When 15 Fellows Decide to Take a Different Road

  Most faculty chose their academic career because they thrive in the intellectual stimulus of scholarly endeavors, the challenges and rewards of working with young minds, and the academic freedom to pursue their own research agenda and share their findings with the public at large.

The 15 faculty members who joined the Purdue Polytechnic Educational Research and Development team share a passion for undergraduate education and an eagerness and will to disrupt the status quo and approach the problem of education with the utmost scholarly rigor it deserves. No assumption is taken for granted; no solution is taken lightly; no question is off limits. The journey that this team has taken is unique and pregnant with lessons learned for all of us.

As I listened to John Cleese’s1 lecture on creativity,2 I was struck by how much the journey of the fellows in the past year had all the elements of creative thinking.

Open Contemplation, Humor, and Trust

Cleese's main assertion is that “creativity is not a talent but a mode of operating.” To be creative, we need to be open. Once decisions are made, we need to be focused and purposeful (closed) to be efficient. Most of our workdays are spent in the closed mode. The closed mode is tense and tolerates little distraction or humor. By contrast, the open mode is relaxed, less purposeful, more playful, and promotes curiosity for its own sake.  In the open mode, we can play, we welcome humor, curiosity, and as a result enable our our natural creativity.

In the open mode, there is no wrong question and no bad idea. In the open mode, it is important to broaden our perspective.  Many creative journeys are solitary, but they do not have to be; teams can be creative if they operate in the open mode. For this to happen, there has to be full trust between the members.

The 15 faculty fellows spent four months during Fall 2013 in the open mode. We had made a deliberate decision to delay any design activity (let alone decision) until January 2014. Instead, we spent the fall semester creating and then inhabiting a safe space for contemplative open thinking mode. This took most of us out of our comfort zone. We are “doers,” too used to acting and executing on things. The presence and influence of colleagues from the liberal arts, more familiar with the open mode of thinking, was instrumental to keeping our team, especially our technology faculty, in the open mode.

Switching from Open to Closed and Back

One of the reasons we use the closed mode at work is that it enables us to execute efficiently. In the closed mode we are rushed, tense, impatient, and focused on being reactive and operational. There is no room for debate and creativity in the closed mode. John Cleese acknowledged the value and necessity of the closed mode. What he sees as a problem though is the fact we too often “get stuck in the closed mode” and forget to allow ourselves to switch back and forth.

Another characteristic of the journey of the faculty fellows is that we have practiced and learned to switch back and forth between the open playful and creative mode and the closed decisive and efficient mode.  In fact we are even using two parallel governance/working systems. In the open mode we use unstructured long meetings; in the closed mode, we adopted a very structured efficient Holacracy3 system focused on quick decisions and actions and accountability. In the open mode, all topics are discussed and debated by anyone who so wishes, and agendas are minimal. In the closed mode, meetings are formal with a highly scripted set of rules. Holacracy meetings are short and results-oriented. Open meetings are … mostly open.

The Five Ingredients for Opening Our Minds

John Cleese lists five elements necessary to help us bring ourselves to the open mode of creativity:

  1. Space. We need to create a space away from every day’s pressures because we cannot be playful if we are under our usual daily pressures. The fellows have created this space for themselves meeting in DLR as well as informal and impromptu meetings off campus.
  2. Time. We need to give time to quiet our minds and let go of the day to day concerns. Only then can they switch to a contemplative mode. Most of the (open) meetings held by the fellows were at least 90 minutes long, the minimum advised by Cleese.
  3. Time. We must tolerate the discomfort of pondering time with the uncertainty and indecision that goes with it. It can be highly tempting to adopt the first solution that comes to mind rather than wait for a better one. The decision of the fellows not to design anything for four months and give themselves time to debate the big questions proved to be a very wise decision. Most of the design activities per se were taken starting in January. There is a general agreement that had we started designing earlier, the outcome would have been much different and less innovative.
  4. Confidence (trust). The fear of failure is the biggest enemy of creativity; so is the fear of criticism. As a group, the fellows have reached a level of camaraderie and trust where all ideas are accepted, discussed, and debated. Trust is one of the Polytechnic Incubator’s key values. The faculty is keenly aware of its importance and its power when it colors our relationships with the students and with each other. Practicing this building of trust between us is a prerequisite to our practicing it with the students.
  5. Humor. As a comedian, John Cleese is an expert on the nature and benefits of humor. He argues that “the main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.” Almost all humor is a change (and broadening) of perspective. As such, it forces us to open our view.

As we meet on a regular basis and reflect on what we are doing and how well we are progressing towards our goal, it is reassuring to see that we were correct in putting ourselves in the correct mode. All the rest is just hard work side by side with colleagues we trust and respect.

The Polytechnic Educational Research and Development team is now working with the Center for Instructional Excellence to help the next group of faculty in as they prepare to transform the CoT first year. We would like to wish them lots of success in their own journey.

1John Cleese's official web site

2John Cleese on How to Be Creative (YouTube)

  1. climate
  2. Innovation
  3. open mode
  4. trust

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