What “Creativity” means at the Futures Initiative

By: Will Arguelles

Every Tuesday here at the Futures Initiative, our fellows and staff gather, update one another on our work, and brainstorm solutions to complex problems.  A key component of our work is professionalization and helping our cozy community of scholars blossom into the best versions of themselves. The content of this blog post originated in our 10/24 weekly meeting, where Jasmeene Francois helped us tap into our creative sides, as detailed below. The text of this activity has been edited and reformatted to fit a wider, public audience.

“Being an academic” is often actually “being” a lot of things – a researcher, a mentor, a teacher, just to name a few. But one aspect of academic life that often goes under appreciated is our roles as creatives. From the ways we organize classrooms and syllabi, to how we present our work, creativity is a central virtue in any academic life. We at the Futures Initiative want to celebrate our individual creative acts – and we’ve put together a list of some of the ways we’re creative in our scholarly lives. Simultaneously we also discussed ways of incorporating more creativity into our daily routines, all in hopes of reaching a better state of creative flow.

  For us, Creativity is both an act of resistance and love. It is making different, unique connections between seemingly unrelated concepts – creativity is the ability to see what’s not there. Being creative reminds us that we are not alone, but can all be creative, and we need to factor in the person and allow space for them. Creativity means coming up with new ideas without judgment but not without criticism – allowing for unique hypotheses, but still testing their validity. Maybe most important of all, being creative is fun –  it will always be the most fun part of any work. 

  Creativity can take many forms. For Jackie, CPL Program Coordinator, it’s about communication and silence – where an idea might come through a fun conversation or joke, while other times you might just need to stare at a wall or a screen for a while until a thought jolts through the brain. It can also be physical – for Rod, our Assistant Director, a good solo dance party is what gets the creativity flowing. Sometimes, he’ll throw on som 80’s and 90’s reggae and imagine himself writing as if he was DJing at Bonnaroo with a huge audience. And sometimes it can be slowing down, like for research fellow Jasmeene, whose coffee ritual is part of her awakening her creativity. She uses a French Press and makes a deliberate choice to enjoy the slowness, inviting some relaxation into the busyness of the morning. Jasmeene also creates collages in her planner, transforming it into a scrapbook, another deliberately slow practice that forces her to slow down and reflect.

  Creativity can also be something nurtured, from early childhood to your golden years.  CPL Facilitator Kelsey told us a beautiful story about how her mother inspired her to be creative by being “crafty.” Growing up, Kelsy’s family had an entire closet dedicated to arts and crafts, which has since expanded to her childhood bedroom. In the closet, there were papers, pencils, fabric, paints, everything a child would need to create. Her mom would  always encourage Kelsey to go into that closet whenever she had a creative assignment for school, or even for assignments that did not need to be creative. This crafty feeling taught Kelsey to push the envelope, leading her to be more engaged with all of her assignments, from elementary school to her work today with the CUNY Peer Leaders program. 

  Kelsey hopes to one day be able to recreate her arts & crafts closet outside the home – a lounge-like space with comfortable desks, but also cozy couches and soft pillows, and of course a near-endless supply of (ideally reusable and recycled) crafting materials. And CPL Director  Lauren agrees, as she described her ideal creative space as having no institutional looking rooms, more sunlight, aesthetically pleasing wall paint, and unconventional desk,chairs, art, and other interesting bits of furniture.

  So how do we learn what’s crucial and what is not when we’re teaching?  An ideal creative classroom feels like a nap, where you immerse yourself fully and feel you are 100% charged when you walk out of the classroom. First we might focus on the comfort level, or vibe, of the class. To best book creativity, you want to establish a sense of ease and open comfortable communication. This works for both classes where creativity is a key feature, like a design studio, or classes where problem-solving or creative approaches are needed. Importantly, there needs to be an understanding that a sense of comfort (and maybe even humor and joy) really encourages everyone to be as creative as they can. 

  For me in particular, creativity has usually been about storytelling and narratives.  I have played D&D every sunday for nearly 10 years now, and you might be surprised how similar running a game as dungeon master is to teaching creatively. In both, you have to take what the players or students give you, and transmute that response into something they can work with to keep moving forward. One creative exercise I’ve done is to come up together with a list of 20 questions you can ask about literature – usually around the start of the semester. We then discuss them as a list and make some tweaks. After that, I’ll take a twenty-sided die, which I usually have on hand, and any time we hit a lull in the conversation I’ll roll the die, and then we’ll ask that question to whatever we’re reading right now. 

