Creativity inside and outside universities

by Deborah Talbot

The Alternative Academia Network held its second meeting on the 14th February 2016. The aim is to discuss how creativity works inside and outside universities. The following are notes from the presentation by Deborah Talbot, which explores the benefits and drawbacks of different configurations of creative production.

The model of creative production inside academia goes something like this.

From undergraduate degree to Masters degree creativity means learning the canon, or what is and is not an acceptable mode of discourse. It can vary from lecturer to lecturer, but generally, it takes place within narrow confines. The boundaries of acceptability also applies to the form of production, which takes place within the written word. The visual, and sound, seems largely absent (there are some exceptions, as there always are).

At Ph.D. level, there is greater freedom to make an original contribution, either with method, research insights or conceptual innovation. However, constraints are present in the form of writing, where everything must be evidenced and artistic license not encouraged. Rarely is writing flair explored, though of course the ability to write legibly and correctly is helpful. The Harvard system of referencing is I believe an impediment to both creative expression and creative reading (causing interrupted thought).

Then you get to be an academic (if you can jump through the hoops). Because of the demands of the REF, the cycle of journal article production and funding proposals, mostly from the major research councils and charities, need to be pursued. There is autonomy to think and be intellectually independent, but artistic license gets ever narrower. As we have been debating on AAN’s Facebook page, the refereeing process may add more impediments to creative breakthroughs and innovation.

The narrowness of the curriculum is exacerbated by the absence of mental space with which to reflect for the academic. There is a rhythm to academic production, which is increasingly speeded up and continuous (monotonous?). Creative or lifestyle lulls are not encouraged.

The advantage, of course, to this long process of training, is a finer grasp of methodological thinking and, for those in the social sciences, research skills. Conceptual development is encouraged and developed. Theoretical awareness cannot be surpassed anywhere outside the academy. And, as Keniston argued, academia is one of the few places left which can carry the weight of policy and governmental criticism.

Compare this to intellectual production outside the university (which I have recently embraced).

There is an almost unparalleled freedom to produce because of the possibilities of the Internet and social media. For the writer or artist, democratic possibilities are opened up by the fact that being known (as part of an existing elite) does not necessarily preclude a breakthrough.

There is also the potential for using different media to express ideas. The visual, sound and word can be combined in a series of endless possibilities.

Free resources are available to use and shape according to need.

Work wise, as it has been noted, is rapidly changing to ‘insecure’ and precarious freelancing, yet precarity seems more like a state of mind when the possibilities of innovation and diversification are endless.

The potential to transform political and policy discourses through creative activity show in the campaigning of Corbyn and the like. There is an army of bloggers writing well-informed material.

Crowdfunding and apps like Patreon offer routes to develop funding structures. Some bloggers, like ‘Brain Pickings’ get money from Amazon per click, and has been enormously successful, but which unfortunately leads to an escalating series of links in the blogs.

Yet there are some downsides.

Monetising your creative activity is difficult, and most opt for the combinations of freelancing contracts to pay the bills leaving ‘free’ time for creativity (I do this). It takes years to build up a sufficient reputation to be worthy of being financially supported as a writer or an artist, though it does happen.

Access to academic research is limited because of copyright. Open Access may alleviate this, but still much academic research is protected by a firewall. There are reactions to this, for example,Sci-Hub, which has pirated and made freely available 47m research papers.

Academic institutions do not take the creative endeavours of ‘outsiders’ seriously and do not encourage them in. With the exception of governmental policy-making, there is very little integrated discursive development. There is a feeling that academics are suspicious of the way creators have to work with the ‘market’, even though it is pragmatic rather than ideological.

Despite some wonderfully informative efforts of writers, who have superior skills of communication and expression, there is often a methodological lack in intellectual production outside the academy; inevitably so as production of articles takes a day not two or more years of sustained research.

There is of course what has been called ‘content shock’ by marketeers; that there is an oversupply of information on the web, and it is hard for writers and artists to be visible.

What is the solution?

Something to discuss in this session?

My initial thoughts, which may not be well-developed, are…

The boundaries between universities and the outside world should be more porous. This is not the same as ‘public engagement’ or notions of ‘impact,’ which only favour evidenced forms of impact and then it is only about a one-way relationship between the academic and the ‘outside world’, or is about ‘disciplining’ academic inquiry. Quite rightly academics are wary of this.

I mean that intellectual production inside and outside the academy could both benefit from greater interaction. This can mean: a loosening of notions of academic production; a loosening of the’ full-time’ academic contract (as opposed to being permissive about short-term and zero hours contracts) which would permit more portfolio working; a loosening of the meaning of academic production; access to the civilising forces of academia for those outside; or an opening up of academic production to outside interrogation.

One final thought. It is interesting that Academia Edu, much maligned by some academics as a corporate machine, actually encourages the interaction of academics and independent scholars. The dislike of AE speaks to the lack of porousness in the academy and perhaps, the problem of taking ‘purity’ too far.

This article was originally posted on Driftmine.


Deborah Talbot is a freelance writer and researcher. She spent twenty years lecturing at universities before running for the hills to do something more creative. She founded Driftmine in June 2015 because she was “itching to use her long experience of political engagement, observation and failure to say something about politics today” and “wondered if there were others who wanted to do the same.” She remains concerned that words are a source of fear, cynicism and rigidity, and that it is possible that we need to combine words, images and sounds to escape the fixity of political language.

Categories: Accelerated Academy, Higher Education, Rethinking The World

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