Category Archives: Teaching

Up, Up, And Away!



Up, Up and Away in my beautiful machine. Remember that song from Sesame Street? Driving to the lake in our new Ford Focus, I felt like I was flying high. Off we were to our summer cottage in the New Jersey Highlands, with two cars in tandem, both stuffed to the brim with our treasured possessions–our books, are tapes, our CDs, our cloths, and of course our dog Sparky.

A new car you say? You are environmentalists, non-materialists! How did that come about?

Well, we had been thinking about it for a long time. Although our 20 year old CRX si (the last of its make) had served us well, it had seen better times. As well, we were beginning to creak, just like the CRX, so it was harder and harder to take advantage of its sporty appurtenances. Nonetheless, we procrastinated, not wanting to let go of the happy memories and associations that our CRX evoked. As importantly, negotiating a car deal is intimidating; much as in the case of birthing a baby, we had to wait until the pain of the previous experience had subsided before trying again.

We had to wait until the pain of the previous experience subsided, before trying again

What helped to overcome our inertia was our desire to bring all our stuff with us on our vacation to Hawthorne Lake. No doubt, it would take two cars. Did we really need all this paraphernalia? Most likely not! But, as one might well imagine, even though we could not possibly read all the books, wear all the cloths, nor listen to all the CDs that we had packed, together they comprised a web of connections and affordances, which made it easier for us to carry out our routine away from home.

so many choices

so many choices

The subject of things continued to preoccupy me even after we had unpacked our cars, put everything in its place, and settled into our cottage on the lake. For once I was ensconsed in the old wicker chair at the end of our long screened-in porch, the first book I drew from my grand pile was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self.

Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s perspective on the role of things is quite unique. Unlike most sociologists, they are not focused on the relationship between things and status. Nor do they take an especially critical perspective of things, bemoaning the evils of consumerism. As significant, the authors rise above the technology determinism vs. social constructivism debate. Instead, grounded in the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, and the philosophical pragmatism of John Dewey, they view the interactions/transactions between people and and things as a two-way street.

Generations of Things

Generations of Things

Embodying past associations and psychic investments, objects convey symbolic meaning to those engaged with them. At the same time, the users of objects can extend that meaning by investing their own psychic energy in the object to pursue their own individual goals. Growth occurs in the process, with respect to both the object and the individual. As importantly, because objects embody meaning at three levels–the self, the community, and the cosmos–the network of objects with which we are surrounded help us to orient ourselves to function both as individuals as well as participants in a larger whole.

Our home at the lake epitomizes the narrative that Csikszentmihayli and Rochberg-Halton lay out. As they point out:

One of the most important psychological purposes of the home is that those objects that have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely those aspects of the self that one values are kept within it. Thus the home is not only a material shelter but also a shelter for those things that make life meaningful.



Built by my grandfather in 1908, our house at the lake is home to prized possessions that span five generations–the deer head over the fireplace, first edition books, the mission oak furniture, blackened cast iron pots, my mother’s rolling pin, my father’s fly rod, my childhood toys, my son’s tools, my grandchildren’s paintings, and–last but not least–our new car. They serve not only to link me back through the generations that preceded me; they instill in me the insight and impetus to keep our house and its environs in tack for the generations yet to come.

Can Universities Be Small Worlds?

 It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

Students in my Networks and the Creative Process class have been thinking about what constitutes the most appropriate network architecture for fostering creativity. Following the work of Grannovetter, Strogatz, Watts, and Burt, as well as others, who advocate a small world network, we have been comparing various contextual architectures to each other as well as to that of a small world.

students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain.

For example, in our last blogging assignment, students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain, commenting in each case on how the architecture influences creativity. An interesting exercise, to be sure!

Perhaps I should say a word about small worlds, and why their architectures are assumed to facilitate creativity or–as Ron Burt would say–good ideas. Small world networks are characterized by dense clusters (comprised of close associations, or strong ties) that are linked to other clusters within a network by weak ties (or loosely coupled relationships). According to the theory, dense relationships within the clusters give rise to trust and collaboration, which enable collective action, thereby allowing members to more easily execute tasks.

old hat (from  Fabrizio Savoca)

old hat (from Fabrizio Savoca)

However, ideas within a cluster tend to become old hat–that is, because members are so closely associated, they tend to reinforce old ways of thinking and discourage new ideas. To garner new ideas and be creative requires outreach, based on weak ties, and the brokering of ideas across clusters.

