Perspectives on the arts, creativity, cross-pollinization and their place in the world
By Rebecca Tavernini ’11 MA
Where do ideas come from? How are perplexing problems ingeniously solved? How do disparate fields synergize to transform our lives in manners never imagined? What are we doing at Northern to spur innovation in the next generation? How can these thoughts apply to our own lives?
“The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas,” Isaac Asimov wrote in an essay on creativity when he was asked to brainstorm with an elite group to design a ballistic missile defense system in 1959. Though he declined, he offered advice for the process. Among it: “What is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2, which might not ordinarily seem connected.”
NMU student Nicole Garabelli is an example of such intersections of knowledge. She is a multi-talented English major with a computer science minor. After attending a computer science colloquium this fall, she said, “I am grateful that I have a mixture of math, CS and English classes under my belt. My English major has allowed me to practice thinking and approaching problems from various perspectives, which is vital in computer programming.”
In a recent survey by Adobe of Gen Z (students age 11-17) and their teachers, both felt strongly that there needs to be more of a focus on creativity in the classroom. That being creative will play an integral role in their success and in solving many of the challenges the world faces today. Ninety-four percent of teachers forecast that “my students will one day have careers that we didn’t even know would exist today.” How do we prepare for an unknown future?
Many believe that not just classical critical thinking but creative thinking across traditional boundaries —collective intelligence—provides the mindset to not only adapt but invent and engineer the unimaginable.
But first we must pass our own mental roadblocks. Asimov also stated in his essay: “The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table…. It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems the height of unreason.”
Invention doesn’t always start from the ground up. As Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter writes, “One of the things we love to do at Pixar is take something familiar and show it in a way people have never seen it before.”
NMU faculty, in a rather random sampling of fields, share their thoughts on how their academic programs spark creative thinking and the often intangible skills needed to navigate the mysterious voyage ahead.
J.D. Phillips | Department Head
Mathematics and Computer Science
We study mathematics for the same reasons we study poetry or music or painting or literature: for aesthetic reasons. Simply put, we study mathematics because it is one of the loveliest disciplines known to humankind.
Many think that mathematics is a mechanical, cold, unimaginative discipline, suitable only for unartistic, uncreative “computer types.” I suggest they have confused mathematics with the discipline that went by that name in their schooling. Often teachers attempt to sell mathematics to their students as nothing more than a manipulative and a practical tool. Of course mathematics is useful and practical as a utensil, but only to the professional scientist and engineer. Almost everyone else will use no more “mathematics” in their everyday life than the simplest of grammar school arithmetic: balancing a check book, counting change, measuring carpet. Imagine the absurdity of being in a car or on a plane when suddenly the need arises to solve a quadratic equation or to graph a trigonometric function. But this is precisely the scenario that the traditional defense has coerced us into accepting as realistic. Of course, students realize this. They become apathetic or openly hostile towards this “mathematics.” And who can blame them?
Let’s instead consider the beauty of mathematics: “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns…. The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” —G. H. Hardy
One of the most compelling aesthetic features of mathematics is its refined austerity. Its unadorned gracefulness is unique among the arts. In fact, part of the very essence of mathematics is its precision. People are referring to this quality when they suggest that mathematics teaches “clear thinking.” This precision and austerity allow for an elegant economy, an economy that comes from the elimination of the cluttering mire of imprecision. The mathematician, however, is not merely an ascetic, cold and austere. He or she is an expressive artist involved in the richly human struggle to create and to discover.
The study of great things, including the study of great ideas, needs no defense. And many of the greatest of human thoughts have taken the form of mathematics. As mathematician Jerry P. King said, “Although mathematics itself is 2,500 years old, more has been created in the last fifty years than in all the previous ages combined.”
Mathematics is vibrant and dynamic, an incredibly rich and human discipline, a liberal art and a humanity in the purest sense—that helps us refine our sense of wonder.
From Phillips’ “Mathematics as an Aesthetic Discipline,” published in Humanistic Mathematics Journal.
Tim Compton | Department Head
Modern Languages and Literatures
We love all of our language majors, but we really like it when people combine the skills they learn from us with skills from other academic programs. We have more double majors than any other department on campus. Having a nursing and Spanish degree, for instance, is so good for the student and for all the people they’ll be serving once they graduate. One of our biology/Spanish majors went to Ecuador and learned all kinds of things about orchids that she never would have learned without knowing Spanish, or biology. Then that research in the Andes really gave her an edge in applying for graduate schools. That’s the exciting thing—to combine skills and bring something new to that field through language and international studies experiences.
Businesses really value intercultural experience as well. To be able to deal with and understand people who are of different cultures, to see that there may be two ways or more of looking at things, and come up with solutions that aren’t one dimensional is very valuable to business.
When students study abroad, they come back with a different set of eyes. Most of us who teach language recognize that the real joy is in making bridges to peoples and cultures. The excitement of conjugating a verb has limitations for most of us, but connecting with different people and cultures brings us lasting joy.
