The Creative Option: Promoting Academic Achievement through Art in Post-secondary Humanities Courses
2. The “Option” to Explore Creative Expression and Media
3. The Scaffolding: Ensuring Academic Integrity
4. The Scaffolding: Close-up on Process and Products
5. Conclusion: Impacts on Engagement and Learning of the Creative Option
1 – Introduction
This portfolio outlines a practical approach for integrating the production of creative works into major assignments in post-secondary humanities courses. During the 2015-2016 Writing in the Disciplines Seminar at Dawson College, the participants devoted several weeks to the study of “alternative” writing assignments, such as creative writing, short low-stakes assignments, and personal reflection papers. Pedagogical scholarship presents persuasive evidence that these types of assignments engage and motivate students. Also, they facilitate a richer understanding of the academic materials, stronger writing skills, and success on “traditional” assignments, such as analytic essays. My goal for the seminar was to develop a multi-stage assignment that incorporates creative work that instructors can use as a major, summative assessment in humanities and literature courses.
In addition, I wanted to design an assignment that would address many of the practical and pedagogical concerns about accepting creative work in “academic” courses: “Am I doing the students a disservice by forgoing the traditional essay?”, “How can I ensure that a creative assignment can provide an effective substitute for a traditional essay or exam?”, and perhaps most worrisome: “How does one evaluate a student’s creative work in an academic course?”
“The Creative Option” is the name of the assignment I have developed. In the following pages, I will outline one possible method for integrating creative work into college and university humanities courses that can effectively and “safely” serve as a substitute for traditional “end of term” assignments such as term papers and exams. This assignment contains several safeguards to address concerns––and even fears––that “rigor” and a solid academic understanding of the course materials are not sacrificed. The Creative Option can be used as a template, as instructors can easily customize it to meet different institutional guidelines, different disciplines, and individual teaching styles. The Creative Option is inspired by a variety of pedagogical strategies; it includes low-stakes assignments, proposal writing, analytic writing, and of course, the creative work itself. It is a scaffolded––multi-stage––assignment that includes several written components that develop “traditional” academic skills. Student-teacher conferences, group work, presentations, and online portfolios can further supplement the written and creative components.
This portfolio provides a detailed description of the Creative Option, its rationale, as well as my implementation of it in Humanities courses at Dawson College and English courses at Concordia University from 2015 through the end of 2018. Section One provides a detailed overview of the Creative Option, while Section Two provides a more in-depth discussion of the Creative Option’s scaffolded assignments. The student art works which accompany the portfolio have been selected from the body of student work done for my Dawson courses. The first four works were inspired by our study of Herman Hesse’s Demian.
2 – The “Option” to Explore Creative Expression and Media
The word “option” not only refers to the student’s freedom to submit a non-traditional assignment but the series of options and choices that students will encounter while completing it. Some of these options are built into the scaffolding of the assignment, while others represent challenges that are inherent to the creative process and self-critique. The purpose of the Creative Option is to offer students the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of a subject in a way that encourages them to think and write critically, analytically, and creatively. It is designed to promote enthusiastic engagement with the course materials, encourage students to make interdisciplinary connections and to inspire them to feel a sense of personal “investment” in their work. The Creative Option achieves these goals through scaffolded writing assignments that ensure that the student utilizes both “traditional” academic skills as well as their creativity and imagination. Also, the scaffolded assignments help students to develop independence by taking responsibility for the development of their project. It is the student who must choose the medium of their creative works. Furthermore, the student is responsible for defending the relevance of their creative work to the course materials in the Scholarly Commentary. Although the professor provides the student with basic parameters for the Scholarly Commentary, the student makes stylistic decisions about how to write it.