At first glance, universities appear to be small worlds.

How does this idea apply to university settings? At first glance, one might assume that universities are ideal small worlds. Indeed, divided up into departments that are grounded in disciplinary practices and domains, the university is constituted of relatively independent departmental clusters, which are linked only indirectly through structurally equivalent ties to the university administration–an organizational paradigm that dates back to the post civil-war research university (Clark Kerr).

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia

Although universities have long clung to their autonomy and independence from outside influences, of late, growing economic pressures have led them to reach out to their larger socioeconomic environment for financial support through grants, alliances, joint ventures, and patent pools. These outreach efforts have not only been favored by Government but also supported through legislation, which allows faculty members to claim proprietary rights over research sponsored by public funds. As Henry Etzkowitz has described it in his book The Triple Helix, the university is evolving from an ivory tower to an entrepreneurial paradigm.

As the university, as a whole, has reached outward, how have the local clusters–the disciplinary departments–fared? It is here that one might raise a red flag.

 Red Flag Day from Ridock

Red Flag Day from Ridock

Recall that for small networks to encourage creativity, outreach is not enough. External exploration requires in-group exploitation, a point that Robert Axelrod makes in his book Harnessing Complexity. However, a search of the university literature yields sparse evidence that external ideas are being capitalized upon collectively among departmental faculty.

..the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate.

To the contrary, the modus operandi within academic departments appear to be based not on collaboration but rather on competition–competition for salaries, for grants and funding as well as for peer recognition. Hence, the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate over the long term. To boot, as Carl A. Raschke has noted, new technologies will exacerbate this situation, serving to fray the ties both within the university community as well as those directed outside.

For a preview of the future, one need only consult M. Mitchell Waldrops’ book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. In it Waldrop describes how individual scholars, who were in many cases at odds with their disciplinary departments, came together in a very synergistic fashion at the Santa Fe Institute to create the New Science of Complexity. To achieve these kind of synergies, universities might have to consider making some architectural changes to their small worlds.

Creating a Creativity Curriculum

My Muse Sparky

Believe me! Never in my life have I had to turn so much to my muse– my ever faithful dog, Sparky. The reason for seeking his inspiration on this occasion was my decision to teach a new course on Networks and the Creative Process.

As in all creative efforts (Austin 2003), this decision was, to a large degree, a matter of chance.  Initially, I had planned to teach a course on networks and cooperation–a topic that, with hindsight, seems relatively bland. However, flying home from a trip to Utah, I began reading Keith Sawyers insightful book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Deflating prevailing myths that circumscribe present-day thinking about creativity, Sawyer lays out the case for viewing creativity as an emergent, collaborative process, in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind.

Reading Sawyer’s book, I was enthralled. My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind. I intuitively knew that a course on creativity would bring all my interests together in the context of complexity science. However, gut feelings aside, I knew very little about the subject of creativity. Nonetheless, I eagerly signed up to teach the course.

Operating in the dark, I delved into whatever literature I could find, contributing significantly–I think–to Amazon’s profit margin. There I sat, in my office chair, piles of books strewn all around me, in the vain hope that I might absorb some of the content through osmosis. To no avail! So I began to read, and read and read–books about neuroscience, personality disorders, flow, improvisation, serendipity, audience reactions, the new, creative economy, Florence and the Di Medici, and more.

Old Woman Reading

Digesting all of this reading, I learned that creativity required passion and hard work in mastering a field; an open mind able to tolerate ambiguity; a willingness to take on risk, and to persist, even as an outsider; curiosity when confronted with anomalies; as well as flexibility to capture the opportunities afforded by chance and serendipity. And so, inspired by this charge, I moved on. . .

When the time came for me to put together the syllabus, I had a skeleton of an idea. Building on the work of Sawyer and his mentor Mihaly Csikszentmihali, I looked at creativity as an ongoing, iterative process in which the creator is but a single element within a larger system, which includes the creator, a field, and an authoritative domain. My hope, however, is to go beyond Csikszentmihali’s characterization of a system, and to flesh out each element–beginning with the brain and extending outward to the cultural arena–showing how each element is itself a complex system, nested and linked within a larger complex system.

My syllabus is, however, a working document at best. It serves, merely, as a starting point and set of guidelines for a classroom improvisation. My students are highly creative, each in their own ways. They not only bring their own diverse experiences to class; they also actively participate in developing the evolving narrative. Truly, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Or so says my dog Sparky!