It allows our alumni to live exciting, creative lives. Virginia (Harris) Blakeman ’06 is a U.S. foreign service officer who has had appointments in Poland and Mexico and is now Special Assistant for Public Affairs to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights in Washington, D.C. Axel Wenger ‘98 has worked for Victorinox, which makes Swiss Army knives, as international sales manager. Holger Wagner ‘97 lives in Nairobi and works for Oxfam International; he goes into one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Somalia, and just loves it.
Michael Letts ‘84 BFA
Art Education Professor
In the art education program we work with two major objectives that identify as 21st century skills. One of those is creativity. Students study the content and processes of creative thinking and work with projects that specifically hone creative thought processes that can be used with students and can apply across the curriculum.
We incorporate areas of integration where processes overlap so they are experienced as universal skills, not just for producing art. For example, creative and scientific processes share experiences of investigation, interpretation, mix logic and linear thinking with non-rational, nonlinear thinking, apply modeling and metaphor, engage in use of intuition, chance, improvisation and flexibility, and act with perseverance and commitment, with goals of discovery. These are skills that can be honed for and by creative production.
Our mission as art educators when we step into K-12 schools is to develop these creative processes in all students.
Robert Engelhart | Department Head
What really makes us excited as humans is music and the arts. If you list things that are common to all humans at every human level: eating, drinking, religion, sex… pretty soon comes rhythm and music. Not all cultures have visual arts, but dancing is most often a part, relying on someone making a regular pulse.
Musicians are often asked to defend the discipline in terms of its side effects: because it does this or that (encourages discipline, GPAs go up, makes workers more productive, etc.). Our faculty will say in and of itself it’s still central to human experience; it shouldn’t have to prove itself. Music is an entryway to a limitless world of individual expression.
It cross-pollinates into everything we do. If someone’s a really good singer and can stand on stage, they will probably have that same confidence in a job interview and presenting themselves throughout their life. Playing in an ensemble is much like having a vivid conversation. And when we gain insight into what a composer wants by interpreting what is written on a page and bring it to life, we gain a valuable skill for many milieux. Students may be intimidated by all of this, but they learn to “play” music rather than work it.
Every time a student walks into a lesson, they are being challenged to create. For instance, those in Carrie Biolo’s class have an assignment to make a functioning musical instrument. Students have made them out of PVC pipe, rock, cardboard and many other unusual materials.
There’s a perceived dichotomy between music and science, but really, music rehearsal is one long series of experiments, with data being collected and characterized—much like a chemistry experimentation model—it’s exhausting but exhilarating.
Daric Christian | Associate Dean and Department Head
School of Art & Design
I view art as a conversation between the artist and audience viewing the work.
Traditional arts’ contribution to society is to add a thoughtful view of the world, which could be everything from social commentary to simply allowing people to view something in a different way than they might normally have viewed it. Art encompasses everything from beauty to the juxtaposition of ideas, it provides entertainment and escape.
Artists help the world with design. Good design is something that can enhance people’s lives with everyday items we use, making them more efficient and user friendly.
I have been reading that some businesses feel they have too many MBAs and are bringing in MFAs to provide a creative perspective. The tactics we use in art are not dissimilar to dealing with problems in other fields.
The idea of developing a sustainable creative practice involves learning some methodologies that keep you working toward solving problems and not getting stifled by obstacles. That kind of creative thinking—which involves intentionally avoiding the expected solutions—is something that would be helpful in a lot of areas. I think that working to produce a group of graduating students who understand those methodologies is helpful to society as a whole, whether they stay in the arts or branch out to other fields, as they often do.
We encourage experimentation and allowing for artifacts of process to creep into production. First, consider the idea they’re trying to communicate, then work through a process of how to do that. Along the way, the actual production of the piece is going to expose the student to new ideas, and that process itself has a life that’s not tied to the original plan.
That takes commitment to improving, and working through the process—and time. We teach that your artwork will improve with the time commitment you put into it, even if the projects are failures. It’s difficult sometimes for young artists to realize the benefit of that because there’s the desire to achieve success quickly and there are so many things they are passionate about communicating.
Personally, I make a lot of stuff no one will ever see. I have a lot of failures and partial ideas. But that somehow builds momentum and I move on to a final piece that comes out of that broken process. I like to change parameters on every project I do, so I have to learn a new process, which may involve changing mediums, or adding a new technical layer to force me to pursue something new—then I can take that back into the classroom.
You can make great art that no one ever sees, but I think most people probably have a desire to share it, and to talk about it.
I think we are only limited by thinking we can’t do something because there is only one way to do it. What some might see as our limitations are the very core of our strength. I’ve made a simple, practical change in my approach to costume change. My determination is to do more with less: We have boxes of donated fabric and ‘80s prom dresses. How do we turn that into historic costumes? I’ve discovered that students love these challenges and that the production process becomes one of inquiry and discovery embracing the “limitations.”
