(This is a guest post by Aimee L. Pozorski, associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, and president of the Philip Roth Society. — Jason.)
I have long been fascinated by the myth that there are two different types of people in the university: The creative faculty who produce works of art, on the one hand, and the scholarly faculty who write peer-reviewed journal articles, on the other hand. It seems like in this culture, people are considered creative or intellectual – artistic or analytical. However, I’ve lately been reflecting on my most successful colleagues – the most apparently hardcore intellects of the academy who receive teaching and research awards based on their mastery of skills appreciated in the ivory tower.
In my discipline, what is most rewarded are abilities to closely read and understand a difficult literary text, to convey this understanding to students, and to write about this understanding for peer-reviewed publications. To the outside world, I sometimes imagine, these appear to be incredibly “heady” endeavors, or, worse, as irrelevant angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin type stuff: as academic in the worst possible way. But, they are also very creative tasks – and, it seems to me, those academically successful individuals I know well are also friends who quilt, garden, bake, or, in my case, paint bedrooms walls and refinish old furniture.
I would venture to guess that this isn’t so surprising a melding of opposites after all – that in order to be good at one set of tasks (reading, writing and interpretation, for example), we must also take time from those tasks to hone our skills in other ways. But I think it surprised my husband when, five years ago—one year before we bought our house—I picked up a paint brush and could not put it down. There I appeared before him, PhD in one hand (but no job, and no real evidence yet of a publishing record that would eventually get me that job) and paintbrush in the other hand – the left hand, the one with which I write and paint. I bought up old furniture from yard sales and refinished those – a kind of mysterious tic until I reflected on my own extended family, with its pretty heavy science background evidenced by degrees in nursing, primarily, as well as pharmacy and one “odd” PhD in philosophy, who also spent their weekends painting. It is as if one helped the other: In order to replenish ideas and hone skills necessary for one area, perhaps we turn to the other for the time to reflect, create, and also, to produce.
About six months ago, I figured out that I am truly happiest when I am working on a critical article OR painting in my house OR gardening in my yard. But the “or”s in that sentence are misleading. Sure, they are three different activities, one marks the intellectual life while the other two the creative life, but the two sides, for me, are actually inextricable. I’ve produced the best work of my young career during those times when I also found time to tear apart rooms and, literally, to start my own work with a blank canvas. Today, I am refinishing a 35 year-old toy cradle for my two-year old niece’s birthday on Halloween. I am very happy. I have been planning, all of this time, details of my sabbatical research project. My friend, a PhD in Forestry, made the quilt to accompany the cradle. She and her PhD chemist husband just built and refinished a bar in their renovated home. They are both accomplished in their respective fields.
Perhaps the best example, however, comes from one of my closest friendships within the Philip Roth Society. I met this “Roth” friend during a conference dedicated to American fiction sponsored by the American Literature Association. And sure we respected each other’s work on Roth well enough, but we bonded equally over home renovations, the costs and benefits of watching HGTV, the creative strain of arranging tiles in a foyer of an ancient home. I’m still not sure if our best work yet, a forthcoming special issue of Philip Roth Studies entitled, “Mourning Zuckerman,” came more from our shared conversations about home improvement or books. In fact, I would wager that it came from both: We knew we could work well together because we share a similar kind of sensibility, one that relies on creativity for sparking the most provocative intellectual contributions in our fields.
People who know us socially, neighborhood friends, for example, may think of all of us as “arty” folks who spend their best hours being creative. That might be true. I would like to believe that we ought to be driven by not creativity nor intellectualism, but by both aspects in our lives. Rather than working against one another, they actually function in the opposite way: Just as our creative side drives the intellectual work, so too can the intellectual work drive our creative side. Whether quilts or articles, the habit of making things is self-reinforcing.
ProfHacker wants to know: What creative work do you do when you aren’t writing/ publishing/ prepping for class? How does it help your scholarly production?
Image by flickr user jbj / CC licensed