I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Creativity and Research in Academia

I have been reading Sue North’s PhD thesis titled Relations of Power and Competing Knowledges Within the Academy: Creative Writing as Research (University of Canberra, 2004). In the conclusion of Chapter 2, The Conflict of the Faculties, she says:

The doxa of creative work and the doxa of research arise from different epistemological underpinnings – creativity from the unexplainable force of the imagination, and research from the logical force of understanding. [my links]

In simple terms, she said that it is common knowledge that creativity is a manifestation of imagination, while research is a process based on studying, understanding, and logical thinking. By using the word doxa, she tells us that these beliefs are so widely accepted that they don’t even need to be expressed. In other words, everybody considers them to be true.

I agree with her: most people think that way. But I believe that they do so because they don’t have a clear understanding of how people tap their creativity and what it means to do research.

The concepts that artists pull their creations out of thin air and that researchers only exercise logic are both wrong.

Let’s look at artists first. They couldn’t create anything without studying the world around them, the work of other artists, and the tools they need to do their work. Ideas don’t just spring out of the mind of an artist fully clothed and armed, like Athena out of Jupiter’s head.

As an example, consider what writing a novel involves.

The author needs to invent characters and design a plot for them, so that they can interact with each other. Some authors start with a plot and others starts with the characters, but, in either case, they must ensure that those two elements are consistent, credible (and interesting). This can only come after years of observing how people interact and trying to understand what motivates them.

And then, authors cannot write their novels with any hope of success unless they know their craft: structure, voice, pace, dialogue, to name some aspects of it. This means that they need to learn techniques, read a lot, and write a lot.

Creative writing is the Cinderella of Academia. This status of affairs reflects the almost universal opinion that, because everybody can write, studying creative writing is a trivial activity pursued by people who want to have it easy at the University.

It is only when people actually try to write something worth reading that they realise how little they know and how much they need to work in order to get any recognition.

Furthermore, to write a novel an author needs logic, discipline, and rigour, otherwise his/her four hundred pages will be full of inconsistencies, loose threads, and untruths.

In order to create realistic characters placed in a realistic environment and doing realistic actions, an author needs to do a lot of research. Most (I would say all, but I don’t want to be so absolute) authors define their characters and their plots to a level of detail that remains below the surface of the finished product. What ends up into the novel is only the tip of the iceberg.

Authors also perform another activity typical of research: experimentation. This can be in the content, the dialogue, or the form. For example, Peter Carey, in his historical novel True History of the Kelly Gang, doesn’t use a single comma, while Alessandro Baricco, in his short novel Silk, uses line breaks to control the pace and convey meaning. And if this seems too literary and abstract, how much research do you think Frank Herbert had to do in order to create the universe in which his Dune stories take place?

I’m talking about creative writing because I had a couple of non-fiction books and a couple of Science Fiction stories published. Therefore, I can talk about it with some credibility. But I’m sure that equivalent concepts apply to other creative activities.

I hope I have convinced you that creative work couldn’t exist without logical thinking, knowledge, and research. If not, think again.

Now, let’s look at research. I shall go out on a limb here and say that without imagination any type of research would be impossible.

It is standard practice in academic papers to present the results of research in a logical fashion: you write about existing results, identify a gap, and explain how your results close it. There is more to it but, in essence, research papers are logical to the core. This is especially true in Physics, the prototypical scientific discipline.

But this is not how research actually works. Most neatly presented conclusions are in reality the result of hunches, leaps, backtracking, crises, and serendipitous events (i.e., strokes of luck). Research works somewhat like solving a jigsaw puzzle: you start from the edges and the pieces you can easily recognise. Then, you fill the gaps to complete the picture. Sometimes, you feel that a piece might be right in a certain spot and place it there, hoping to have it confirmed later. But both academic papers for the scientific community and magazine articles for the rest of us present the research process as if the researchers had started the puzzle from the top-left corner and systematically worked their way to the bottom-right piece.

The key point I’m trying to express is that logic cannot add knowledge. It can be used to extract information that for any reason is still hidden in the data and, sometimes, this leads to surprising and useful results, which in turn can trigger new avenues of research. But, ultimately, truly new discoveries occur when a researcher follows a hunch and jumps over a gap in the logic. This what Edward De Bono calls Lateral Thinking. And what about the creativity that any experimental researcher needs in order to overcome the many technical (e non-technical) problems s/he encounters daily?

In other words, imagination plays an essential role in the progress of Science and Technology. The logical chain of thought is often reconstructed after the discovery has been made or a working solution found. When a scientist gets enamoured with an idea and invents an experiment to verify it, s/he will not necessarily tell you.

Think to Einstein and his special theory of relativity. He postulated the constancy of the speed of light. He certainly didn’t deduce it logically.

To conclude, successful creative endeavours require study, understanding, and logic, while research produces its best results thanks to insights, imagination, and dedication.