My playwriting class is working on a project called The Theatre of Inanimate Objects. Their assignments range from “interviews” with museum objects and family heirlooms from other cultures to the creation of characters based on books (the books themselves, not the characters in the books) to things found in a junk drawer to the contents of a mini fridge. The challenge is to crack their notions of what character is and to create a new entertainment forum for studying human action through the things we collect, treasure or toss.
Communication Studies Professor
Cultivating creativity in the classroom is not just about having students think “outside the box,” it’s about “doing” the outside the box thinking. Sometimes solving problems does require a unique approach, but it also involves people who are willing to put their ideas into the circle and get their hands dirty seeing those ideas through to the end. That’s the true cultivation of creativity … idea into action and action into reflection.
I want my students to be stakeholders in the development of their own ideas, to be a part of creating the environment in which they are learning. Sometimes it means that my classroom goes in a different direction than the lesson I had prepared, but when that direction is driven by students, I often find myself standing by in awe of what they come up with and the passion with which they’re doing it.
Michael Crum | Entrepreneurship and Small Business
Management Professor College of Business
We come up with quick ideas called a business model canvas. We do this a couple of times throughout the semester. They don’t necessarily need to be good ideas. But It’s important to establish these behavior patterns early on. This is tough to do consistently. And it’s a bit of a black box of what really works as far as ideas go. The challenge is generating ideas. And yet even today we don’t know the best way to do it.
Having prior knowledge and expertise helps to focus. But we also encourage unstructured thinking. Let an idea develop. Then think about whether it’s feasible or not.
A good way to test that is in NMU’s New Business Venture Competition. Students from my classes have entered ideas for a healthy fast food restaurant; a breath spray that provides a boost of energy in addition to fresh breath; and an energy audit service that would examine the energy use of a home and suggest ways to conserve energy.
When it comes to marketing, they wouldn’t even think of putting an ad in the Yellow Pages (although that would be effective for certain audiences). They feel, often correctly, that social media provides many more venues where people can do all kinds of creative things, at low cost.
James Cantrill | Department Head
Communications and Performance Studies
There is an artificial distinction we make between science and the arts. Some of the most creative things come from scientists, some of the most practical come from the stage, or the creation of a poem. That creative drive illuminates something you wouldn’t understand with the use of a slide rule alone.
We try to spark the imagination of our students by doing a lot of creative things, hoping it transfers to lifelong learning.
For instance, as with others on campus, we are flipping classrooms to facilitate collaborative learning, and collaborating across lines between departments overall. In a public address course, professor Sara Potter pioneered empowering her students with 30-second speeches, a few a week. It decreases anxiety and helps organize their thought processes. Tom Isaacson’s students worked with the Michigan Audubon Society and with Marquette’s new Nestledown Inn on promotional campaigns. Mark Shevy and his broadcast technology students created videos to help the Marquette Ending Hunger project. And we are partnering with the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the largest university in South America, to collaborate on environmental communications training in this critical time. In the process we plan on using two-way video between students there and here to help learn languages through a cultural lens.
At NMU we have embraced Ernest Boyer’s notion of “Scholarship Reconsidered,” which involves scholarship of discovery, integration, application and evaluation. What someone does in theater, music, art and design or media production counts just as much in scholarship as scientific research, and is held to the same standards.
As our oft-remembered colleague Chuck Ganzert once observed, Northern is the kind of place where if a student knocks on the door and asks, “Can I try this?,” the answer she most likely will receive is, “Let’s see if we can make that happen.”
Lynn Domina | Department Head
When I was teaching an introductory fiction course years ago, one student asked me why he had to read William Kennedy’s Ironweed, because the characters—primarily a homeless alcoholic whose past had driven him to despair—had nothing to do with him. I responded that one very good reason for reading was to confirm our own experiences, but another very good reason was to extend our experiences beyond the confines of our own lives. Through reading, we empathize with people like ourselves and very much unlike ourselves, and we often discover that people with whom we thought we shared nothing aren’t nearly as different as we’d assumed.
We can say the same about writing. Whether a writer is composing a lyric essay, a short story, or a poem, that writer will grapple with connection—between writer and reader, and between writer and material. The challenge often begins with communicating an experience as exactly as possible, but it often develops through flashes of insight made possible because of our struggle with language. Language is beautiful and useful, occasionally offensive, sometimes frustrating, but perhaps most importantly it is one of the primary tools to help us discover the meaning of our lives. That’s one reason so many students enroll in creative writing courses; they want to explore their experiences in order to understand the significance of their lives.
Human beings are creative creatures. We are plunged into language even before we’re born. No wonder, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “of making many books there is no end.” Ecclesiastes intends the phrase as a warning, but I think it’s a very fine blessing indeed.