“Creative works” include not only media that are specifically designed to be “works of art,” such as novellas, paintings, and experimental films, but also creative genres of “non-fiction,” such as manifestos and autobiographies. Encouraging students to demonstrate their mastery of a field of academic knowledge by producing works of art provides them with the opportunity to submit an “alternative assignment.” It also provokes them to think critically about the subject matter, make interdisciplinary connections, and to approach their academic work in more innovative ways. The Creative Option gives the students the opportunity to create an “imaginative response”––as described by Christian Knoeller––to the course materials as well as the opportunity to demonstrate their academic knowledge of them by analyzing, justifying, and defending what they have done.
Choosing the medium and genre is an integral component of the Creative Option. The student must think about the medium by which artists and thinkers have chosen to convey their ideas and how these choices have influenced their audience’s understanding of its “content.” Furthermore, the student is encouraged to think carefully about how they will defend the decisions that they have made in the academic components of the assignment. Thinking about the media is particularly relevant during a time in which people are being called upon to utilize a rapidly expanding array of media in their academic, professional, and personal pursuits.
Allowing the student to choose a medium that corresponds to their interests––even if it is not directly related to the course––facilitates the student’s ability to link what they have learned to their other academic pursuits, hobbies, and their professional lives. This freedom typically promotes a high degree of engagement with the assignment and the course materials and might even lead to high marks. For example, a student who is interested in filmmaking might wish to create a cinematic adaptation of a short story for a literature course. Alternatively, a student whose hobby is digital musical composition might compose an album of electronic music that portrays ideas from a text by Nietzsche or Adorno. Often, the most eclectic choices lead to the most impressive achievements in the academic components of the assignment, as the challenge to justify and defend what they have accomplished is intellectually demanding.
Admittedly, giving the students free-reign in choosing the medium of the creative work can be time-consuming for the instructor. Increased office hours, email correspondence with students, and sorting through piles of canvases, sculptures, and links to digital files demand time and energy. For larger courses, restricting students to media in which all the components of the final project can be embedded in a single PDF file is a practical solution to some of these obstacles.
3 – The Scaffolding: Ensuring “Academic Integrity”
There is little risk in allowing the student the freedom to explore “options,” as they must submit at least two preliminary written assignments that outline the nature of the creative work and its relationship to the course before they proceed to the final stages of “making art.” They must also submit a “scholarly commentary” that complements the completed creative work. Finally, the professor might ask the members of the course to present their projects during class, online galleries, or even a public vernissage. The following table details the various steps of this scaffolded assignment. I will discuss each these steps in detail in Section Two.
The busy instructor can skip the steps in parentheses without sacrificing the assignment’s pedagogical value. Instructors should gauge the students’ interest in the Creative Option early in the term, as it is a time-consuming assignment due to the amount of marking and supervision that is required. In most courses I have taught during the past three years, no more than 15% of the students choose the Creative Option. However, depending on the cohort and the topic of the course, the percentage could be much higher. In one small Dawson College seminar on modernism, all of the ten registered students submitted creative assignments. In a lecture course on science fiction at Concordia University, over 20% of the students chose the Creative Option.
Scaffolding for the Creative Option
A – Brouillon (Week 1)
(I) Submission of Brouillon
(II) Peer Review
(III) Professor’s Feedback
(IV) Revised Brouillon
(V) Professor’s Feedback to Revision
B – Outline (Weeks 3–4)
(I) Submission of Outline
(II) Peer Review
(III) Student-teacher Conferences
(IV) Professor’s Formal Feedback
C – Final Project (Weeks 7–8)
(I) Submission of Final Project
(the creative work and the Scholarly Commentary)
(II) Seminar Presentations
(Students who submit traditional essays should be encouraged to participate as well)
(III) Student Feedback
(VI) Professor’s Formal Feedback to the Final Project
(VII) Reflection Paper
D – Professor Creates or Updates Online Portfolio of Student Projects
(I) Professor Solicits Permission to Publish Student Projects Online
(II) Professor Solicits Short Descriptions from Students
(III) Creation or Modification of Online Portfolio
(IV) Publication of New or Updated Portfolio
The first step in the Creative Option is a “brainstorm” assignment, in which the student presents their preliminary ideas in the form of a brouillon, that is, an informal draft, while the second assignment is an outline that contains several sections. Each section of the Outline is designed to ensure that the student is taking the academic requirements of the assignment seriously.
