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Out-of-the-Box Class on Creativity Challenges Students, Faculty

Team-led course outlines how creativity yields real-world benefits in any workplace
April 22nd, 2020 by 

Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble musicians share how they developed their own unique voices in music as visiting artists in CreateLab, Originality and Its Origins.
Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble musicians share how they developed their own unique voices in music as visiting artists in CreateLab, Originality and Its Origins.

Today’s CreateLab class in Brooks Concert Hall hasn’t started yet, but already the space is buzzing.

Six musicians from the Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble — a musical collective founded by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma — mingle and warm up on stage, adjusting their instruments or making notes on sheet music. As students file in and settle into chairs, it’s hard to spot the team-taught course’s five professors spread out and seated among them, chatting.

Class begins with a deep breathing exercise, as students, professors and musicians audibly inhale and exhale in unison, following the pace of Silkroad percussionist Shane Shanahan. Next, he encourages everyone to breathe at their own speed, resisting the urge to sync up with those around them. “How did that feel?” he asks. “Chaotic and uncomfortable,” some say. “More natural,” others share.

For the next hour and half, members of Silkroad — visiting artists-in-residence at the College through the Arts Transcending Borders (ATB) initiative — use storytelling and performance to share how they developed their own unique voices in music. Through clapping, vocals and foot stomping that shakes Brooks to the top of its stained-glass windows, students and faculty join in to experience the rhythms and beats that shape these musicians as innovative creatives in the world.

CreateLab, part of the ATB initiative, is an experimental course steeped in the arts. Working together, visiting artists and powerhouse teams of professors foster a unique exploration, both scholarly and experiential, for students from all class years and majors.

This year’s course examines the complex ways outside forces influence art (including issues such as inspiration, appropriation and plagiarism) and is co-taught by Leah Hager Cohen, James N. and Sarah L. O’Reilly Barrett Professor in Creative Writing; Mark Freeman, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society in the Department of Psychology; Osvaldo Golijov, Loyola Professor of Music; Edward Isser, associate dean of the performing arts and W. Arthur Garrity, Sr. Professor in Human Nature, Ethics and Society; and Ellis Jones, assistant professor of sociology.

“We want more than anything for students to have a sense both of the wonder of originality and also the quite concrete sources that precede the emergence of originality and creativity,” says Freeman, who serves as a point person for the faculty team.

Working from a flexible syllabus that provides a framework — and space to veer from it — the teaching team weaves in expertise from their disciplines, adjusting as they go. For example, after seeing their course roster of 46 included mostly seniors, faculty pivoted to assign a novella exploring the theme of “endings.”

Each class builds on the last, almost “like a braid,” Freeman says. He acknowledges that breaking from a more traditional class structure can be unnerving, for both the students and professors. But the creative rewards of pushing through discomfort are part of the point of CreateLab.

Meeting in The Pit, a theatre space that serves as the course’s home base, Jones kicks off a “Going Wild, Going Child”-themed class with a brief, joy-filled slideshow. Images and video clips sent in by CreateLab students show them taking a moment out of their busy lives to do something they loved as kids. It’s a few minutes of pillow-fort-building, finger-painting, ice-hockey-playing, jumping-on-the-bed — fun.

After listening to literary analysis of Maurice Sendak’s groundbreaking “Where the Wild Things Are” and considering the ways in which he conveyed childhood fears, students break into groups, tasked with exploring their own fears as children. Their challenge, explains Cohen, is to express these fears without relying too heavily on the medium so often emphasized in higher education: words. Students then choreograph and tell visceral stories — using percussion, movement and drawings — of lurking monsters, darkness and the unknown.

“The course is definitely pushing me to think outside my comfort zone,” says Anne Croke ’20, a psychology and Spanish double major, who notes that CreateLab is “truly unlike” any other course she’s taken at the College. “I love that it is such an interactive learning experience,” she shares.

Throughout the semester, students attend performances, read, ponder and create as they explore what it means to find their own original voices. They even practice breath work and other intentional ways to rest while creating. “Much of the time we’re all so distracted and driven toward the next task or event,” Freeman says. “We want students to be able to acquire the skill, or habit, of not doing that.”

“CreateLab is giving me the tools to learn more about myself and others, exercise my creative capabilities and inch toward a better version of myself,” says Olivia Lozy ’20, a psychology major with a minor in studio art.

“The kind of thinking we ultimately want to promote, we believe, is deeply transportable,” Freeman notes. “Innovative thinking, oral presentation skills, collaborative work … all that’s going to be of value wherever [students] land.”

Course Catalog

CISS 275: CreateLab, Originality and Its Origins

Department: Interdisciplinary Studies

Description: “What is the nature of originality? How does creative work — in the arts, sciences and in everyday life (for instance, in the context of food, clothing and the music you listen to daily) — come into being? How does the work of others inform one’s own? When is drawing upon others’ work legitimate? When might it be harmful?” These are the questions investigated during this year’s CreateLab. Performances, lectures, group work and semester-long projects offer students the opportunity to take risks and explore their own imaginations, gaining a deeper understanding of the creative process. Faculty and visiting artists-in-residence facilitate this journey as students develop skills that will serve them in their academic pursuits and beyond.

Meeting Times: Monday and Wednesday 10-11:50 a.m.

Classroom: The Pit, O’Kane 37

Required Reading: “The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller; “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon; “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak; “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy; Other readings as assigned

Required Events: Silkroad Ensemble Concert; Las Cafeteras Concert; Richard II; Rubberband Dance Performance

Assignments: CreateLab portfolio (creations, experiments, explorations, discoveries, reveries); Other assigned projects

Grades: Engagement and participation, portfolio, assigned projects

Createlab Faculty Team:

Leah Hager Cohen, James N. and Sarah L. O’Reilly Barrett professor in creative writing: “What excites me most about CreateLab is the real invitation to risk ‘failure.’ By which I mean: the freedom to go vagabonding in a field without pre-set definitions of success.”

Mark Freeman, distinguished professor of ethics and society in the department of psychology: “CreateLab is the chance of a lifetime to do the kind of exploration that most of us seek in one way or another. And it’s great to be doing it with such a passionate, imaginative group of faculty and students.”

Osvaldo Golijov, Loyola professor of music: “I think of CreateLab as a set of tools for our Holy Cross students, so they not only excel when they go out in the world (they routinely do), but creatively shape our world toward the good.”

Edward Isser, associate dean of the performing arts and W. Arthur Garrity, Sr. professor in human nature, ethics and society: “CreateLab has challenged me to be more experimental — and less controlling — in my more conventional ‘bread ‘n’ butter’ courses. It has reinforced the notion that teaching students how to think is as important and certainly more essential than merely conveying a bunch of information.”

Ellis Jones, assistant professor of sociology: “I see a level of engagement with students one-on-one that brings me back to the mission of Holy Cross to educate our students as whole people — body, mind and spirit.”

Written by Meredith Fidrocki for the Spring 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine
Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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