Creativity and the Academic Essay

Last week, I attended an English department meeting on behalf of the Graduate English Society about incorporating "teaching creativity" into courses. You can see the live tweets from the department account here. Near the end of the meeting, a professor I had in my fourth year of undergrad warned of the danger of turning "creativity" into a buzzword, and reminded us that research papers are creative endeavours, too.

I agree entirely. I let the room know that once I realized that my research papers could and should be written creatively, my writing improved immensely (and so did my grades). The only way that I was able to recognize this was by reading scholarship by established academics -- e.g., published journal articles.

Very few courses in my undergrad career had journal articles on the syllabuses. Though papers in my second and third year required "secondary sources," it wasn't until my fourth-year seminar -- the one taught by the aforementioned prof -- that I was assigned entire journal articles to read for class.

I remember trying to read these for homework and the language and structure seeming impenetrable. My reading skills, even in the last year of an honours specialization degree in English, were not at the level required to parse an academic article easily. (Part-way through my Master's, I remembered this initial reaction as I asked myself if the articles I was reading now were just overall easier, or if my reading level had improved. I assume that it was the latter -- hopefully!)

But aside from elevating my reading comprehension, these articles showed me that academic writing could be eloquent and full of personality, while still being concise and insightful. Once I realized that I could have fun and flex my creativity while I write these papers, I understood how to make my argument more nuanced and my writing more engaging.

As a teaching assistant in the English department, I spend a lot of time going over writing skills in my tutorials. This helps me in the end, because it makes the papers I ultimately have to grade better. But it's also knowledge that I find exciting to impart, now that I've grasped it for myself. We throw a lot of words like "controversial" around when trying to motivate students to develop better thesis statements, but students don't often grasp what we really mean by this. And I think the reason for this is that they, like me, don't realize how they can get creative with their essays.

We ask students to write good essays, but seldom give them a model to follow. It'd be ridiculous for a creative writing class to not stress the importance of reading fiction in order to ameliorate the students' own writing. I think it's equally important for students in literature classes to have models to follow. One option, aside from academic journals which I've already described can be daunting for fourth-year students, let alone first-years, would be for professors to encourage students to read the papers published by the Arts and Humanities Student Council. As a former editor-in-chief of the AHSC, I know how much work goes into these fantastic publications every year. They have a pedagogical use in class, because each paper had to have received an "A" grade to be considered for publication, and then they get blind-vetted by a team of professors. As the person who hand-picked these essays, I can attest to the edge the more "creative" ones had over the other highly-graded submissions. I use these publications when I teach essay writing to my students to show them what an excellent paper can look like. This is often the first time they've read a literature essay. They're often very impressed by their peers' writing, and newly motivated because they finally understand what it is we're trying to get them to do -- structurally, yes, but creatively more so.

It's my opinion, based on my own experience and the good return on investment I've seen with my own students, that stressing creativity in essay-writing is an effective way to improve the quality of the writing, grades, and overall attitude toward English literature as a discipline. Let's remember this when we plan to make our lessons or syllabuses more creative, too.