Finally, the student must compose a scholarly commentary that they will submit at the same time as the actual creative work itself. While the Scholarly Commentary is an “academic assignment” that includes quotations, a list of works cited, analyses of relevant texts, the instructor should give the student the freedom to design the assignment in a way that complements the creative work.
The Scholarly Commentary must situate the creative work in the course materials and the discipline. The student must analyze quotations from relevant texts (or other media) and possibly conduct a modest amount of research. The commentary must contain references and textual evidence to support any claims that the student makes about their creative work and its relationship to the course materials. There should be a bibliography that details the materials that inspired the creative work as well as a list of actual works cited. Also, both the Outline and Scholarly Commentary require the student to think about the genre of academic writing that they will use to write them. While some students use the thesis-based essay as a model and adapt it for the Scholarly Commentary, others choose a more personal or autobiographical approach.
The Scholarly Commentary is similar to the academic component of major assignments in university fine arts programs. The main difference is that for this assignment, instructors do not evaluate the student’s artistic talent, but rather the student’s ability to successfully portray and respond to specific ideas and materials covered in the course.
While there is no doubt that the student and the teacher will be concerned that higher marks will be assigned to those creative works that do represent a higher level of artistic achievement, there is little cause for concern as long as the student follows the assignment’s instructions and the professor adheres to their evaluation criteria. The vast majority of students who genuinely believe that they have “no artistic talent” are pleased with their final projects, impress their peers (and me), and occasionally even commit themselves to cultivate their latent artistic talents.
The combination of a multi-section outline and a scholarly commentary has several advantages over other methods of evaluating creative work, such as the “artist’s statement.” While the traditional artist’s statement does indeed provide the student with the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the course materials and relevant fields of knowledge, it might not provide a satisfactory substitute for the traditional essay or a final exam. The Creative Option ensures that students will perform careful analyses of relevant texts and media, cite and document sources, prepare bibliographies, write preliminary abstracts, and receive and discuss feedback with the professor and their peers. Perhaps most importantly, the students will make an academic argument about the significance and relevance of their creative work and defend it, in part, using the language of academic writing.
Finally, the Creative Option and its many scaffolded assignments will help students to develop the skills necessary to write proposals for grants, fellowships, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Each student must carefully execute and defend their project. Thus, the Creative Option encourages students to develop a broad range of writing skills, conceptual and analytical skills, develop independence and responsibility, and finally, perhaps some “business” skills that might help them as a graduate student, artist, or employee in the “real world.”
4 – The Scaffolding: Close-up on Process and Products
a. The Brouillon
The Brouillon is designed to encourage the student to “brainstorm” their ideas for the Creative Option. As described in depth by Bean and other writers, the Brouillon provides the students with the freedom to explore their ideas without the restrictions of the traditional proposal. The following table summarizes the basic guidelines and expectations for the Brouillon:
- The purpose of the Brouillon is to encourage the student to brainstorm the type of creative work they wish to produce and how it connects to the themes, concepts, and materials covered in the course in no more than 300 words. The Brouillon may include art––drawings, links to digital media, sketches, or whatever helps the student to “brainstorm” and convey their preliminary ideas. I encourage this practice. These preliminary sketches and doodles are not only useful to the student but also give the professor a complete picture of the student’s work-in-progress.
- The Brouillon establishes a preliminary dialogue between the student and the instructor (and possibly the student’s peers). The writing style––formal or informal––of the Brouillon is at the discretion of the student. However, the text should be clear, coherent, and carefully proofread. It is not necessary for the student to provide a complete description of the project or even commit to the type of creative work they wish to produce.
