Deep Grad School: Creativity-cum-Culture

The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists. We bring a panoply of methods, perspectives, and tools to understanding culture so that culture is both expansive and modular, with large stakes and conspicuous entry points.

The Culture Lab is both structured and spontaneous. It brings together faculty (standing, affiliated, and visiting) with students (current, allied, and distant) to build scholarly networks. It is primarily a playful brainspace, where activities and events are designed for lateral, capacious thinking. The Lab edifies the formal bonds between researchers while offering them a creative respite from formality itself.

The Culture Lab cites its own happy lexical accidents. It is not a “lab” in any traditional sense of the term. There are no test-tubes here. But it co-opts the spirit of experimentation by accepting and encouraging the mess, the risk, and the potential of testing things in emergence. The Lab capitalizes on the very form of culture itself, as something often rhizomatic and infectious. The Culture Lab adopts the metaphor of bacteria, where light bulbs can flash and set off a viral proliferation. The Lab lets the epidemic roar.

The Culture Lab is committed to the “why not” imperative. We often stanch the flow of brilliance when we pause to demand an answer to the “why” question. Why get involved? Why spend my time? Why waste my energy? The Lab responds: Why not?

The initial stage, the act of conceiving or inventing a theory, seems to me neither to call for logical analysis nor to be susceptible of it. The question of how it happens that a new idea occurs to a man – whether it is a musical theme, a dramatic conflict, or a scientific theory – may be of great interest to empirical psychology, but it is irrelevant to the logical analysis of scientific knowledge.
-Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1961), p. 31

This is one of the first sentences of one of the first articles all PhD students read during their first semester at the Annenberg School at Penn. It’s hard to argue with Popper – if analysis is all we’re interested in. What happens at the beginning of an idea is not important for how it works. But refereeing comes later; grad school is often more about the mania around creating ideas than analyzing them. Or, maybe more accurately, grad school is about learning how to make the two into the same: where analysis stops, creative generation begins.

It was a recursion all along, really. A good idea, when it arrives, rarely arrives on its own. It’s what Jonathan Lethem has so perfectly called the “ecstasy of influence” in his eponymous Harper’s essay from February 2007. And so talking about a good idea as if it were a bacteria is actually not a bad idea. Good ideas spread, they take over, they set up shop in a corner of your brain and – if they’re good enough – distort the way you see things. Most important, ideas are ambulating entities. They slip and slide across borders as if by osmosis.

In one of the early episodes of the Annenberg podcast, Steve Anderson from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts talks about his protracted tenure process. At the end of it, he found himself promoted in rank, but without tenure – and with a rare form of cancer. “I believe we should not just be in this to figure out what kind of algorithm we can run to result in a positive tenure outcome,” Steve said.

Yeah maybe I didn’t play the game right, I didn’t run the right algorithm, I didn’t publish the right kind of number of peer-reviewed journal articles in the correct journals. But when I look back on the things I did, they were exactly the things I did that were for me the most fulfilling and the most meaningful parts of what I could have done at this stage in my career. I was actually given extraordinary opportunities to do things in my time at USC. So I’m regretful of the decision, but not of the work that I did.

But this kind of faith and optimism is not easy to achieve, especially when we’re so tensely committed to the “why” imperative. “Why” is the reigning metric in deciding about how to spend one’s time and energy. We’re far more concerned with figuring out the added benefit of each potential project than worrying about what we’ll miss out on. We should be more worried about missing out than on proving to ourselves (and our advisors and our dissertation readers and our search committees) that it will advance our careers.

The backseat status of the “why not” imperative makes complete sense, though. For however much we like to criticize the capitalistic drive to define ourselves solely in terms of what we do to make money, us academics are just as liable as anyone else. Grad school is vocational school. We learn to speak in a professional language. And so to argue that we should do away with all the strictures of academic productivity is foolish. The university, like any other workplace, sets its own rules. And we should play by those rules without rashly criticizing each of them.

Fair enough. But this doesn’t mean we can use academe’s tried and true infrastructure as an excuse to reinforce the things we’d like to see changed. We can acknowledge the importance of the rules of engagement as we lobby to change them.

Grad school is often measured in terms of units of distinction. How unique is a project? How much does it add to the existing literature? And this, too, makes sense when you think about it. Grant applications are judged by how well they build upon conventional designs. Journal articles are accepted or rejected based on their perceived ingenuity.

But something strange happens when we strive for uniqueness and distinction as its own goal. Because uniqueness is only epiphenomenal; it cannot be generative ipso facto. It’s creativity that produces a product that is later evaluated in terms of distinction. The means to the end must be different from that end. If we want to write successful grant applications, we can’t solely aim to write successful grant applications. We must tether ourselves to a standard somewhere else. So that when we say that we’ve found something “new” to say about a topic, it’s because we really found it, not because we thought about all the potentially convincing ways to couch a new project.

When we think blinkeredly about uniqueness, it creates what Stuart Hall calls “invidious comparison.” It stems from the dilemma of the “anti-social expert,” the person who uses others’ lack of knowledge as support and rationale for his/her own expert status. Talking about the Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari, he writes:

He could not pass on his experience, which had become his own tacit knowledge. Too many modern experts imagine themselves in the Stradivari trap – indeed, we could call Stradivari Syndrome the conviction that one’s expertise is ineffable.

The Stradivari Syndrome is also bolstered by the idea that as tortured and brilliant thinkers, we must always be in pain. (Or, as Rachel Toor unpacks in her Chronicle piece, that the brilliant thinker’s writing should always be inscrutable.) It’s the idea that gets conveyed in the many phatic exchanges heard university hallways all around the world: “I’m doing okay, but I’m just so tired and busy. I stayed up all night last night reading.” These kinds of quips are usually accompanied with a proud little smirk. As if what should follow is something like: “Can’t you see how willing I am to hurt myself for my research?”

The antidote to these kinds of things is collaboration. Research needs to be thought of in terms of networks, in terms of the deep networks we build with people who infect us with their ideas. Research should make us busy, but not in a way that compels us to champion our sacrifices. It should be about enthusiasm. It should be about spirit.

This is a version of what Phil Agre calls “deep tenure.” But for those of us not on the tenure track (yet or ever), we should be imagining a “deep grad school.”

This is where the Culture Lab at Annenberg comes in. These are the things we’re after. This is what’s rattling around in our heads.

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Culture Lab @ ASC.

The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.