Monday, December 29, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #13 (The Six Über Skills of Seminary - Part 1 - Creativity)

When I first arrived at seminary, it was a bewildering new world to me. I had trained as an undergraduate in the sciences, and I had been working in a university lab for several years. The humanities were a new place for me. But quickly, I realized I was “home” in some ways in the halls of seminary. As I’ve joked to my family on numerous occasions, I really only have three fundamental skills: reading, writing, and speaking. Now, as it turns out, these three things, if done moderately well and in semi-regular fashion, will often assure one of success in seminary (and likely in the Church, too). At the very least, they are fundamental skills that a seminary student ought to embrace as part of their vocation as a student. Reading, writing, and speaking are skills that are always useful no matter what you do. 

I call these skills the “Three Sisters.” Why? Because, like the “three sisters” of Native American agriculture – beans, maize (corn), and squash – reading, writing, and speaking go together and reinforce each other as one grows in each of these important skills and disciplines. 

But these skills got me thinking: aside from the “Three Sisters” – the skill set of reading, writing, and speaking – are there any other general skills that one might need in the seminary? And I did a bit of thinking… 

My thinking led me deep into the heart of seminary work and productivity, and yet, it also led me into the heart of what I think is going to make you successful at the next level beyond seminary. So I thought a little more. And eventually, I came up with what I call the Six Über Skills of Seminary

Here are the Six Über Skills of Seminary in no particular order:
  • Creativity (and the art of being creative) 
  • Scholarship (mastering a body of work, remaining aware of the rest)
  • Time Management (mastering your time)
  • Reading (taking your mind to the woodpile)
  • Speaking (communicating well)
  • Writing (Joining the conversation and getting our thoughts into the world in a lasting way)
So, there they are: the Six Über Skills of Seminary. You might consider these high impact practices (which seem to be all the rage these days in the academy). These are the skills that you can take to the bank in seminary. So, let’s unpack these a bit and see how they inform your seminary journey and your life beyond. We'll look at skill #1 in this post, and skills 2-6 in subsequent posts.

SKILL #1 – Creativity and the Art of Being Creative

What are creativity and the art of being creative all about? Creativity, at its heart, is about coming up with new ideas – and having the good sense to kill many of them after they occur to you. You’ll do this kind of work hundreds of times while in seminary. In reality you will do creative work (involving your creative ability) every time you are given an assignment in school and you’ll draw frequently on this skill. You’ll write papers and give talks where creativity will be the first and last skill you’ll draw on to move forward, coming up with new ideas and having the good sense to kill many of them. 

And the end goal of the process of creativity? Useful ideas.

That’s where the part about killing – or culling – ideas coming into the picture. At the end of the day, you want useful ideas. Many ideas you generate will not be useful. So, let’s think about creativity.

Here’s where I’d like to be able to go back in time and talk to my younger self. Permit me a digression for just a moment in order to make a point. In my younger days of high school, I was a poet-philosopher. I was an artist. I was an orchestral tuba nerd with great promise – winding my way through the great ‘marrow’ moments of world history. When Robin Williams (God rest his soul) whispered Carpe Diem in Dead Poet’s Society, he was speaking directly to me. I was Carpe Diem.

I was creative. 

But then two strange and extraordinary processes happened to me – the U.S. Marine Corps and the life of the scientist. As time would tell, these processes, whether because of the processes themselves or because of my reaction to these processes, killed a bit of my creative sprit (not to suggest that Marines or scientists aren’t creative, mind you). 

Entering into seminary, I was prepared to make good arguments and support them with plenty of evidence (like a good scientist), but I was not quite as prepared for the creative endeavor that would be demanded of me in my coursework: creating interesting thesis statements, synthesizing far-flung information into a cohesive whole, putting different conversations into conversation with each other to create entirely new conversations, etc.

So, are there disciplines that helped re-kindle my creativity? Something I did to help me recapture something of the artist inside of me, or at the very least be creative and innovative? As it turns out – yes there were (and are)! Several in fact, which I share now with you, dear reader.