- The main objective is for the student to demonstrate that they have begun to think seriously about the creative and academic components of the Creative Option. Thus, the student should not be pressured to make commitments. As long as the Brouillon is written clearly and concisely, it will provide the student with a solid foundation for the Outline.
- The Brouillon should be evaluated as a low-stakes assignment and awarded a high mark if the basic requirements are fulfilled. The instructor could award exceptional assignments 100%. Students with incomplete or flawed Brouillon could receive an average mark that will not have a determining influence on their final grade. Many of these students might have simply had difficulty “brainstorming” creative ideas and felt reluctant to approach the professor for guidance.
The Brouillon should evidence that the student understands the objectives of the assignment and has at least a tentative idea of how they might implement it. The feedback does not need to be lengthy. A statement of approval or suggestions on how the student’s ideas could be developed to meet the assignment’s academic requirements is all that might be needed. As this assignment is short, it is particularly suitable for peer review. Even in a large class with forty or more students, asking the students to solicit feedback from their neighbours shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. In general, students enjoy providing feedback to each other’s short assignments, as there is little at stake. While many students are not skilled at following instructions when they attempt to complete their own assignments, they are generally cognizant of an assignment’s objectives, and thus, provide helpful feedback to their peers.
If the professor has the time, they might consider asking students who submitted an unclear or unsatisfactory Brouillon to resubmit it––after the peer review, if applicable––to ensure that the student is well prepared for the next step. After I began implementing the Brouillon for major assignments (both creative and otherwise), the average mark of the formal proposals and final drafts increased remarkably. Also, the rate of non-submissions of completed projects decreased. While this preliminary step increases the amount of writing for students and grading for professors, the benefits are clear. The Brouillon yields a high-quality Scholarly Commentary that reduces the amount of “torture” that professors experience when reading “bad assignments” as well as the “torture” that students experience while staring at blank screens trying to figure out what to write about the night before an assignment is due.
b. The Outline
The Outline contains three sections: an abstract, an analysis of passages from relevant texts or other media, and a bibliography. These steps can be easily customized. The rationale for adding the second step, which I call “Quotation Analysis” is to ensure that the students are actively engaged with the course materials. I require the students to choose at least three quotations from relevant sources. The students should be encouraged to analyze non-textual media, if applicable, but usually in addition to at least three quotations from “primary sources,” which comprise the bulk of my course materials. If the instructor skips this step, it is likely that many of the students will not take the academic component of the assignment seriously until the week that the Scholarly Commentary is due. This step is a clear reminder that the Creative Option must be connected to the course materials and relevant field of academic knowledge.
The Abstract should contain a clear and engaging description of the work-in-progress. It should precisely define the parameters, objectives, and sources of the project in an abstract of approximately 250-300 words:
- It should state the media(s) of the creative work.
- The student should be able to articulate clearly how the creative work will engage specific ideas, concepts, and themes represented in the course and its required texts and media.
- The Abstract can include media, such as illustrations.
- Although the student should be required to present a coherent plan for completing the Creative Option, they should be given the freedom to change or modify their ideas. I allow them the opportunity to change their minds entirely if they wish, as discovering that one has made an error in judgment is an essential part of the writing process as well as the creative process. However, giving the students this much freedom can be time-consuming, as the student will often require extra supervision while they devise a new plan.
The “Quotation Analysis” should contain a list of three to five quotations that are relevant to the student’s project. Each quotation should be immediately followed by a short paragraph of analysis that demonstrates the student’s understanding of it and its relevance to their project. The students should also be reminded to actually discuss the quotations. This is important, as many students, mainly first-year college students, use quotations to make tenuous connections between academic materials and their subjective observations of them.
