A Space for the rising creative class: media, literacy and innovation in the university


(from University of Kentucky Creative Arts Collection)

 It has been surmised that there are only two centuries that matter when it comes to education – the 19th century, because this is when the explanatory power of the disciplines was understood and deeply respected, and the 21st century, because this is when we have to confront the limitations of those same disciplines at the same time that we rely on them to serve as intellectual springboards to trans-disciplinary thinking and doing. While I expect that many educational scholars might take exception to this proposition, there is merit, I think, in examining our pedagogical thinking and doing as an unfortunate hangover from the previous century, the century that, arguably, matters least. However much we inform ourselves about the demands of teaching in and for ‘these times’, most academics were taught in ‘those times’ ie, last century, pre-internet. Little wonder that so many of us still come to issue of pedagogical design weighed down by the baggage of the past, the mental models of the good teacher (active, giving, standing out front) and good student (passive, soaking it up, seated). The ubiquity of the tiered lecture theatre, with its focus squarely on the singular, scholarly individual at the centre of the front of the action, speaks volumes about the resilience of dated mental models of pedagogical work, however much university marketers might point to the growing number of hits on our websites as an indicator of their institution’s pedagogical responsiveness to ‘these times’.

Meanwhile, during the last decade and outside the lecture hall, some individuals have been getting on with the rigour and the pleasure of creative thinking and doing. In December 2007, the world mourned the passing of designer Ettore Sottsass, renowned for his capacity to take mundane things and imbue them with vibrant new meaning. It is this same imperative that the authors have brought to their vision of what is possible for university learning and teaching. They have taken a domain of practice that is often enacted and written about as a mundane but necessary field of ‘things’ – lectures, notes, exams, classrooms – and insist on scrutinising this field as a very different space of possibility for pedagogical thinking and doing.


One of the few positives to come out of the on-going global financial crisis is that it has shaken up higher education in terms of its assumptions about what it ought to ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. Tough and uncertain times have disrupted the cosy idea that a longer time spent in formal programs of study means more credentials which mean in turn better prospects of employability and security of tenure in a more interesting domain of work. The downturn has been critical not only for those seeking employment, and for those recently ‘separated’ from what they thought would be secure employment, but also for those who offer the mundane teaching of the mundane programs, because the credentials they offer have been shown to be no guarantee of job security. So, indirectly, the financial crisis has made for a potential pedagogical crisis, and it is a potential that should not to be wasted. This book is one way of responding positively through the learning culture not just in arts faculties, but across all the disciplines and beyond them, to get past narrow vocationalism to educate for a more meaningful life.

The new pedagogical projects imagined in this book can be understood, like Sottsass’s design project, as having two parallel strands: giving “dignity to the mundane” and creating objects with “the emotional intensity of art”.[i] Indeed, the authors here seem as relentless in their pursuit of optimal conditions for learning as Sottsass himself. As a highly gifted architect and playful producer of cutting edge designs, Sottsass was indefatigable in his pursuit of design challenges, working across terrains of disparate form and function to produce something novel, playful, useful, beautiful.  His studios produced everything from television sets to precious glassware, from fashion shops for Esprit to calculators for Olivetti, and from household furniture to a golf resort for the People’s Liberation Army in China. He was a man who refused to be limited by cultural conventions, location or language, transcending as he did the boundaries of thinking and doing that privilege disciplinary thinking over imagination. A relentless border crosser, he was culturally and epistemologically agile, hungry for challenge and untameable in his quest to combine aesthetic and function in original and value-adding ways. So too the chapters in this book cross borders of conventional knowing and doing in university teaching, anticipating differently configured pedagogical spaces and relationships, and refusing to settle readily on one template or formula for ‘getting pedagogy right’. This to my mind makes the collection practical because it is not driven by the comfort of traditional supply-side thinking in higher education (teachers supply disciplinary knowledge, students demand an employment-relevant credential) – but by the excitement and discomfort of user-led imagining as a springboard to learning beyond familiar disciplines and institutional spaces.


The products that Sottsass designed are tangible evidence of the “high concept/high touch” skills[ii] that contribute to living more creatively in our present century. (I note recent opinion that the inability of our institutional systems to provide creative, meaningful work is very much to blame for rising rates of depression – that we define depression as a psychological ailment when it is rather “a symptom of a cultural failure – the inability to make life meaningful or enjoyable”[iii]). Pedagogical approaches that build “high concept/high touch” capacities for combining function and aesthetics in original ways have much to offer in terms of remediating this “culture failure”. “High concept” capacities mean enhanced ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention. “High touch” capacities make for an enhanced ability to empathise, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in oneself and elicit it in others, and to stretch “beyond the normal in pursuit of purpose and meaning”[iv]. So ‘low threat, high challenge’ engagement with both the aesthetics and functioning of phenomena make not just for a more employable graduate, but for a person who has a more meaningful life inasmuch as they have lifelong capacity to learn when, how and for whatever purpose they choose.

[i] Sudjic, D. (2008), ‘Designer who gave meaning to everyday objects’, Age, 10 January, p.12.

[ii] Daniel Pink (2004) A Whole New Mind.

[iii] Dmitry Orlov (2008) Re-inventing Collapse. BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, p.53.

[iv] Ibid, p.53

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