Does College Stifle Academic Creativity?

I love school. I always have. College and grad school, however, seemed to stifle my creativity in regard to writing. To steal a term from Stephen King’s Duma Key, I think that this month has been an “unbottling” phase for me. I have been writing every time I get the urge and sometimes when I haven’t.

I’ve thought a lot about this and realized that the reason I am “unbottling” is because I recently graduated with my Master’s degree. Until this point, I have never not been in school. I attended most summer-sessions during undergrad, and I worked through the summers of graduate school, starting my own business—a coffee shop in the town I now teach. Until this point, I have never had a break in which I could sit down and concentrate on my writing.

As much as I love school, I cannot help but feel that it stifled me both creatively and academically. I say that with the utmost respect because I truly appreciate the opportunities I’ve had and the education I’ve earned. However, something about the state of present academics has me feeling a little claustrophobic. What I care about is not the mainstream canon that gets taught in most classrooms, nor is it very marketable to most colleges to be an expert on Star Wars or World of Warcraft Priests.

For years, I’ve wanted to blog. I’ve always had the desire to write, but I had always heard that garnering readership required dedication, and while I knew I could stay dedicated, I didn’t have the time to. I had too much schoolwork to do. I could not give up those precious reading and studying hours (and who am I kidding? Those precious World of Warcraft hours, too) so that I could write for something that might or might not be a success.

On top of the time constraints, I was inundated with “literature.” I put literature in quotes because many of the works I’ve done scholarship on over the past eight years will undoubtedly be the last time I read them. I can appreciate the artistic and historic merit in them, yes, but do I consider them great? No, not really. For me to qualify something as great, there has to be personal merit in addition to artistic and historic. The problem with most of the stuff I had to read in college and grad school is that, for me, it’s entirely forgettable. There were obviously great pieces of literature that I would have never discovered otherwise, yes, and I am thankful for that. There were also stinkers I had to write papers on and dedicate hours and weeks, if not months, of my life to that I would be content with never hearing about again. Ethan Frome, I’m looking your direction.

This is where the academic and creative stifling comes in. For the past eight years, only a handful of my courses allowed me the freedom to pick any area of literature I wanted and work on it. I was told occasionally that there is nothing scholarly about what I like and to pick something more appropriate. I did, but I always felt drained and that my finished product was nowhere near my best work.

I feel that I only do my best work when I truly care about the subject. I think this is true for everyone, which is why I try to bring a unique perspective to my own classroom. But it is also why I felt stifled for years. The current state of academics in this country often discounts most contemporary authors and media. It is harder to find a curriculum over pop culture, television, film, and currently publishing authors than it is to find one dealing with medievalism, the renaissance, or Victorian prose and poetry. There is nothing wrong with any of those, but unfortunately, my interests don’t lie there. So when I am forced to write on those subjects and take mostly courses in those areas, I feel drained and have no time to work on any scholarship I actually care about. So when I got out of school, I immediately began writing about things I love that was generally prohibited for most of my education: LOST, Fringe, Star Wars, and Buffy.

My goal as a professor is to make it so that my students don’t feel as stifled as I have. I don’t want them to take my classes and feel that what they care about only has worth in the media and not in the classroom. That’s a good way to ruin someone’s views of a scholar’s life. Had I not taken a Freshman Composition class that used The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller as a text, I might have never realized that there was room for pop culture in academia. I teach Firefly to basic writing students, and I have a plan to begin using Stephen King in my Freshman Comp classes starting in July.

In my free time, I finally do not have to worry about if someone else will approve of what I am working on. That is huge. I don’t have a list on a syllabus where I have to pick and choose the most interesting book from a generally non-interesting pool. I don’t have anyone, to quote Locke from LOST, telling me what I can’t do. Being able to choose my own writing focus has made me desire that much more to get my ideas down. I no longer feel limited.

As much as I like being in school and feel at home in the classroom (on both sides of the desk), this is the first time where I do not feel crushed by the weight of someone else’s expectations. I can now write about anything I want to. I no longer have due dates and syllabi which require me to be finished with X chapters by Y date. I can read what I want, write about what I want, and I can submit what I write (if it’s good enough) to a myriad of places for presentation or publication. I finally see how limiting the years of training have been, and I am glad to be finished for a while. I also see how useful those years of training were because without them, I would understand very little about what I actually want to do now.

I am writing this because I finally can. I appreciate higher education more than most people, and I intend to spend the better part of my life as part of that machine, but I do hope that more can be done to shape the future of academia so that people whose idea of worth and merit in literature extend into the present have their ideas fostered as well. Higher education is supposed to be a place where ideas can be shared, not a place where interests have to be clandestinely cultivated. The sooner more academics accept this, the freer we’ll all be. Until then, however, I will continue to write and work on independent scholarship in areas that I feel are under-represented. Without the umbrella of numerical assessment over my head, I think I can finally write something I can be proud of.

This ended up being a lot more personal than I set out for, but these are my thoughts on the current state of academics. I feel that most college classrooms are set up to limit thought and creativity. I hope that as I branch out in my career, I take my own advice and work some flexibility into my syllabi so my students don’t feel confined. I am fine with having a reading list as long as there are ways to express personal interest and creativity through it. Often, bringing work into the classroom that is not predetermined on the syllabus is a no-no, but I think that is what higher education should be. Sometimes professors can get so blinded by what they want to teach they forget how to teach it. I am of the mindset that college (and graduate school, too) is too limited with its course descriptions, and I hope to eventually offer more courses where part of my class is un-scripted and allow the students to do a bit of independent scholarship on works that may only thematically tie to the course. If a student can make an argument for writing a research paper on Star Wars in a class on modernism, I say do it, provided he or she can utilize what was learned and read in the class. I think current academics can stifle ideas because the scope can be too narrow. If we, as educators, broaden our horizons and let students bring what they can to the classroom instead of considering the syllabus holy writ, then we are one step closer to creating an actual community of learning instead of a business that only exists to churn out graduates.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.

1 comment

  1. I want to thank you for your thoughts on this matter. I have returned to college to take a required College Comp II class. I enjoy writing and while I am attending to further my career as a nurse, I hope to write someday as well. I am required to write several papers for this class and have found that the subject matter I am required to write about is much too structured. I actually bore myself just doing the research. The last paper I am required to write must be written about a problem I have encountered at the community college as a student. It is a proposal paper, and as I have no current problems at the college, I opted to write about how my creativity is being stifled and if I had the freedom to write about something that excites me, the paper would be something worth reading. I want to thank you for your thoughts and opinions, I feel much the same way. I’m sure that your students appreciate your thoughts and experience, I know that I do!

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