11 No. 6
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
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected
AE: As a scholar, poet, and program director, what gets you excited?
LP: I have always been driven by a sense of possibility that humans can re-imagine themselves entirely—so when I come across an ancient Indian text or a contemporary thinker or poet that suggest compelling ways of reimagining, I want to pay attention. For instance, many scholars of ancient India argue that sound is more important than meaning. And yet I think the picture of ancient India is far more complex, and what we have is rather patterns of thinking in which sound and meaning interact and are constantly finding new forms of balance. Poetry works the same way: I think truly new poems find new ways of balancing sound and meaning. Religious texts are the most intriguing poetically to me for that reason.
The same goes for human organizations—there are usually far subtler and more imaginative possibilities to human relationships than we usually bring to the table. I think there are fascinating ways to re-imagine how we work together in the university—but it takes a lot of commitment to think about one’s own institution in that way. I think such an approach tends to work most effectively on a small scale.
AE: What do you see as challenges to your creativity?
LP: My challenge is to see creativity in the follow-through and drudgery. For the past fifteen years I’ve trained myself to be draconian about follow-through because of that tendency. Many of my students experience me as hyper-disciplined, but in fact I’m just trying to compensate for the opposite tendency. Many of our most creative tendencies compensate for some actual or perceived lack.
AE: How do you maintain creativity in a period of economic contraction?
LP: I tend to work harder and expect that everyone else will too. Head down, move forward, find another path to maintain what is truly excellent. I think we need to be particularly generous toward ourselves and one another where budget cuts come in. We need to listen better and respond very carefully when others are experiencing or pushing back against a
professional loss—say of a program or a graduate line—that might not seem that important to us.
AE: What’s the difference between creativity and generativity?
LP: Once you realize a certain scholarly formula in a field, it is easy to be generative in a mechanical kind of way. I worry that we are asked to be generative but not creative. Then in our academic system we come up with a mechanical formula for what is “creative,” and the category gets worn thin. It’s a risk—so we need to come up with new words for the idea of “creativity” if we’re really going to be attentive to it.
AE: What do you look for as signs of creativity in the work of others?
LP: 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. That’s almost impossible in any institutional setting that has “benchmarks” and “goals” and “accountability.” I actually think all those modes of institutional life are important, but only if people speak in loyal opposition to them at the same time.
AE: Why has the CFDE taken this topic on?
LP: I think faculty need to talk about these questions. When I sit with faculty, it’s where the conversation almost always ends up—are we staying creative or are we just treading water? The risk is that creativity will become a tired institutional buzzword. But I think the topic is almost infinite, so providing different kinds of opportunities to explore it and listening to people’s stories is really rewarding. We’ll stop when the conversation stops helping others. The most important thing is to let people go off and be creative and not require them to talk about it if it is getting in the way of their work.