Idea Blog

“Frantic & exciting”: Clayton reflects on week one of his Coursera LOTR MOOC

Posted on: September 17th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Curb director’s Coursera course launched September 9th

Professor Jay Clayton got 40,000 new students this week, and for a moment, the thirty-year writer and lecturer is at a loss for words.

“It’s been … dizzying!” he finally laughs.

Fifteen minutes after “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” launched last Monday afternoon, more than 1000 people had watched a video, and the tech team had discovered (and corrected) two errors we had made in setting up the site. “It’s frantic and exciting at the same time,” Clayton says. “It’s an intense experience of media saturation, of all these multiple channels coming at us at once. “ He pauses then begins to laugh. “And it’s close to overwhelming!”

Of the 40,000 registered, around 5000 are also interacting on Facebook, another group is on Twitter, and then there’s the actual course’s forums—one on J.R.R. Tolkien, the author; another on the game Lord of the Rings Online; another on games in general; and still another for each week’s material—already hold over almost 3000 posts.  Additionally, there’s conversation on the Coursera channel inside the online game, where only people in this course come to chat. “Hang on, I promised I’d say something to them,” Clayton says as he turns back to his laptop where, as Vainamoinen (named for the Finnish minstrel who inspired Tolkien’s Gandalf), Clayton pops in to say hello. Read More

Tepper: technology doesn’t fundamentally change what people want from life/work/social encounters/culture; it changes how we go about achieving these human goals and desires

Posted on: September 5th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Last month’s NYTimes cover story, “High Culture Goes Hands On,” argues that the renaissance of the “quest for experience,” revived by web 2.0 technologies, has museums scrambling to provide “the kinds of participatory experiences available almost everywhere else,” and this has author Judith H. Dobrzynski concerned: “Some of these initiatives are necessary, even good. But in the process of adapting, our cultural treasuries are multitasking too much, becoming more alike, and shedding the very characteristics that made them so special — especially art museums.”

So of course, we asked Steven Tepper to respond:

Very thought provoking piece.  I think Judith tends to lean toward the elitist definition of art in most of her writing, but she raises some excellent points about balance.   As a sociologists who has studied technology’s impact on society, my general conclusion is that technology doesn’t fundamentally change what people want or desire from life/work/social encounters/culture; instead, it changes how we go about achieving these human goals and desires.   So, people have always wanted both sublime, reflective experiences and deeply, social and interactive experiences. They have always wanted experiences that they can share with others.    Technology has changed where, when and how we can achieve these goals.   This is one of the challenges facing any institution—commercial or non-profit.  We build structures and organizations to deliver these experiences in one way, and then technology (especially today), provides people with a host of alternatives and we are slow to adapt.   The real challenge, it seems to me, is to be smart about “modalities” rather than content.  How do people want to experience moments of sublime reflection or intense and passionate, multi-sensory “experience?”  Museums and other organizations need to be open to new modalities — but not change their mission or necessarily their content.   People can still have a deep and reflective experience reading a book on a Kindle, in spite of what all the book lovers said about the demise of reading.   If you are in the business of promoting “reading,” then you should be agnostic about how people get the book or what form the “reading” comes in.   So, fundamentally, what business are museums in and what modalities exist today to help them better succeed in that business?  That is the big question.

Getting Unplugged by Harvey Burrell

Posted on: August 14th, 2013 | 0 Comments

“If you aren’t being challenged, you die”

-Soren, Noma Restaurant Farmer


In light of the Media Immersion workshop I am co-teaching this week, I thought now would be a good opportunity to think about how to introduce people to design thinking practices for the first time. Learning about design thinking is a bit like getting unplugged from The Matrix; the experience is completely foreign, yet still entirely too real. These freshmen will have to use parts of their brains that have atrophied after years of neglect. I want to help them get their feet wet without hurting them, so I can’t have them pulling their creative muscles.  However, I know they are very bright, and since we all have the capacity to be creative, I will need to give them some space.

What will be most difficult is overcoming the judgmental environment that pervades freshmen orientation. It is hard to think of a place more critical and less open to new things that exist outside of the norm than freshmen orientation. Friendships are made and broken on nothing more than a whim. It is like a mass of eager humanity breaking against the hardened brick walls of this prestigious campus. The pure number of people one has to meet requires shorthand notation to help expedite the process. But for those of us at the Curb Center, it is the opposite of what we need. Creativity can only thrive in an environment free of negativity. We need more “yes and” or “plus 1ing,” as we creative types like to call it.  Our goal is to help push these kids towards discovering the new and obscure. I hope to push them and lead them to some experience that breaks them from the safe and routine.