Finding Creative Solutions Through Analogy

First, in terms of creativity or innovation in problem solving (which you’ll doing quite a bit of in seminary), appreciate that as you face problems, analogy can be your friend. Here’s how it works. Ask yourself if a question or problem you are working on has been solved by another field or discipline in such a way that the solution is applicable to your own problem because of analogical resemblance. Did you follow that? In other words, you are asking if an analogical problem and solution exists somewhere out there in the world, one which will help you solve your own problem.

Oliver Burkeman, writer for The Guardian, in an article dated 11 January 2013 titled “This Column Will Change Your Life: Creative Thinking,” cites the work of Anthony McCaffrey, a University of Massachusetts psychologist. Dr. McCaffrey, according to Mr. Burkeman, has observed that most creative solutions to problems begin with analogy. He points to the example of the NASA engineer who solved the Hubble telescope’s lens woes after being inspired by a German showerhead design. 

He also tells the story of a ski company whose skis vibrated at high speeds causing skiers using them to lose control of their descent. The solution was eventually discovered after the ski company realized they needed to essentially “reduce vibrations over 1800 hertz” and found that violin makers had already solved this problem because of similar issues in violins. That’s analogical problem solving.

Here is how analogical creativity and problem solving works – you take your problem and break it down to its constituent parts – a kind of distilled statement of your problem – meaning, you articulate your problem in a question with the essential facts. Let me illustrate with the ski example from Mr. Burkeman’s article. The ski company has a problem with their skis – they vibrated at high speeds causing the skiers to lose control during their descent. But really, once they distilled the problem down to its basest facts, they had this: “reduce vibrations over 1800 hertz.” Once they had the essential problem’s sight picture, they were able to discover a solution in another the violin industry. Brilliant!

A good example of this kind of analogical problem solving in seminary is a discipline called social-scientific criticism (SSCrit). SSCrit is a development of historical criticism (you’ll learn about this soon enough in seminary, hopefully). For SSCrit, the overall task of interpreting the New Testament texts in the context of the first-century Mediterranean world have led biblical scholars to draw on the research paradigms, models, and perspectives of the social sciences in order to better analyze and model the biblical texts and their worlds. While in seminary, I used some models from SSCrit, for example, in my advanced exegesis class in order to analyze conflict in Luke-Acts. I distilled the conflicts between Jesus and the religious authorities (Luke) or the Apostles and their religious opponents (Acts) and then modeled them with models from the social sciences, models that involved and could describe conflict. Thus, through a conflict model from the social sciences, I was able to better understand the choreography of conflict situations in Luke-Acts. Analogical problems led to solutions via social scientific criticism. I realize this might sound a little complicated, but the point is that analogy can help you find creative solutions to problems. Analogy is your friend.

Just to summarize, the recipe for doing something creative could be as simple as: stating a problem in its most basic form, studying that statement, and then looking for analogical problems in other disciplines, preferably those which have been solved. Use the solution logic from the other field to help solve your own problem. Voilà!

Seek Solitude in Walking to Hone Your Creativity

I often wonder if part of the problem for us when we don’t feel creative is that we 1) don’t get enough solitude and quiet time these days so we can hear ourselves think; and 2) don’t get outside enough. Which leads me to wonder, what if you combined the two and got outside for a thinking walk on a regular basis? Neuroscientists suggest that something happens to our brains (and our creative thought processes) when we combine thinking and exercise, partly due to the fact that the exertion (whether aggressive or casual) increases oxygen to the brain and because we are using more parts of our brain in the synthesis of physical movement and abstract thinking, etc. So what’s the recommendation here? Take a walk, sans iPod, phone, music, etc. and go on a quiet walk in nature, around your neighborhood, at a nearby nature preserve, etc. 

This advice brings to mind the wonderful practice and intellectual routine of Charles Darwin, the brilliant 19th-century British naturalist and father of evolutionary theory. He took his daily “constitutional” on the “sandwalk” – a gravel path near Down House, his home in Kent. He referred to the sandwalk as his “thinking path” where he would do his “hard thinking.” It didn’t matter the weather, the season, or his age, he was out on the path, walking and thinking. As it turns out, Darwin had more than a few interesting ideas, eh?

He’s not alone. 

