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Originality, Part Three – Becoming original

July 12, 2012

If you’re starting here, I suggest you scan the two previous posts on originality

Becoming original

So how do we help our students become appropriately original?

The account in the previous post may suggest one way. Teach them more and more content; teach them to engage with the content, to critique and use it. And, perhaps, a few of them will become professors.

Of course, something is missing from this account. Originality does not automatically follow from the accumulation of knowledge, even from persistent active engagement with knowledge. Indeed, accumulation may on a bad day bury a flickering originality under the weight of content. Originality; alongside other academic, disciplinary and professional qualities; also needs to be encouraged and supported and rewarded and valued. From day one.

Helping people to become original

How do we help people become original? From the start of their studies:

  1. We explicitly value originality.
  2. We talk with (not to) our students about what originality means, and why it matters, in the particular disciplines they are studying.
  3. We disentangle local from global originality, perhaps using some of the ideas from earlier posts.
  4. We make originality into a learning outcome for their programmes of study – “Students will be able to go beyond what they had been taught and read, and come up with ideas, suggestions, explanations, possibly even theories and models which are (in the sense used in these blogs) at least locally original.”
  5. Or we make originality one of the criteria against which their work will be assessed.
  6. We encourage students to critique their own work, with reference to, among other qualities, its originality.
  7. We reward originality, with attention and then with marks and grades.
  8. We provide many opportunities and much encouragement for students to develop and demonstrate originality.
  9. Then, throughout the course of their studies, we encourage them along the spectrum from local towards more global originality, in part by teaching them how to engage with the wider literature of the subject, and in part by helping the become more (and justifiably) confident in their originality.

I need to say more about this last point. There is a wide-spread view of the process of learning. It is rarely made explicit, but it is often clearly visible in the structure of our courses, our teaching, our assessment. This view says that, first, we learn the content. Then, as a later step, we learn to critique it, apply it, be original in it.

I don’t think this view is accurate, for reasons I shall probably return to in another post. But, for now, I’ll say two things about the relationship between engaging with the wider literature of the subject and being and becoming original:

  1. Good course design and good teaching encourage students to see the literature, not as tablets of stone, but as an evolving set of more or less original ideas and understandings, each building on and then going beyond some previous work. Originality should be one lens through we which we read, study and made sense of the literature. We can do this by encouraging our students (and ourselves) to analyze the links and relationships between papers, to identify the particular originality of a publication and how it relates to predecessors. This will help us and our students to see the structure of the discipline or profession – perhaps structure is a bit static, better perhaps to see how the discipline or profession moves, develops.
  2. Once this more active approach to the literature becomes habit, our students can seek out and review the literature by asking how the literature relates to their own recent and perhaps at least locally original work. This inverts normal relationship between student work and the literature. It puts the student’s work, and in particular the possible originality of the student’s work, centre stage. It asks students to explore how the literature supports or refutes the student’s ideas. This requires a student to take their own work and their own local originality, seriously. It helps them to act, and thereby to see themselves, as a scholar, as a proto-member of the discipline or profession, rather than as a dependent and naive supplicant.

I said in my first post on originality that I wasn’t going to talk about the quality of the newly originated idea. But quality is obviously important here. So in the next post I’ll give attention to a powerful route to increasing the quality of ideas. I’ll talk about critical originality.

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