  Sometimes being creative in the classroom means taking something you do independently of academia, and working to bring it in to your work in meaningful ways. Since 2021, Beiyi, our Outreach Manager, has maintained the “100 Museums Blog,” which you can check out here. The Blog is itself a creative act – [more praise after I get the link], but it’s also led Beiyi to have a clear repository of references for her students when discussing art history and sociology. Similarly, Kelsey has developed workshops for Body Mind Mapping, which you can read about here [think there’s a blog on this?], because she wanted to engage participants with this crafty feeling. 

  Megan, the editor of our monthly newsletter, which you can subscribe to here, highlights that while it might be hard to be creative as a scientist, there still are areas where her creative side shines through. Her dissertation, which seeks to identify gastrointestinal parasites in wild capuchin monkeys, is pretty visual, as she has to visually identify my parasites and then translate that data into a more comprehensible form. Megan does this by making gorgeous graphs, pretty posters and pleasing presentations. One way she manages to make the study of parasites charming is by coordinating between her projected visuals and poster and her outfits for the talk. She incorporates creativity into her teaching by having an assignment called “draw a primate” and having students draw a primate that either exists or is made-up, but includes typical primate-specific characteristics.

  Digital Strategy Director Chris likes to foreground sensitization and embodied experiences by interweaving scaffolded lessons. He begins by asking questions that get students to be introspective on topics pertaining to the day’s lesson. Then, setting the first question aside, Chris and his students collaborate to explain and clarify some key aspects of an assigned reading. Students then play the roles of researcher and research participant, asking questions about 1 to inter information related to 2. Students have to take on multiple roles and conceptual frames through the class, as they process the lesson, discovering resonances between their own experiences and the dispensed information.

Faculty Co-Chair, Shelly Eversley reminded us of a quote from Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering” Shelly works on bringing this capacity to create into her classroom by transforming what a midterm is. Instead of the standard blue books and question, Dr. Eversley has the students play as editor, creating zines from their annotated bibliographies.

  Being creative in the way that we do assessment is also very important, as well as allowing students to demonstrate and display their knowledge in creative ways. Rod does this by asking students to draw portraits of themselves on the first day of class and later in the semester return to the portrait and describe how it has changed, and how it captures their personality. I personally tested out the contract-based “ungrading” approach last year, where each student had a lot of creative control over what they did for work, how much work they did, and what type of assignments they turned in. Every student took their own individualized path towards a final project, and I got some really creative and interesting work.

For Tysean, FI Fellow-in-Residence, his ideal creative classroom looks like students applying their knowledge of linguistics to create a new language that is spoken or shared among every student in the class, incorporating features of their own languages for potential inclusion of less well-known languages. This way, the students will be tested without feeling like they are taking an examination. For Jasmeene, the focus is on feeling joyful and inspired. As the students come into the classroom or while working on a free-write, music is playing from a shared playlist to which her students contribute. Going back to the idea of creativity as a practice that emphasizes slowness, Jasmeene starts with check-ins, where students are encouraged to respond to material through writing, music, or any kind of art form or media. She does these check-ins to give students a moment to arrive, breathe and be in community with each other. 

And sometimes a classroom is not even the ideal at all! Our Executive Director, Dr. Oyo would rather her  “lessons” or “classes” take place wherever it made the most sense to be, depending on the content of the lecture. Adashima usually teaches in health sciences and public health, and that public-facing quality is something that can get lost in a standard classroom, and thus misses out on a real educational opportunity to build real, healthy communities. So if dr. Oyo was teaching a course about racial disparities in infant mortality and maternal mortality, she’d prefer to teach students in those communities and invite members of the community to speak with her class.

  But perhaps most of all, Creativity is something that must be guarded, and preserved, cherished and nurtured. It can be difficult to protect creativity when the academy seems to push us towards certain formats. Sometimes, we might be more creative when not engaging with the academy, in the work we do outside of academe, and we should be careful to protect these spaces.  Yet, at the same time, many of the academics we admire most are those who have maintained their Creativity in their academic research and writing. Our Creativity gives our research the spark that we need and that our readers deserve. It’s worth fighting for wherever possible. As FI Founder and Co-Chair, Cathy N. Davidson put it, “creativity is an act of resistance and love… Academe has so many self-reinforcing rules that can easily lead us to self-censor but we must work to be our best, most creative selves. Learning what counts to oneself is crucial.” 


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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New York, NY 10016-4309