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Originality, Part Four – Becoming critically original

August 10, 2012

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

Becoming critically original

Of course, originality needs to become an increasingly critical originality. The particular critiques, and more broadly the critical approaches, will need to be developed by lecturers, by students alone and with their peers, and in conversation between students and lecturers.

The lecturer’s skill lies in getting the nature and weight and progression of their responses to student work right. Not treading on students’ dreams, nor dishonestly flattering under the badge of being sensitive, but rather steadily demonstrating and practising and discussing an increasingly critical and informed approach to work and study, which includes being explicit about the rationale for their critical comments.

Tempting clichés about steel and fires will be resisted. But the students need to test their original ideas against a growing range of the literature, against the establish corpus of knowledge and (depending on the subject they are studying) perhaps also against their own experience and data.

This need not be a discouraging experience. The students will come to enjoy and value both the critical and the creative parts of critical originality. They will find the unexpected satisfaction which can follow from laying aside (perhaps with a sigh) an idea they have developed which is not supported by further reading and evidence. And they will find delight in, from time to time, confirming that their new idea has some strength and validity; has some explanatory, even predictive, power; and deserves to be taken further forward. Also, they will learn not to be discouraged when they find someone has got there before them. Local originality is not a failure of global originality. Rather it is a step on the long road that may lead to global originality.

And so on through the careers of an academic.

Becoming a professor would not be the only happy ending to this story. Being critically original is a capability and an approach to work that is valued within and well beyond the University.

But if such critical originality is to be a goal of education, as well as an aspiration, we need to take it seriously, to be explicit about it, and to explain and illustrate in our own work what it can mean. We need to give students opportunities to develop their critical originality, and to receive feedback on their attainment of it. Students’ critical originality needs to be developed within the discipline being studied, although students may welcome the chance to apply the approach to other areas.

And we need to assess it in clearly valid ways. Generically, that might involve students undertaking some work that is at least locally original; critiquing the work; and identifying and making a reasoned case for the nature and extent of it originality. This will play out differently in different subjects.

But first we need to be clear what originality and critical originality can mean, within and beyond the subject. As I have attempted to do here. I’d love to know if any of this helps.

Closing comment

The author claims this post to be locally original. He is conscious that he has read about this topic and related topics over the years. He is therefore confident that the post uses ideas previously read and mostly forgotten. He has also chosen to omit ideas that might have been relevant. He makes no claim to global originality. He hopes some of the ideas will be useful – utility is not the same as originality. He feels better for thus having made the status of this post clear.

In the next and possibly for now final post on originality I shall explore relationships between originality and knowledge.

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