I have reduced my teaching strategies down to a few bullet points that I, for the most part, understand and hope make some sense to the rest of you…


A few of my thoughts:

-       Regular name games are lame. We can do something better.

-       We should do something that we can all fail at, because at least we are failing together. Let’s see if we can break some synaptic connections.

-       Propose a big problem. But keep it relevant and/or local.

-       Ask them to “think wrong” about it. For example, what is the opposite of how you would typically solve this problem? Get wrong. Get weird. Come up with solutions that should make me feel stupid just from having heard them.

-       Ideally, these kids will walk out of here wanting to keep thinking wrong, not just saying yes, but asking why and demanding to know how they can squeeze the university for everything it is worth.


NB – Why name games suck:

-       Because knowing your name doesn’t make us friends, but knowing you have a brain might make me want to listen and listening is where it all starts.


Tangible practices:

My two favorite games:

Thinking Wrong – Pick a problem. Sit in groups of two with sharpies and a pile of post-it notes, spending ten minutes coming up with the wrongest, worst, stupidest ideas you possibly can. Then share with the group.

Crazy Eights – Now, you have five minutes to draw eight possible solutions. Yes, that means 40 seconds per drawing. Better move fast. Now proceed and be bold!



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

Posted on: August 5th, 2013 | 0 Comments

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!

What Exactly Is It That You Do? by Curb Scholar Harvey Burrell

Posted on: August 2nd, 2013 | 0 Comments

I have spent the summer dodging the question: “What exactly is it that you do?” There is no simple answer. The technical answer is that I work for a design consulting firm, whatever that means, by the name of Future Partners. Future is known for helping companies jump the ingenuity gap aka companies that need help solving tricky problems. Turns out the path to ingenious solutions is rather circuitous. While working with Future I have shot lots of guns, swam in blood lake, drank beer with a member of the White House staff, ate gas station pork chops, and somewhere in the mayhem, I designed a social venture that helps the citizens of Hale County by selling cool bikes. The brand Catfish Bikes was inspired by a love of all things stunt and daring and the once thriving catfish farming industry of rural Alabama. I have worked with two other interns on everything from designing the bike to building the website and launching the brand. We also shot a series of odd videos to help promote the bikes.

Turns out launching a social enterprise is a total mess, but we bush whacked our way through it. The idea hatched during the two-week intensive blitz process in Greensboro, AL. I then traveled to Half Moon Bay, CA to continue working with my two other interns at the Future headquarters. In addition to the development of the Catfish Bikes and the Hot Potato Hack (more to follow on this later), we have also been working on a myriad of Corporate Social Responsibility projects for Microsoft and Genentech, but I don’t want to put you to sleep, so I’ll skip that stuff.

And since I like to sum things up, here are a few of my take away thoughts from the last six weeks:

-       think wrong

-       move fast

-       break sh*t when you can (ideally not yourself)

-       know what dent you want to make in the universe

-       popcorn and bud light is a suitable idea generation tool

-       Last but not least, remember that this is supposed to be fun. The hardest thing to create is fun. When you find that first spark of fun, protect it above all else. If what you are creating isn’t fun, then it doesn’t matter how nice your logo looks. Make it f*ing fun!

Diebenkorn by Curb Scholar Keith Berquist

Posted on: July 29th, 2013 | 0 Comments

A couple weekends back I went to the De Young museum on a Sunday afternoon, just to check it out. They had a special exhibit on Richard Diebenkorn, who was this abstract impressionist painter from the 1950’s-60’s living in the SF Bay Area. I’d never really been a fan of abstract or modern art up to this point. I always found it undecipherable, inaccessible, unimpressive. But I remember reading something at the very beginning of the exhibit, a caption under the first painting, describing Diebenkorn’s artistic process. It said that he would start by dirtying the canvas because he couldn’t penetrate the white with his art while the surface was still pure; it felt like sacrilege. Once he had dirtied up the canvas, he felt free to work, and then he would just paint. He had no idea what the final product was that he was working towards. If he ever felt hung up or frustrated at a certain point, he would use little tricks, like adding his initials or other symbols into the middle of the painting to use as a new jumping off point. He would paint over things three or four times, making multiple drafts on the same canvas, until finally, it was done.