Immanuel Kant did the “thinking walk” thing. So did Friedrich Nietzsche. Daily walks, not solely for the purpose of exercise like so many of our physical pursuits today, but for thinking. Something akin to a “thinking constitutional.” I take my walks with my pipe just to keep it interesting. And I can attest to the power of the thinking walk. Something happens in my mind as my body and brain work together. There is a certain liberty in my thought. Some people say their greatest ideas come to them in the shower (or in other places in the bathroom). Not me. Give me a thinking walk any day.

For creativity’s sake, make walking and solitude a part of your thinking routine.

Learn to Recognize Good Work and Aspire to Do It (Later)

Part of the problem with creativity that no one will usually tell you about is that it necessitates negotiating quite a learning curve. What I mean is – you need to do lots of learning before you are going to be deeply creative and productive in your field. 

To be honest with you, as you start seminary, your learning curve is going to be pretty steep. Lots of reading, ingesting lectures, etc. are going to attempt to get you up to speed, but it takes time. Quite a bit of time. Remember that this is a common dilemma in mastering any creative skill.

So don’t despair. Just realize that this is part of the process. One needs to become conversant in the discipline before you can get creative. But in the mean time, there is an important step you can manage on your way to becoming really creative – learn to recognize great creative work in others

My recommendation is that you should apprentice yourself to learning about your discipline (which in seminary will be a pretty broad process admittedly but you will likely 'specialize' over time) and learn to recognize great creative work in others. The fact is, you will learn to recognize good works in others long before you can really produce it yourself. But learning to recognize it in others is a really important part of your own process.

Be Ready to Capture Your Creativity

Do you ever wonder how many great ideas come and go because you don’t have a way to capture them? It’s probably more than you think. Let me ask you: do you have a system for “capturing” (collecting, writing down, etc.) your ideas? You’d be surprised, but all it takes is one great idea to change your life. And you don’t want to let that idea go.

So, here’s what I recommend: 

1) Always keep a notebook or some kind of “capture device” nearby. Doesn’t matter what it is – even old-fashioned paper (or a Moleskin notebook) will work.

2) Process your doodlings, ideas, etc. regularly and get them into a capture system. Perhaps you use Evernote, Devonthink Pro, or some other kinds of organizational software. The point is: use it! Make every Saturday morning a review day for your ideas. 

3) Just sit down at a coffee shop with a blank piece of paper and a pen and starting writing, doodling, drawing, brain mapping, etc. The point is – confront a blank canvas and with no particular goal in mind – start thinking on paper. You might be surprised what happens.

Consult an Expert

Come up with some great idea in your exegesis class? Why not take that idea to a person who really knows what they are talking about – a professor at your seminary – and run it by them. You’d be surprised how helpful experts can be, especially when you offer to buy them coffee, bring it to their office, and sit with them and chat for 15 minutes. You’d be surprised at how helpful it can be to just find experts on topics and picking their brains.

Don’t Inadvertently “Kill” Creativity

Part of the way you can develop your creativity is by not killing it. Simple enough, eh? For starters, don’t always demand of yourself that you do things the "right way." If you tell yourself that there is just one right way to do things kills the urge to try new ways.

Also, don’t always pressure yourself to be realistic, to stop imagining. When we label our flights of fantasy as "silly," we bring the ourselves down to earth with a thud, causing the inventive urge to curl up and die.

Don’t compare yourself to others. If you do, there will be this is a subtle pressure to conform; yet the essence of creativity is freedom to conform or not to conform.

Don’t discourage your curiosity. One of the surest indicators of creativity is curiosity; yet we often brush questions aside because we are too busy for "silly" questions. Your questions deserve respect.

Foster Your Creative Side in Creative Ways

My final advice for fostering creativity is to be curious, explore, experiment, and foster and nurture the growth of your creativity with exploration and the development of your creative talents. Another way of stating that list is: enrich your creativity by enriching your experiences. Sometimes we don’t feel creative because we don’t engage in creative things. Let me tell you – when the busyness of seminary really kicks in, you will be tempted to eliminate other enriching parts of your life. Don’t do that!

Go to an art exhibit or an art house film. Go the symphony. Read great fiction. Watch a Terrence Malik film. Feed your creativity with the creative work of others and let your spirit be inspired. Don’t underestimate the power of this advice – I can’t count how many times I have heeded the wisdom of imbibing the creative art of others and reaped a harvest of my own creative energy afterwards.