Failing to Learn

failing to learn

With self-portraits in the background, “Exploring Creativity” students demonstrate “improv-art.” Photo courtesy of Fiona Worcester ‘09 and Jeffrey Kaplan ‘09.

“While we can debate if creativity is an actual ‘skill,’ I strongly believe we can all be more creative by intent: we need only—just as these students did—journey in the right direction.”

by Zelda Stern

Mathematics professor and Gaudino Scholar Edward Burger wants more Williams students to fail. Not to flunk, of course, but rather to take creative risks that may not pan out.

Hence the unusual course Burger offered last fall, “Exploring Creativity,” which brought together 12 students, three majors each in art, philosophy, mathematics and music. By producing original works in each field, Burger says, students were encouraged “to take risks, experiment, push their imagination beyond their limits and explore consequences of failed attempts.”

Upending the traditional classroom dynamic, the students—grouped into teams by major and using criteria set by Burger—took turns teaching from lesson plans developed under the guidance of Burger in math, Mike Glier ’75 in art, Will Dudley ’89 in philosophy and Ileana Perez Velazquez in music. Burger, meanwhile, did all the homework and projects.

Students’ assignments were judged on process rather than final product—something that “goes against the typical Williams grain,” Burger says. They also “moved beyond their comfort zone with the attitude that failing and making mistakes is … a sign of an original thinker.”

Before long, “The 13 of us created an environment in which you could say anything you wanted or even sing anything you wanted,” he adds. “Everyone was encouraging. Everyone was looking not at the product but at how far the person had traveled.”

To judge from their final reflections on the course, the students, selected from more than 50 applicants, seemed to agree. Wrote Harris Paseltiner ’09, “It was remarkably liberating to fail and continue powering through without looking back.”

Added Beth Links ’09, “Creativity is, above all, an exercise of self-trust. … When I allowed myself to risk failure, to look with my heart, to get naked, to be ridiculous: that was when innovation occurred.”

For Burger, “Exploring Creativity” was the realization of a vision he had more than 18 years ago. In fact, when he first came to Williams, he presented a detailed plan for the course to the board overseeing the Robert L. Gaudino Memorial Fund, established by alumni a quarter of a century ago to carry on the legacy of experiential education and “uncomfortable learning” exemplified by one of Williams’ most beloved professors. The Gaudino Board was so impressed with Burger’s proposal that he was asked to teach the course. But Burger didn’t believe he was ready.

“I was just starting my career, and I was way too young, not just in age, but in terms of my own creative work as a scholar,” he says.

In 2008, Burger, by then the author of numerous books, articles and video series and the recipient of many national awards for exceptional teaching, was named Gaudino Scholar. Instead of taking the course release that comes with the position, he decided to offer his interdisciplinary one.

He also organized last semester’s series “The Gaudino Dialogues”—live, unscripted interviews with alumni who shared with Burger their life stories, highlighting their failures as well as their successes. And this spring, Burger is bringing together faculty for lunchtime discussions about the role of creativity in education and how faculty might inspire students to become more creative and original thinkers.

“The hardest question we can ask ourselves as educators is this,” Burger says. “Ten years from today, what are my students going to retain from my class? In my case, it’s not going to be calculus. My goal is to change lives. If you’re in education and you’re not in the business of changing lives, then perhaps it’s time to do something else.”

 

Are You Creative?

For each team of students teaching a unit in “Exploring Creativity,” communicating the core concepts of their subject in language their classmates could understand—and then coming up with assignments that would spark a creative response—became the ultimate task. Here are four challenges drawn from the many each team assigned to the class:

Studio Art

Rachel Ko ’09, Beth Links ’09, Fiona Worcester ’09

Draw 22 1 ?2 images of any one shoe, from all possible vantage points. Draw the shoe happy and draw it sad. Draw the shoe as if it wishes it were human. Draw the shoe in love with another inanimate object. Draw it with your non-dominant hand. Draw it in an uncomfortable location. Try drawing it using your favorite and least favorite techniques from our class. Think of other permutations— remember you are producing 22 1 ?2 drawings of the same shoe.

Philosophy

Jeff Kaplan ’09, Julian Mesri ’09, Emanuel Yekutiel ’11

Someone was in a car accident and, as a result, all of his higher brain functions cease. That is, his conscious memories, thoughts and personality traits are gone. Is that individual dead? Give a two sentence answer (and no longer!).

Music

Ruth Aronoff ’09, Caroline Kan ’09, Sam Kapala ’09

Spend 15 minutes in each of three different locations and consciously and carefully listen to all the sounds around you. Create a short piece of music that captures what you hear.

Mathematics

Mary Feeley ’09, Aroop Mukharji ’09, Harris Paseltiner ’09

What is the fourth dimension? Write a two-sentence definition and then create an artistic representation of a four-dimensional object or of four-dimensional space.