One-on-One: Steven J. Tepper talks Creativity Camp at the University of Hartford

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Steven J. Tepper guided colleagues at the University of Hartford (Connecticut) through a week of creative experimentation. As happy as we were to see him back in the office, we were even more curious about how others are practicing creativity on their campuses. Here’s part of our conversation.

Curb Center: Steven, before the week was over, Dr. Sharon Vasques, Provost of the University of Hartford, was writing about interactions in her blog. You were on campus as part of the school’s Distinguished Teaching Humanist program, and you were working with Professor T. Stores of the Department of English, who happens to be their Distinguished Teaching Humanist at the moment. So what did you two cook up?

Steven J. Tepper: The invite was to come to the University of Hartford and work with 22 faculty from a variety of disciplines to explore different approaches to creativity and to think about how to integrate creativity more directly into their own classes and throughout the Hartford campus.  Over the course of the 4 days, we took a variety of creativity tests and then discussed their usefulness for assessment; we talked about the cognitive, psychological, social, economic and anthropological approaches to creativity; we participated in “speed dating” where each participant pitched a course and got rapid-fire feedback from 5 different partners over the course of an hour; and we did several hand-on creativity exercises and discussed their relevance for our own research and ways such exercises might be deployed in the classroom.

Curb Center: Is it true that you incorporated improv into your design? Where did you get such an idea? How did that go over? (Did it send anyone sneaking out the back of the room?)

Steven J. Tepper: As you know, the Curb Center has been a big proponent of improv as a technique for developing our creative muscle.  We have invited Second City Improv multiple times to participate in our annual creativity boot camp and we have used improv with our Curb Scholars.  At Hartford, we used improv both to loosen up the conversation and create an atmosphere of fun and spontaneity, where all ideas are welcome.  But improv teaches very important capacities as well that might be useful in the classroom – dealing with ambiguity; deep listening; the notion of teamwork and building on other’s ideas; and a willingness to talk about anything, to make random associations, until a “scene” or a storyline emerges that might actually lead to a productive idea or solution.

No one left the room, so I count that as a success.  There were moments where people felt deeply uncomfortable – but there was great trust in the room and we worked through moments of feeling uncomfortable and typically ended most exercises in fits of laughter.

Curb Center: What did you notice most about the questions and/or the ideas participants were bringing to the conversation? What are faculty curious about? Concerned about?

Steven J. Tepper: The faculty were very passionate and committed to creativity in their own work and teaching.   I think there were several concerns expressed over the course of the workshop. The first was that there is no consensus on what we mean by “creativity.” Several in the group focused on the idea of “non-routine” problem solving; but other argued that creativity does not necessarily have to be problem focused.  Creative work can be exploratory, playful and problem-seeking, rather than focused on solutions.   There was also considerable discussion about whether there was a difference between creative and critical thinking.

Faculty were also concerned that many students are so grade focused that they are risk-averse and would rather have very clear assignments than assignments that might be more ambiguous and require more creativity.

Others were concerned that the creative energy sparked during the workshop would be hard to sustain once the pushes and pulls of daily university life started up again in the fall.  They wondered about how universities can create structures that foster creativity and collaboration on a regular basis, rather than it being some extraordinary activity that faculty engage in above and beyond their normal duties.

Curb Center: Dr. Vasques noted how she is interested “in particular” by your “articulation of creativity as being made up of teachable competencies that can be applied across the curriculum.”   Where are we with identifying those competencies and finding ways to encourage them in our students? In each other?

Steven J. Tepper: I think we have a good sense of what would be included in core creative competencies.  An initial list includes:

  • Improvisation
  • Analogical and metaphorical thinking and remote associations
  • Idea generation
  • Conditional thinking and counter-factuals
  • Expressive agility
  • Radical revision and critical feedback
  • Creative collaboration and nexus work
  • Flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity
  • Empathic reasoning
  • Epistemic curiosity
  • Problem Finding
  • Pattern recognition and deep observation
  • Abstraction
  • Risk taking and learning from failure
  • Ability to consider the ethical, social and policy consequences of  innovation

In terms of assessment, I think we still have a ways to go. There are some good creativity tests that measure whether students have mastered some of the capacities, like idea generation, but few existing instruments truly capture the complex set of skills and processes involved in creative work.

Curb Center: In these workshops, what are you hoping for for the participants? For the campuses you are visiting?

Steven J. Tepper: I think my hope is that participants leave with very specific skills and ideas that they can take back to the classroom. I would also hope that my visit generates some sparks and some enthusiasm among a core group of faculty, as well as the administration, for doing something big around creativity – to consider an initiative that would draw on their unique creative assets to animate the campus and re-think how they connect with students and collaborate across the campus.

Curb Center: I know preparing for and participating in these workshops takes enormous effort, but they also bring significant benefit for both you and the participants. What do these workshops bring to your own research & reflection?

Steven J. Tepper: I am always energized by the opportunity to work with colleagues across the country. Many of the faculty at Hartford were already skilled teachers and had experience teaching creativity to their students.  I came back with several new ideas for my own classes.   I also realize how lucky we are at Vanderbilt that Mike Curb had the vision to endow a Creative Campus program and that everyday we wake up and have resources and university-wide support to implement the types of ideas and programs that w

ere discussed throughout my four day visit at Hartford.

Curb Center: What’s next on the horizon for you and this topic?

Steven J. Tepper: There is so much more work to be done.  I have just written a case statement for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters that argues for the importance of integrating the arts across campus as a key foundation for any creative campus initiative. Once the case statement is published next month, we will visit with higher education associations in Washington, DC, and work with universities across the country to begin conversations around creativity, arts integration, and higher education.

Curb Center: Thanks, we’ll catch up with you again soon!

Click herefor Steven’s CV, and check back for more One-on-One’s with Curb Center faculty, staff, scholars, and fellows!