Academic creativity in the here and now



One of the benefits of a bit of down time is that the occasional thought comes to you, apparently from nowhere. Perhaps the thought might be the beginning of a new idea, perhaps an insight into an ongoing project, a new angle on something concerning. This post is one such occasional thought. It concerns a little ongoing worry that I have about the ways in which the notion of creativity and innovation is instrumentalised and made amenable to audit.

There’s a lot of interest in creativity and originality in research – it’s one of the tests of the doctorate, it makes for successful funding bids, it’s the elusive ‘quality’ that much cited publications often have. There are consistent ideas around about how you get to be creative  in writing and research – you bring ideas from other disciplines into your own, you take a set of little ideas and build them into something bigger, you problematise orthodoxies, ask naive questions, take an idea and apply it to a new situation … and so on…

Now these are all very sensible notions and I don’t want to suggest that they aren’t. However, they don’t quite get us to the point where we understand how innovative ideas actually happen.  And one of the places we can look for understandings about creative processes and practices is in the arts. The arts have a lot to teach all of us IMHO about how new ideas are actually produced. It is of course my research area and so it’s not surprising that I occasionally think about how my research might actually inform the rest of my academic work…

Here’s one tiny example of the ways in which arts practice might have something to offer academic work more generally. It’s “improv” – an approach used routinely in drama and also in music. We are all probably familiar with “improv” in music and drama – someone responds to a provocation on the spot, without preparation, using the resources they already have at their disposal. It is a kind of making-do. It’s a riffing on the usual, a doodle derived from a small single starting point.

But improv is not simply about action, it’s not just the extemporisation per se. Improv is also about thinking and feeling. It is the spontaneous, the playful, the now-ness of experience which is taken up and worked and reworked. This re-working does not have to be undertaken as an individual – it is often highly social – doing, thinking and feeling together with others. Improv often involves actions and interactions; the tangle of minds, bodies and emotions through a focus on what’s happening in the moment.

“This small Brooklyn classroom with a small group of ten was an ideal environment for suspending control and testing out what it’s actually like to try and not anticipate what’s coming next — to try to simply meet what’s next as it comes. It was amazing to realize that so many of our finely honed skills sets did not apply in this context. You can’t think forward, because it’s going to come from someone/somewhere else who hasn’t yet thought/unleashed it. They don’t even know what’s coming. Yet, you have to respond to what arises even when it’s from somewhere no one is expecting — and not what you expect or want it to be. This is the challenging and rich potential of improv. In these moments, you’re condemned (liberated?) to interconnectedness, as improv is inherently relational. No action or word stands alone. You must listen closely and riff off one another. Intentional communication is core to improv.

Improv demands you not isolate yourself, it’s impossible. There’s a pact at the core of the process — you’re never in it alone. The process is, essentially, a network. The phrase, “yes, and” summarizes a technique for generating more exchange, play, and responsiveness. Improv requires that you build off of what just happened, rather than go your own way with it. Together, we keep the “ball” up, moving, flowing, rather than having it settle into any one person’s trajectory. More simply, this form of serious play boils down to the question: how can we support each other in looking less stupid? With everyone watching everyone else’s back, ready to swoop in and take up the improvisation burden when it starts to sag to the floor, each player can actually inhabit the moment more fully. Each can pay better attention to the other players, and to the unfolding context. Paradoxically, bringing more personal energy to “emergency” (just now emerging) contexts demands that we be less self-absorbed.


Improv focuses on the NOW, but also the HERE. Immersed in the experience, working with a first impression/sensation/thought and seeing where it might go. Establishing the parameters of an event and seeing what might happen. The result might be something surprising, something amusing, something thought-provoking, something delightful… something creative, something innovative.

So you see, in my down time I’ve had the odd wonder about how the “improv” might be a resource for research and teaching in the performative higher education system. What might a focus on the here and now, the moment, the relational, the embodied, actually mean in practice? Is the “improv” one resource for thinking more hesitantly? for refusing specified outcomes, but just seeing where something leads? And is this actually exploring? investigating? being curiosity led?

Improv has an obvious connection with teaching where it stands opposed to predetermined learning outcomes, supporting instead a shared pursuit of an idea/ideas, following the unexpected, building understandings through collective actions/interactions. I’m not talking here about role plays or small instances where students are able to initiate an activity, but something bigger, based in the principles of here, now, interdependence and relationality.

And I’ve been wondering, how might “improv”also apply to research?  How would research trainers look on it? How would a project based in and on “improv” principles fare in funding schemes where we are required to specify, ahead of time, a sequence of predetermined activities? I wonder what might be gained if we did allow some people to do much more speculative “improv” research work….