, or a conflict, there’s a little bit of a conflict between who we are, outwardly facing—

Michael: And the larger context of the world. [00:37:00]

Jessica: Yeah. And then, how we want to nurture and support our students. 

Elizabeth: To delve a little more deeply into that, the C&I program seeks to address the issue, as you say, of low creative confidence among students, and you detail four, quote, “building blocks of creativity,” as I understand it. One is tolerance of ambiguity, another is openness to experience, another is willingness to risk failure, to explore ideas, and finally, the ability to find unexpected connections between distinctly different concepts across domains and disciplines. So I’d love to look at each one of these building blocks. So could you clarify the connection between the stress and intensity that goes with getting a high GPA and speak a little bit more about that and a person not being open to ambiguity?

Jessica: Yeah, I think that the, when people are really concerned about mastering the subject and that’s the major goal, they become too anxious [00:38:00] about their performance and how it’s being measured. And when that becomes the focus, then we shut down possibilities for learning and growth in other areas. And studies show that the more anxious a person is, the less tolerant of ambiguity they’re going to be. Which makes sense.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Jessica: We have evolved, our biology in some ways predisposes us to make quick decisions in uncertain circumstances. I’m not sure that’s a lion, but I’m going to run anyway. It serves a purpose, right? But, it is the spaces of ambiguity and the spaces of uncertainty where we find rich other possibilities. So, the ability to be comfortable and to sit with the feeling of being uncertain in a situation does eventually yield results. But it’s tough because everything in our culture around us tells us, swipe left or right now, buy this thing now, [00:39:00] make a decision in a political debate now. We are often, people are often criticized as being wishy washy if they are actually sitting in a space of uncertainty and a willingness to absorb more information. So our culture really doesn’t want us to be tolerant of ambiguity. But I would say that If we could teach our students any one thing, if Creativity & Innovation could influence our students in any one area, it would be to be more tolerant of ambiguity, to be able to say, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t know yet,” “I need more information,” “I need more time,” “I need more space to think about this.”

Michael: I guess there is a relation between ambiguity and just doubt.

Jessica: Yes.

Michael: To be able to rest, be comfortable with doubting. Right?

Jessica: Yeah, they are related. And ambiguity often causes doubt. When there’s no clear-cut answer or a path forward, then instead of being able to say, “There’s no clear path forward, so I’m going to sit here and take in,” or “I’m going to go out and find [00:40:00] information,” you doubt whether you’re capable of moving forward. So ambiguity makes people uncertain about their own capabilities. Not that, oh, this is an ambiguous situation, but they internalize it.

Elizabeth: Good point, yeah.

Jessica: And start to feel that they’re not good enough to be in this situation and to navigate it successfully. And then that really is the opposite. The opposite is true. When you have an ability to sit with uncertainty, then you’re probably going to make a better decision in the end because there’s a richer field of possibilities and possible answers that you can draw from. But it’s a tough one. It really is.

Kris: We’ve actually tried to have this be a piece of the Visual Notebooks, because there are many students who will say, “Ugh, I’m not a visual learner. This isn’t for me.” And they dismiss the process. And so we work with faculty to say, Visual Notebooks is a practice. Right? Visual Notebooks doesn’t have one outcome. Visual Notebooks is not just for people who are visual. [00:41:00] Visual Notebooks is about trying something new. Visual Notebooks is about being open to other perspectives. Visual Notebooks is about waiting to see what comes. It’s, I just wanted to add that one example of a way in which we try to, with and support students in thinking about ambiguity and being able to sit in uncertainty.

Jessica: We do a lot of work with visual art in this area too. And I personally do a lot of work with abstract art with people. My background as a curator showed me how uncomfortable people are with a piece of art when they can’t immediately say, “That’s a picture of a duck.” I know what ducks look like.

Elizabeth: Looks like a duck, walks like a duck.

Jessica: That’s a duck.

Elizabeth: Claps like a duck.

Jessica: Yeah, exactly. “I have criteria for duck. This meets the criteria for duck. Moving on.” Abstraction really throws people for a loop because it is uncertain and we have techniques where we work with students to slow down the processes of observation and really understand what it looks, [00:42:00] what it feels like to look deeply at something, to look for a long time. Again, pushing back against that swipe left or right, move on really quickly. And allow space for something ambiguous to resolve into something that feels like it’s a personal connection.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Michael: Speaking of the building blocks of creativity, I just absolutely love number two, which is “open to experience.” It reminded me of Rollo May, in his book on creativity he talks about the relationship of the, of encountering the object or the person or the thing that’s in the world, and it is in that encounter that creativity is born. And then I also thought of Sartre in his book Nausea, where the guy is just experiencing reality and all the categories of our, the thing that protect us from experience, all these categories, preexisting categories dissolve, and he’s just surrounded by this strange world around him. [00:43:00] Anyway. And so if you either one, if you could talk about the relation between actually experiencing the world or experiencing another person or whatever, and the creativity itself.

Kris: Definitely, one of our goals being openness and that’s both two new experiences and different perspectives, a piece of this relates to, I think all of our building blocks are interrelated, and so this interrelation to this idea of taking risks. Sometimes a new experience or something that you’re seeing outside someone else’s perspective could feel uncomfortable, could feel risky, and there’s actually a statistic that the current generation is less likely to get their driver’s license when they are 16 than prior. And to me, that’s an example of being anxious, nervous, about a new experience, one that carries risk.

