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Originality, Part Two – Being original

June 23, 2012

Introduction – originality (you can safely skip this if you already read the previous post)

I suggested a way to think about the question ‘how original?’ I suggested a scale. At one end is what we may call local originality, as in “I had never seen or heard that idea until I expressed it”. At the other end, global originality, the author claims “That idea has never before been thought in the history of the world – or not in a way accessible to me, anyway.”

So originality in practice may be relative, rather than absolute – relative to what is known, by the writer and also of course by the reader.

How does this play out in practice, in education?

The student and the professor

In week one of their studies, we might hope that a student is already describing accurately, explaining clearly, critiquing in a considered way and applying appropriately what they are learning. (Indeed, we might feel that ‘describing accurately, explaining clearly, critiquing in a considered way and applying appropriately’ is at least part of a fair account of the results of ‘learning’.)

We might also hope that the student is beginning to make their own sense of what they are learning. This may involve them offering some ideas that go a little beyond what they are reading and being taught. They may show a very local, cautious, necessarily under-informed, but nonetheless thoughtful, originality of ideas and understanding. In some cases, through thus going beyond, they may become better able to predict accurately or act effectively. We should hope that this local originality would grow throughout their studies, perhaps at some stage becoming less local, alongside other necessary academic, disciplinary and professional qualities.

By contrast, the student’s professor may be producing a paper which offers a globally original advance in knowledge and understanding, an advance that is informed by and builds on the professor’s global knowledge of previous relevant work and adds new data. (Different disciplines have very different accounts of what research and new data mean. I hope that a version of this account works for most disciplines.)

Being original

Thus far I have talked about originality both as a claim about and as a response to the thought or idea offered. But it is also useful to think about originality as a process; the process of being original.

Is there any useful sense in which the student and the professor described above are both being original? I think, yes. Both are going beyond. Both are moving out from what they already know, what they can access, acknowledge and reference. Both are creating; with differing amounts of confidence and significance; knowledge or understanding that is new. New to themselves at least, and hopefully in the case of the professor also new to a wider, perhaps global, audience within their discipline.

From both student and professor we should expect an appropriate degree of reference to current knowledge. But appropriate, of course, means something very different for our student and our professor. The professor, obviously, would know and understand and be able to analyse and critique and interpret and use and reference much more knowledge than the student.

Something about becoming original, and helping people to become original, next time.

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