So, please, let’s stop perpetuating these stereotypes of wild artists and white-coated scientists!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Being a Toad

Have you ever tried to write on the spot micro-stories of 100 words or less? It’s fun! Pick a word or a phrase and then write a story around it in fifteen minutes or less. You should try it. Anyhow, this is how the following micro-story was born.

It’s not easy being a toad.

At best, people avoid me. But some do their best to crash me under a feet.

The worst are the children. Once I saw one of my friends being dismembered alive by an eager kid with a magnifying glass and a pair of scissors.

And who says that we are ugly? I can’t say that I agree with that.

Come, my dear lady, give me a kiss.

Set me free.

Seventy-six words of almost poetry!  :-)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Faith and Buddhism

I’ve started meeting with a Buddhist group. I’m an atheist, and that’s not going to change. But I don’t see Buddhism as a religion, regardless of what Wikipedia says.

I am an atheist because I don’t believe that some God has created the universe and/or has an interest in human affairs. I realise that my non-believing in God is as unjustified as the belief of Catholics, Muslims, and Jews that a God exists. Without any way of scientifically proving or disproving the existence of God (or Gods), the logical position to hold is Agnosticism.

That notwithstanding, I don’t believe that a God exists. This makes me as illogical as any believer. It annoys me a bit at an intellectual level, but I can’t help it. I also believe that it makes sense to speak of being good and virtuous (there you have a word that is completely out of fashion!), and that being good is ultimately associated to being happy or, at the very least, that you cannot be completely happy if you behave badly.

But what is good and what is bad? Or, to see it from the point of view of change, which pervades all our existences, what is better and what is worse? And more dramatically, what is right and what is wrong? I don’t know. I have been asking myself those same questions all my adult life. Does it make sense at all to speak about right and wrong? It sounds so dogmatic...

And yet, as I said, I do believe that it makes sense to distinguish between good actions and bad actions. After all, there is an almost universal agreement that lying, stealing, and killing are not thing that one should normally do.

Logical thinking doesn’t help much in these moral matters. That’s why when somebody asks me why I am a vegetarian, I reply that it feels right to me. And I’m very strict as well (uncompromising, if you like), which is a very illogical position to hold. I became vegetarian when I started looking for ways of becoming a better person. Did it work? I wouldn’t know, but I still think that it is right for me.

I suppose, following such a self-chosen rule helps me keep chaos at bay, whatever that means.

I base all my relationships on respect, and trust comes natural to me, which obviously exposes me to abuse. Like when a friend of a friend asked me to lend him a non-negligible amount of money (more than a month of my pay). I hesitated, because I didn’t really know that person and, actually, I didn’t like him. I thought I might never see my money again. But then, I asked myself: do I want to be the type of person who says no? I’d be just one more selfish bastard. But if I trust this person, I will be better for it, regardless of whether I will one day get my money back or not. Well, you guessed it: I only got back a fraction of what I lent, and that person even accused me of helping him only because I was paternalistic.

I still remember it three and a half decades later, and it still annoys me, but I know I did the right thing.

My father, whom I, regrettably, didn’t appreciate enough when he was alive, also was a trusting man. I remember that he once acted as the guarantor for a loan to a relative, and then found himself in an extremely tight spot when that relative defaulted on the repayments. My father was a good man. I am very sorry I never told him.

But I’m digressing, as usual.

All three major religions I mentioned before have prophets as emissaries of their Gods. Buddha was not a prophet, though, because Buddhism has no God. According to some tradition, some two and a half millennia ago, a man developed over the course of decades a way of reaching complete happiness. On request of others, he taught his method, thereby starting the Buddhist tradition.

I have read a bit about Buddhism, but I don’t really know much about it. What I know is that when I went to Canberra’s centre of Diamond Way Buddhism, I found myself surrounded by great people. Marvellous human beings. Never in my life had I ever met a group of people so open, so ready to welcome me among them, so eager to help without imposing anything in exchange.

Something clicked at once between us.

Theravada Buddhism teaches you techniques; in Mahayana Buddhism, the teachers act as examples; and in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, to which the Diamond Way belongs, there is more emphasis on the teachers, who are supposed to inspire you.

As one of my newly-found friends said: trust must be earned. You are not expected to believe a teacher upfront. But when you see that his teachings help you again and again, you are bound to listen very carefully to what he says, and expect that a further teaching will also help you. This is what trust means.

Well, I’m new to this, but I do believe that I have in me the capability of being completely happy, and I’m willing to give it a try.

A bit of self-promotion

I know: almost a full month of silence and then only some self-promotion? It’s not so good. But I would like to be sure that you are aware of the other blog I just started.

It’s about Italian POWs held in Australia during WWII who, once repatriated to Italy, returned to Australia as migrants.

I started a PhD on that subject. That’s partly why I neglected this blog. I’ll get back to it. Actually, I’ll write an article immediately after this one.

If you want to know more about my PhD, visit my other blog at ItalianPOW.info.