The Bibliography is a much more versatile pedagogical tool than a simple list of work cited. Most students find inspiration in popular culture, their hobbies, or materials from other courses. Creating a comprehensive bibliography encourages the students to think about how the Creative Option makes links to their lives and other disciplines. It also helps the professor to see the broader context of a project, and if necessary, assist the student in the organization of their ideas.
c. The Scholarly Commentary
The Scholarly Commentary is the academic backbone of the Creative Option. While the creative work itself is arguably the most significant part of the assignment, the Scholarly Commentary provides it with a scholarly “frame.” This frame helps the professor to assess whether or not the final product has fulfilled the requirements for a major assignment in an academic course. It also provides the student with a means of self-assessment, as the act of writing the Scholarly Commentary will reveal whether or not they have fulfilled these academic requirements.
However, as a frame, the Scholarly Commentary is complementary to the creative work. The student should be aware that the Scholarly Commentary can be designed to function as an extension of the creative work, should they so desire. That is, even though the Scholarly Commentary has a set of academic requirements, it could be presented as a component of the creative work. For example, one of my students, who was very interested in postmodern fiction and did not like academic writing, found the Scholarly Commentary to be a burden. As this student was interested in writing a short story, I suggested that they integrate the Scholarly Commentary into the actual creative work. Specifically, I suggested that the Scholarly Commentary be written as a “frame” of a metafictional text. While this “frame” must still observe all of the academic requirements of the Scholarly Commentary, it could be written using a fictional pseudonym and that the writing style could be infused with a bit of aesthetic flair. Since then, I have frequently recommended this “Metafiction Option” to students who desire their entire project to be creative. This solution yielded very satisfactory results and is an excellent example of some of the different ways that the Scholarly Commentary can be altered to fit the needs of different students or courses.
The Scholarly Commentary should contain at least 1000 words to ensure that it
contains a thorough analysis. The difference between the Scholarly Commentary and a brief artist’s statement is the level of scholarly engagement. For example, I require the students to analyze quotations from relevant texts to ensure that they have actually studied and analyzed the course materials and not merely “thought about them.” For example, in many of my courses, I teach selections from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which contains a discussion of “the death of God.” If a student is interested in portraying this concept in a creative work, it’s important that they demonstrate how Nietzsche portrays it in his works and to explain how Nietzsche’s concept has been adapted for this specific creative project. Even if this is obvious in the creative work itself, asking the student to perform textual analysis and carefully describe the relationship between the course materials and the creative work will sharpen the student’s traditional academic skills.
The professor’s challenge is to compose clear and coherent instructions for the students to follow. As the Scholarly Commentary should allow flexibility, the instructions should detail the assignment’s main objectives rather than an extensive list of technical requirements:
- Carefully outline the purport of the creative project. For example: what does your creative project portray? Did you have a goal or objective in mind?
- Discuss the course materials (texts, films, etc.) and concepts that have played a significant role in the development of your creative project. Make specific connections between the course materials (or other relevant materials) that influenced the development of your work. Explain how you have incorporated and adapted concepts, terms, motifs, styles, or themes from the course materials into your creative project. Discuss quotations from specific texts to support your discussion, as you would in a traditional academic essay. Convince the reader that your creative work reflects an informed and critical understanding of the course materials.
- Analyze what you have done. Now that you have finished the creative project: engage it with a critical eye. What is your interpretation of what you have accomplished? What has it achieved?
- You should write the Scholarly Commentary using the elements of an analytic essay. The commentary must begin with an introduction and end with an insightful conclusion. It should contain well-structured paragraphs with topic sentences. It must contain parenthetical citations, a bibliography, and follow MLA formatting guidelines.The introduction should provide the reader with a clear statement of the project’s purport and a summary of your critical analysis of it, which you will discuss and defend in the body paragraphs. This statement should function similar to a thesis in a traditional essay; it is the frame of the Scholarly Commentary. The conclusion should revisit the highlights of the introduction and end with some insightful comments about what you have achieved.