Yes, one of the building blocks is trying to create an openness to take that [00:44:00] risk, to try something new, to experience things from different perspectives. I think part of what we do is really work to create that psychological safety that’s needed in order to allow students to have a mindset of openness. They need to feel safe to take a risk to be open to something. This also involves, if you’re open, then you are open to other notions as opposed to your own preconceived ideas, so it’s also in concepts, and how do we put aside what we think we know and stay open to, again, other possibilities? What else someone else might know that also might be true. So this has to do with fluency and flexibility of information, which we know from Torrance, fluency and flexibility is very much a part of creativity. Really, essentially being, making certain you’re not locked into your own ways of knowing, but being open to what else is out there.

Elizabeth: Torrance, I love that. Four characteristics of [00:45:00] creativity. Elaboration, originality.

Michael: Now, number three, the third building block is risking failure. And I, you’ve mentioned it, and I remember this philosopher, writer, Robert Grudin. And he wrote in The Grace of Great Things, “Creativity is dangerous. We cannot open ourselves to new insights without endangering the security of our prior assumptions. We cannot propose new ideas without risking disapproval and rejection.” And it struck home with this risking failure. In order to create, you have to risk it not working. Or risk expressing yourself in a way that might make people look at you and go, “What are you saying?” And so I would love you guys to just talk about how you create an environment—because as a director, I, when I’m working with actors, I’m constantly, I want them to be able to explore choices [00:46:00] in ways of delivering lines and building a relationship with their fellow actors or characters in the scene. And you have to create a safe environment, again, where that, where an actor can explore and risk making a, maybe a stupid choice. But then, not being held, like nobody, where people can just forget it and move on to discover the right choice. Can you just talk about how you create an environment where people are safe enough to risk failure?

Kris: Yes, definitely. All of our exercises are very in tune to how we can create the psychological safety. One of the ones that we do in almost all of our exercises is find ways to really build community. How do we support students getting to know each other better in ways that are maybe a little less common—it’s not about where you’re from, or how many sisters or brothers you have necessarily, but things that are a little bit different. And we find students are hungry for this kind of community, for feeling that they have a place in which they’re with [00:47:00] others that they can talk to and feel safe with. Part of developing the safe place is also focusing on the process, not the product. Again, knowing that we are going to, right, iterate. So if something is considered a failure, which we want to celebrate, then we continue working on it, right? What was the, our failures often tell us more about the process than our successes. Focus on that process, giving ample time for reflection making certain that faculty understand if there’s a creative exercise that they’re working on, that is not actually graded or evaluated.

Visual Notebooks, for example, professors don’t look at them. It is not something that students turn in to get a grade, not even a participatory grade. It is really for students exploration and trusting that the students will use this to get out of it what they need to get out of it, as opposed to being held accountable to do something, right? So focusing on that fact that it’s not always [00:48:00] evaluation.

Another example of this creating a safe environment and supporting students to be vulnerable and how that leads to community, there’s an exercise called “lyrical questions” that was actually created by a poet named Ross Gay. And in it students ask questions that seem, right, lyrical, such as, how do I get the blue out? So these, there’s things that are maybe a little different, not these concrete questions. And it really does lead to students becoming close to each other as they find ways to connect to something that is slightly abstracted. And we’ve had reports from students, several students, who said that after they did a lyrical question in a class, they ended up the following year becoming roommates with their partner in that exercise because they became so close to the person that they went through that with. Psychological safety is a huge piece of the risk taking. And we [00:49:00] definitely try to figure out how to make that happen.

Michael: I imagine it would work well with the Block Plan because students form communities in the Block Plan—they do, right? Because they’re with each other—

Kris: And then after three and a half weeks, they go to a totally separate one and might not see the people. So it’s both a benefit but then a curse in a way, that it, it both creates community and then disperses it and makes it difficult to, to continue to relate to the people you were with the following block.

Elizabeth: The final building block of creativity is making connections across domains and disciplines. And in some ways that seems to run counter to our age of narrow specialization. And it seems to be harkening back to a more renaissance-type education. So, would you agree with that? And if so, how do you get college departments, which, historically, are often territorial in nature, to behave in a more multidisciplinary [00:50:00] manner?

Jessica: I think, actually, institutionally, CC is a very collaborative place. And faculty here are generally open to inviting different perspectives into their classes. And often the stumbling block to interdisciplinary teaching is time, not territory or content, right? Because of the intensity of the Block Plan, it can be very difficult for faculty who may want to teach together from different disciplines and share what that sort of communication between methodologies looks like, but they don’t have time to make it all work. And that is one thing that offices like Creativity & Innovation can offer faculty is we do some matchmaking, we do some support for collaborative classes and interdisciplinary experiences. So we hope that we can help bridge this disciplinary divide, which sometimes is more perceived than actual.[ 00:51:00]  But it does need, because of the way that colleges are structured, sometimes it takes somebody from outside to help figure out what is the pivot point, how do we create a place of connection. So sometimes we can help with that.

And I think it’s also interesting to think about how CC in and of itself is an exercise in making connections. Because of the sequential nature of the Block Plan, students’ experiences, they might take art in block one and chemistry in block two and, history of the Middle East in block three. If there are connections between those blocks, if they have to find them across the span of time, right? If you were taking all three of those classes at the same time in one semester, you might find commonalities or places to dig in and think about more naturally, more organically across those three classes. There’s a—part of creative thinking, really, is the ability to do that, is to take two very different things like [00:52:00] art and biology and find the connective tissue. Like, what, what actually, what kinds of processes and practices and ways of thinking do both of these disciplines share even though the languages might be different? And I think what we unintentionally or secondarily do here, without really talking about it, is exactly this, of making unexpected connections between very different concepts and ideas, because of the way that the blocks are laid out.


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