Sullivan, Patrick. “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 67.1 (2015): 6-34. Print.
Patrick Sullivan urges composition scholars to embrace creativity as a fundamental component of an enriched writing curriculum. In Sullivan’s view, although researchers and scholars outside of composition have steadily moved creativity to the core of their models of cognition and of the kinds of thinking they feel are needed to meet 21st-century challenges, writing scholars have tended to isolate “creativity” in creative-writing courses. Sullivan presents a “most essential question”: “Might there be some value in embracing creativity as an integral part of how we theorize writing?” (7).
A subset of questions includes such issues as current definitions of creativity, emerging views of its contribution in myriad contexts, and the relationship between creativity and important capacities like critical thinking (7).
Sullivan surveys works by educators, psychologists, neuroscientists, and others on the value of creativity and the ways it can be fostered. This work challenges the view that creativity is the special domain of a limited number of special people; rather, the research Sullivan presents considers it a “common and shared intellectual capacity” (12) responsible for the development of culture through ongoing innovation (9) as well as essential to the flexible thinking and problem-solving ability needed beyond the classroom (8-9, 15).
Scholars Sullivan cites position creativity as an antidote to the current focus on testing and accountability that promotes what Douglas Hesse calls the “extraordinarily narrow view of writing” that results from such initiatives as the Common Core Standards (qtd. in Sullivan 18). Sullivan draws on Ken Robinson, who contends that current models of schooling have “educated out” our natural creativity: “[M]ost children think they’re highly creative; most adults think they’re not” (qtd. in Sullivan 9).
Other scholars urging the elevation of creativity as central to cognition include intelligence researcher Robert J. Sternberg, for whom creativity entails three components: “synthetic ability (generating ideas), analytical ability (evaluating ideas, critical thinking), and practical ability (translating ideas into practice and products)” (10). Sullivan compares models of “habits of mind” developed by other scholars with the habits of mind incorporated into the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” collaboratively generated by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project; he notes that many such models, including the “Framework,” consider creativity “an essential twenty-first-century cognitive aptitude” (12). He recommends to composition scholars the international view that creativity is equal in importance to literacy, a view embodied in the Finnish educational system and in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which would replace testing for memorization with testing for students’ ability “to think for themselves” (Amanda Ripley, qtd. in Sullivan 13).
Importantly, Sullivan argues, incorporating creativity into classrooms has crucial implications for overall cognitive development. According to the researchers Sullivan cites, expanding the kinds of activities and the kinds of writing students do enhances overall mental function (14), leading to the “rhetorical dexterity” (Shannon Carter, qtd. in Sullivan 20) essential to negotiating today’s rapidly changing rhetorical environments (21).
As further evidence of the consensus on the centrality of creativity to learning and cognition, Sullivan presents the 2001 revision of Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy. This revision replaces “synthesis and evaluation” at the pinnacle of cognitive growth with “creating” (19). Discussing the revised Taxonomy to which they contributed, Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl note that the acquisition of the “deep understanding” necessary to “construction and insight” demands the components inherent in “Create” (qtd. in Sullivan 19-20).
Such deep understanding, Sullivan argues, is the goal of the writing classroom: “[I]ts connection here to creativity links this luminous human capacity to our students’ cognitive development” (20). Similarly, concern about students’ transfer of the intellectual work of academic writing to other domains and a recognition of the importance of metacognition to deep learning link the work of creativity scholars to recent composition theory and applications (20). Sullivan suggests shifting from “critical thinking” to “creative and critical thinking” because “[a]ll good thinking . . . is creative in some way” (16).
Sullivan sees the increased focus within writing studies on multimodal and other diverse uses of writing as a move toward reframing public conceptions of academic writing; he presents “desegregat[ing] creative writing” as one way of “actively expanding our definition of academic writing” (21). He lists many ways of incorporating creativity into classrooms, then provides the unit on creativity that he has embedded in his first-year writing class (22). His goal is to “provide students with an authentic experience of the joys, challenges, and rewards of college-level reading, writing, and thinking” (22-23). To this end, the course explores what Paul Hirst calls “knowledge domains,” specifically, in Sullivan’s class, “traditional assignments” examining how knowledge functions in history and the human sciences (23-24), with the unit on creativity “[s]andwiched” between them (24).
In this unit, students consider the definition of creativity and then write poems and stories. The centerpiece is an individual project in which students produce “their own work of art” such as “a sculpture, a painting, a drawing, a photograph, a collage, or a song” (24). Sullivan furnishes examples of student work, including quotes illustrating the metacognitive understanding he hopes to inculcate: “that creativity, and the arts in particular, provide a unique and important way of looking at the world and producing knowledge” (25).
The final assignment is an “unessay,” which bans standard formats and invites students to “[i]nvent a new form!” (26). Sullivan shares examples of student responses to this assignment, many involving multimodal components that gesture toward a more inclusive embrace of what Kathleen Blake Yancey calls “what our students know as writing” (qtd. in Sullivan 28). Ultimately, Sullivan contends, such diverse, creatively rich pedagogy will realize David Russell’s hope of casting writing not as “a single elementary skill” but rather “as a complex rhetorical activity embedded in the differentiated practices of academic discourse communities” (qtd. in Sullivan 29), and, importantly, Douglas Hesse’s hope of communicating to students that writing is not an isolated academic exercise but rather “a life activity with many interconnected manifestations” (qtd. in Sullivan 18).