I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Creativity and Research in Academia

I have been reading Sue North’s PhD thesis titled Relations of Power and Competing Knowledges Within the Academy: Creative Writing as Research (University of Canberra, 2004). In the conclusion of Chapter 2, The Conflict of the Faculties, she says:

The doxa of creative work and the doxa of research arise from different epistemological underpinnings – creativity from the unexplainable force of the imagination, and research from the logical force of understanding. [my links]

In simple terms, she said that it is common knowledge that creativity is a manifestation of imagination, while research is a process based on studying, understanding, and logical thinking. By using the word doxa, she tells us that these beliefs are so widely accepted that they don’t even need to be expressed. In other words, everybody considers them to be true.

I agree with her: most people think that way. But I believe that they do so because they don’t have a clear understanding of how people tap their creativity and what it means to do research.

The concepts that artists pull their creations out of thin air and that researchers only exercise logic are both wrong.

Let’s look at artists first. They couldn’t create anything without studying the world around them, the work of other artists, and the tools they need to do their work. Ideas don’t just spring out of the mind of an artist fully clothed and armed, like Athena out of Jupiter’s head.

As an example, consider what writing a novel involves.

The author needs to invent characters and design a plot for them, so that they can interact with each other. Some authors start with a plot and others starts with the characters, but, in either case, they must ensure that those two elements are consistent, credible (and interesting). This can only come after years of observing how people interact and trying to understand what motivates them.

And then, authors cannot write their novels with any hope of success unless they know their craft: structure, voice, pace, dialogue, to name some aspects of it. This means that they need to learn techniques, read a lot, and write a lot.

Creative writing is the Cinderella of Academia. This status of affairs reflects the almost universal opinion that, because everybody can write, studying creative writing is a trivial activity pursued by people who want to have it easy at the University.

It is only when people actually try to write something worth reading that they realise how little they know and how much they need to work in order to get any recognition.

Furthermore, to write a novel an author needs logic, discipline, and rigour, otherwise his/her four hundred pages will be full of inconsistencies, loose threads, and untruths.

In order to create realistic characters placed in a realistic environment and doing realistic actions, an author needs to do a lot of research. Most (I would say all, but I don’t want to be so absolute) authors define their characters and their plots to a level of detail that remains below the surface of the finished product. What ends up into the novel is only the tip of the iceberg.

Authors also perform another activity typical of research: experimentation. This can be in the content, the dialogue, or the form. For example, Peter Carey, in his historical novel True History of the Kelly Gang, doesn’t use a single comma, while Alessandro Baricco, in his short novel Silk, uses line breaks to control the pace and convey meaning. And if this seems too literary and abstract, how much research do you think Frank Herbert had to do in order to create the universe in which his Dune stories take place?

I’m talking about creative writing because I had a couple of non-fiction books and a couple of Science Fiction stories published. Therefore, I can talk about it with some credibility. But I’m sure that equivalent concepts apply to other creative activities.

I hope I have convinced you that creative work couldn’t exist without logical thinking, knowledge, and research. If not, think again.

Now, let’s look at research. I shall go out on a limb here and say that without imagination any type of research would be impossible.

It is standard practice in academic papers to present the results of research in a logical fashion: you write about existing results, identify a gap, and explain how your results close it. There is more to it but, in essence, research papers are logical to the core. This is especially true in Physics, the prototypical scientific discipline.

But this is not how research actually works. Most neatly presented conclusions are in reality the result of hunches, leaps, backtracking, crises, and serendipitous events (i.e., strokes of luck). Research works somewhat like solving a jigsaw puzzle: you start from the edges and the pieces you can easily recognise. Then, you fill the gaps to complete the picture. Sometimes, you feel that a piece might be right in a certain spot and place it there, hoping to have it confirmed later. But both academic papers for the scientific community and magazine articles for the rest of us present the research process as if the researchers had started the puzzle from the top-left corner and systematically worked their way to the bottom-right piece.

The key point I’m trying to express is that logic cannot add knowledge. It can be used to extract information that for any reason is still hidden in the data and, sometimes, this leads to surprising and useful results, which in turn can trigger new avenues of research. But, ultimately, truly new discoveries occur when a researcher follows a hunch and jumps over a gap in the logic. This what Edward De Bono calls Lateral Thinking. And what about the creativity that any experimental researcher needs in order to overcome the many technical (e non-technical) problems s/he encounters daily?

In other words, imagination plays an essential role in the progress of Science and Technology. The logical chain of thought is often reconstructed after the discovery has been made or a working solution found. When a scientist gets enamoured with an idea and invents an experiment to verify it, s/he will not necessarily tell you.

Think to Einstein and his special theory of relativity. He postulated the constancy of the speed of light. He certainly didn’t deduce it logically.

To conclude, successful creative endeavours require study, understanding, and logic, while research produces its best results thanks to insights, imagination, and dedication.

So, please, let’s stop perpetuating these stereotypes of wild artists and white-coated scientists!

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