[Adam Golub is Professor and Graduate Advisor in the phenomenal American Studies program at Cal State Fullerton. Along with Heather Richardson Hayton he edited the wonderful collection Monsters in the Classroom, and writes and teaches about a wide and deep variety of American Studies subjects. And he’s one of my oldest Twitter follows and connections, and I’m so excited to finally share a Guest Post of his on the blog!]
In his 2018 book Creative Quest, musician Questlove examines the role of creativity in everyday life and offers a guide to the creative process. Questlove, the drummer and co-frontman for the hip-hop band The Roots, writes that creativity is the “personality that makes it possible that something new and somehow valuable can be formed.” How does one foster this creative personality? Creative Quest abounds with Questlove’s insights and advice. For example, the would-be creative should encourage their own “cognitive disinhibition,” and permit oneself a “wider range of ideas.” Creative types should “try to always be inspired by something surprising—or to surprise yourself by always being inspired.” Creativity is about “refusing to keep things out.” To be creative is to “pay attention to seeds,” to be a “tourist in other perspectives,” and to “unfocus your eyes in the right way.” Ultimately, a creative person is “anyone who is making something out of nothing by virtue of their own ideas.”
Reading Creative Quest, I couldn’t help but think about American Studies. Questlove’s book is one of many meditations on creative thinking that have captured our imagination in recent years—"creativity studies” is newly in vogue in education, business, and artistic circles. In light of this resurgent interest in creativity, I think it is worth reflecting on the myriad ways American Studies is itself a creative field. After all, in American Studies, we effectively practice “cognitive disinhibition” by refusing to be confined by conventional disciplines, methods, archives, or areas of inquiry. In our study of relationships between diverse cultural “texts” (broadly conceived—a song, a statue, a sermon, a gesture, a shirt, a game, a Tweet…), we pay attention to seeds and refuse to keep things out. As we uncover hidden histories and counter memories, we unfocus our eyes from master narratives and give voice to marginalized and silenced perspectives. American Studies is about interdisciplinarity, and interdisciplinarity, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, is about creating something new that belongs to no one.
In his oft-cited and oft-assigned essay, “‘Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies” (1979), Gene Wise characterizes American Studies as the practice of the “connecting imagination.” While we in the field have talked much about the “connecting” part of Wise’s formulation—in American Studies, we build connections among diverse texts, contexts, disciplines, and publics—I wonder if we’ve fully explored the “imagination” part of his phrase. What is the role of imagination in American Studies? How is American Studies creative? How does the field cultivate a creative mindset and encourage creative work?
I certainly think American Studies is a field that values play. We play with cultural puzzle pieces, trying to make meaningful connections among seemingly unrelated phenomena and experiences. In doing so, we recombine, we refashion, we remix, we rearrange in order to discover new interlocking webs of meaning. In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017), Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman argue that new ideas evolve as the result of three cognitive operations: bending, breaking, and blending. “Bending” is when “an original is modified or twisted out of shape.” “Breaking” is when a “whole is taken apart.” And “blending” is when “two or more sources are merged.” American Studies is arguably the studio where we are given free license to bend, break, and blend cultural texts, historical narratives, and the stuff of everyday life. The field invites joyous exploration. We play to innovate.
American Studies is also an intellectual project invested in creating new visions of culture. The field has an activist tradition, one that strives to reach outside of the classroom and “go public.” American Studies is not just an interdisciplinary mode of analysis; it is a public practice. Through critical pedagogy and public engagement, American Studies endeavors to make us all take another look at the taken for granted, to understand the workings of power and oppression, to learn to listen for the silences in our cultural mythos. And American Studies recognizes that there are ways to communicate new knowledge to the public beyond the traditional research paper and the academic monograph. When we “go public” in American Studies, we try to innovate new and different ways to “decolonize minds and imaginations,” as bell hooks puts it. We study culture, and then we try to create it.
I suspect there are many more ways that American Studies involves creative work, and I’ve only imagined a few here. If it is true that the 21st century has seen the rise of what is called the “creative economy,” and that more jobs today require college graduates to possess cognitive flexibility, the drive to innovate, and the ability to rephrase problems as questions, then it seems worthwhile for American Studies to reflect on the role it can play in cultivating a creative mindset in students. Beyond this, though, I think it is important to consider the value of simply trying to lead a creative life. In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015), Elizabeth Gilbert posits that “a creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life.” Similarly, in The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday (2019), Rob Walker observes that trying “to stay eager, to connect… to notice what everybody else overlooks” are all important, skills-wise, for a creative thinker, but to live this way is also just delightful. And good for the soul.
If we conceive of American Studies as creative work, we open the possibility that it may not just be about the practice of cultural analysis. American Studies could very well inspire us to lead an amplified life of joyous exploration, one where we constantly dwell in the possibility of making something new. A creative quest, indeed.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? AmericanStudies projects or work you'd highlight?]