This exhibit changed the way I think about creating. The creative process is as important, if not more important, than the final product. Diebenkorn’s work evolved on the canvas. For him, creativity involved motion, experience, dynamics. All my previous attempts at songwriting, writing, and essentially any other creative process involved efficiently moving from point A to point B, every word trying to prove one point. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the final product didn’t have to make sense, there didn’t have to be some definite outcome, so long as you felt the experience along the way? What if the sound and shape of words, the images they generate, could render sentiments and feelings and actions without some overarching message?

I guess what I’m really describing is play; creation for creation’s sake, or maybe creation for the sake of learning, or perhaps even creation for the sake of happiness. We spend so much of our lives driven by objectives, that we rarely get the chance to just play. Sometimes the reward is in the journey, not the outcome.


First Love

Posted on: July 24th, 2013 | 0 Comments

As part of their scholarship, Curb Scholars must intern the summer before their senior year at an organization or agency of their choice to explore the role of art and creativity in our world. Scholar Keith Berquist describes his experience interning at a music venue in San Francisco, this past summer.


Sometimes you have to see someone a few times, to see him or her for the first time. There’s the cliché version: you learn something new about someone and your perception of him or her suddenly changes because you discover that person’s “real” self. That’s not what I’m talking about, although sometimes the two can go hand in hand. No, what I mean is a much more literal, physical version of that, a transformation where something causes you to actually take a look at that person’s face, and all of a sudden you realize the totality of their features. Like a gust of icy fresh air rushing through your lungs; it awakens the senses. And you start to understand that in every prior interaction, that face was a signal, a landmark, a reference point. You memorized it and stored it out of utility. But now, now the face is a human face. The face is the name and the stories and the emotions and the connections. That face has been united with the rest of the person.

I have spent sixteen years of my life living in and around San Francisco. And for those past sixteen years I saw the city the same way I saw those unfamiliar faces. Neighborhoods and streets were only a means to a destination defined by its purpose. The Sunset District was just where I went to school. Nob Hill was just where I lived. Van Ness was just the Guitar Center on the corner of California and the movie theatre on the corner of Geary. And yet this summer… I see the face of San Francisco. I’ve been getting lost in its eyes, in grubby, piss-stained streets of the Mission and the shade of palm trees along the Embarcadero. I’m not living in San Francisco, I’m living in San Francisco. The freedom and the independence to just be here has opened up a second city to me.

The places and faces in our lives are defined by the context in which we discover them, and I will now remember this summer as the touchstone moment where I embraced every detail and every historical particle this city has to offer. San Francisco will be my infinite playground.


I guess it would be improper if I didn’t start with the facts. Just the facts. If you didn’t know, I’m working this summer at a music venue in San Francisco called the Café du Nord. Capacity is 250 people, categorizing it as a small club in the concert world. We average around 27 shows a month. The staff is basically two in the office full time, plus a couple part time people like myself and a couple more full-time who work outside the office. Because the operation is so small, I do a little bit of everything. I’ve run box office, handled contracts, forwarded finals and ticket counts to agents, booked bands, changed lightbulbs, moved kegs, pretty much anything that needs to get done. A renaissance man of the music world.

This was what I really wanted all along. I’ve dreamt the last 4 years or so about owning my own concert venues. My ideas of how it will look and function have gone through innumerable stages, but the bottom-line remains the same: I want to put on concerts. And what better way to learn than to pop the hood on a small venue and look at each little piece of the machine one by one to see how they all interact when placed together.

And although the whole process is integral to understanding how a venue operates, perhaps the one piece that has always grabbed my eye the most was booking. It combines the opportunity for creativity: the ability to design a concert billing, to share undiscovered talent, to express myself through the medium of another artist’s work, with the left brain tasks of finance and negotiation and contract settlement. The real reward, to me, is giving a dedicated audience the gift of exposing the next big thing before they even know who it is. But I’ve quickly begun to learn that this “glamorous” portion of the job is as much a curse as it is a blessing. I spend 5-7 hours a day listening to scatterings of new bands. Submissions, suggestions, blogs, magazines, they come from every corner of the internet. And I’m slowly learning the obvious fact that to become a tastemaker, to learn what’s good, you have to learn what is bad as well.

