Keeping the Spark

hand with sparks

I’m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself . . . because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.

—Sander L. Gilman, Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of the Psychoanalytic Studies Program

Vol. 11 No. 6
May 2009

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Keeping the Spark
The challenges of staying creative over an academic career

Podcasts: The Challenges of Staying Creative: Stories from Emory

The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence

“When people are willing to get ‘off track,’ that is when I see them at their most creative. When they stop worrying about traditional modes of recognition, they tend to be far more spontaneous.”

“I‘m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself . . . because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.”

“Having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers.”

Show Up and Get to Work
Time, solitude, and creative breakthroughs

On Becoming a Scientist-Advocate
Creative new possibilities for approaching and teaching science

Crazy Thinking
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected


Academic Exchange: What can an individual scholar do to keep his or her own creative life vigorous?

Sander Gilman: I have always followed the NASA model. NASA at the very beginning of the race toward the moon decided that it could not focus in on one project at a time. It had to have multiple things that it was doing, so that if one project dead-ended or failed, there were other projects.

Right before I got tenure, I had a major moment of boredom and malaise and an enormous writer’s block. I would go to the office and spend the day sharpening pencils. Every day was worse than the day before. What I realized after months and months of this was that the problem wasn’t me. The problem was that I had only one thing that I had to do. I decided at that point that I needed to have multiple things to do. Many of those never come to fruition. For me, that’s fine. I’m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself, whether it’s an administrative or a writing task, because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.

It’s the curse of the academy that we train graduate students to become monomaniacal. We train them to focus in on one project, one idea, one strand of their lives. If a student comes to an adviser and says, I want to take a semester off and work for Doctors Without Borders, we say to them, But that will inhibit your progress, rather than saying, Let’s see how we can fold it into your experience. Every academic has interests and strengths—some of them have to do with their research, with their teaching, with their creativity beyond the classroom. I would like to see all of that harnessed for the university, but if the university is interested only in harnessing the more limited commitments to teaching and advising and administration, then one has to think about maintaining that separate life, whether it’s doing one’s research, whether it’s writing poems if you’re a chemist, whether it’s working with groups beyond the university which need your time and investment of energy.

AE: What are some challenges to creativity over the life cycle?

SG: There are plateaus in life. And those plateaus may have external structures which create them. I always think about the period after getting tenure in my own case. Suddenly I was faced with, What am I supposed to do having accomplished the most important thing in my life? I was twenty-four years old, and I thought to myself, Oh my god, I’ve got fifty years to live, and it’s all downhill from now. There is the mid-life crisis, which articulates itself among different people in different ways—somewhere between forty and sixty. I think that one of the things one has to look at as an individual are not only those things which cause or are caused by depression and malaise: I have written my big book, what now? I’m no longer interested in this disciplinary strand; what now? I hate students—what now? But also, what excites us and interests us?

AE: How do we stay creative in this time of economic contraction?

SG: The general response to radical shifts in the economy is one of anxiety and fear. But these times can be times of unbelievable creative productivity. The question always is how do you look at it? It’s the half-full versus the half-empty glass problem. Creativity either can be hampered by the notion that in times of economic downturn, as academic institutions fall back on strict disciplinary definitions, departments become very jealous about sharing students and faculty time. Or you could think about it in terms of the unbelievable outburst of creativity during the Great Depression, which included people at universities who suddenly felt themselves liberated to cross boundaries. That has to do I think very much with institutional leadership.

AE: When you look at the academic work of others, what to you is a sign of creativity?

SG: Creative work for me sparks my interest. It can be the forty-fifth book on Freud that makes me think about Freud in different ways. Or it may be the first attempt to define a field. I remember with enormous clarity when somebody said to me, “There’s this new book that’s appeared in this funny little publisher in Holland by this guy I’ve never heard of at MIT called Chomsky, called Syntactic Structures. You should go read it.” And I read Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, and thought to myself, this is a whole different way of imagining the world.