I chose to pursue a career in music because I have a passion for it. I’ve always experienced a certain wonder and fascination when it came to any and all music, even music I didn’t like; it was like magic to me. But having to not only listen to, but also judge dozens of bands a day (and there are some really bad bands out there) has tuned this precious thing into some rusty faded hue of its former self. I’m beginning to replace some of that marvel with cynicism. Maybe ignorance is bliss. Maybe it’s not worth it to learn the good from the bad. Is this what it takes to have “good ears”? I guess the solution is to look for new ways to recapture that splendor, to judge without being judgmental. I see so many people in this industry who have spent their lives working around music and still share that same spark today. I only hope I can learn to cope with the overwhelming like they did, because I can’t let a job I took because of passion take that passion from me.


I asked Steven J. Tepper to respond to Kyle Thetford’s “Does Art Help the Economy?”

Posted on: July 17th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Happy mid-July! Here at Curb, we’re constantly hearing and reading ideas and wondering what each other thinks of them. Yesterday as I read “Does Art Help the Economy?” by Kyle Thetford, (Atlantic Monthly — find it here), I wondered if Steven J. Tepper had a moment to let me know what he thought. Turns out, he did! His response follows:

We can celebrate that Britain’s cultural budget this year did not suffer dramatic cuts.   There is a deep longing in the arts community to believe such policy decisions reflect an enlightened understanding of the intrinsic benefits of the arts. Related, there remains a deep antipathy toward the marriage of the arts with the economy – for more than 100 years, arts advocates have held fast to the belief in “art-for-arts” sake. But, the argument hashed out in Kyle Thetford’s column in the Atlantic is as old as tea leaves – framed as an either/or proposition when instead it should be a both/and proposition.  The arts are both an important part of the economy AND they bring intrinsic benefits.   In economic terms, the arts may be better investments than other pure economic drivers, like a waste disposal plant, because they have positive externalities for their communities in addition to their direct economic impact. The arts do spur innovation, entrepreneurialism, intellectual property and economic growth.  But they also create pride, connection, understanding, enjoyment, and wellbeing.  But, we would be naïve to think that policy makers will support the arts for these intrinsic benefits. Policy, for better or worse, is almost exclusively debated in economic terms – optimizing growth, productivity, and jobs.

I wish we lived in a world where other values were prominent in policy decisions. But we don’t, and the arts world can yell until they are blue in the face, but if they want public investment they have to walk in the policy door dressed up as Economic Man.  There are only a handful of policy areas where we can talk about intrinsic value – saving historic and natural landmarks is one such area.  But, in these cases, policy makers and the public at large can visibly see what non-intervention looks like – a forest, canyon, park, lake, monument might disappear, be destroyed, and become unavailable or inaccessible. Under such conditions, intrinsic value arguments can win the day. But, people are surrounded by art in their everyday life – music, film, books, fashion, and theater.   If anything, most people feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice they have when considering their cultural options.   Intrinsic arguments under such conditions simply will not fly.  So, whether we like it or not, we are left with arguments about investments, innovation, entrepreneurship, and jobs.

Thetford is wrong to suggest the U.S. needs to look across the pond to learn the value of economic arguments –we have been using these arguments for years.   Our out-going NEA chair, Rocco Landsman, has spent the past four years describing and defending artists as workers who bolster the economy. Americans for the Arts, our largest advocacy organization that promotes public investments in the arts, has been conducting and using economic impact arguments for close to 20 years.  We get it.   Maybe someday, policy leaders can credibly use “quality of life” arguments to defend and promote public investments; but for now, Economic Man stands tall and speaks with the loudest voice.

Thanks, Steven!

Imagining Transformative Justice from the Inside Out

Posted on: May 30th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Just found out that the Innovation Grant supported “Imagining Transformative Justice” elicited enough powerful writing to warrant an anthology! See prisoners’ visual art here: Just found out that the Innovation Grant supported “Imagining Transformative Justice” elicited enough powerful writing to warrant an anthology! See more prisoners’ visual art with descriptions here:

3 Million Stories Conference Summary

Posted on: May 29th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Missed the “3 Million Stories” conference, or want to revisit the presentations & conversations? Steven Tepper has compiled a 21-page summary of the unique conference dedicated to exploring the creative marketplace and its opportunities for arts graduates.