- There are various ways to approach the style of the Scholarly Commentary:
- One effective method is to take the biographical approach: explain the artistic process and the steps you took to complete your project. As you discuss the development of your project, you can provide scholarly commentary and analysis of each step.
- Another effective method is the more objective approach: analyze your creative project as if it were the subject of a traditional academic essay. You can formulate a thesis statement about the creative project and defend it using the tools that you have learned in your academic writing courses.
- A third approach is the “creative approach.” The creative approach gives you the option of complementing the creative work itself. For example, you may incorporate the Scholarly Commentary into the fictional world of a short story, in which the commentary is written by a fictional critic or even the fictional narrator of the story itself.
These requirements, particularly the fourth requirement, ensure that the Scholarly Commentary is “scholarly” and well organized. The fourth requirement asks the students to think carefully about what they hope to say in their commentaries, as they must provide the equivalent of a thesis statement that will be the organizing principle of the assignment, regardless of the style that they choose.
5 – Conclusion: Impacts on Student Engagement and Learning of the Creative Option
The vast majority of students who complete all of the scaffolded assignments submit the final product on time. Typically, I receive fewer extension requests from students who have chosen the Creative Option than those who have chosen the traditional essay. Often, the experience of submitting the creative work is anti-climactic for the student but very exciting for the professor. The experience of evaluating dozens of artistic works of various types and genres is very stimulating. Watching the creative works literally “pile up” in my office and my inbox provides an immense sense of gratification. The ritual of photographing all of the visual art that the students have submitted at the end of term is a satisfying experience for me. The students are often proud of what they have done and express interest in presenting their works in a public forum, although regrettably, this is often difficult for the busy college professor to facilitate.
There are several options open to the professor who wishes to satisfy their students’ desire to exhibit their works: presenting the creative works in an online gallery, an in-class vernissage, or a public vernissage. The online gallery is a practical choice for a busy professor. Although it takes some time to create a template for an online gallery, it can be easily expanded to incorporate future courses. The instructor should consult the students before publishing their works online and ask whether or not they desire to contribute to the gallery and if they want their projects to be published anonymously or pseudonymously. Alternatively, an in-class vernissage is very fulfilling to both the students and the professor and combats the anticlimactic feeling that many students feel when they submit their creative works. It is, however, only practical in smaller courses. In both cases in which I have facilitated such an in-class event, the results were very favourable. I asked all students––those who have submitted creative options and traditional essays––to present and discuss their final projects to their peers. On a parenthetical note, an in-class vernissage, in which all students participate, helps to promote a sense of accomplishment in students who write traditional essays as well. Essay writing should not be portrayed as inferior or less exciting than submitting a creative assignment. Essays should be exciting and creative. And encouraging students to show off their creativity and talent as essay writers and analytic thinkers should be encouraged. The Creative Option should not be presented as the “superior choice” for an elite group of talented students. It is simply one alternative to traditional assignments.
To conclude, after over four years of developing the Creative Option and implementing it in college and university courses, with student enrolments of as little as ten and as high as fifty-four, I am convinced that it is a pedagogically sound and rewarding evaluation tool in academic courses. It can even serve as a summative assessment in a course that contains a variety of evaluation tools, such as traditional essays and examinations. As a teacher, incorporating the Creative Option into my courses has helped me to improve the efficacy of all the assignments in my course, as it has opened my eyes to a variety of pedagogical approaches that can be applied to “traditional assignments” as well as “alternative assignments.”
List of Works Cited
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print
Briscoe, Susan, Jeffrey Gandell, et al. “Preliminary Report of WID English Department Creativity Project.” Dawson College. 2016. https://www.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/writing/wp-content/uploads/sites/196/WID-English-Dept-Creativity-Preliminary-Report-1.pdf
Knoeller, Christian. “Imaginative Response: Teaching Literature through Creative Writing.” The English Journal, vol. 92, no. 5, 2003, pp. 42–48. Print.
Sullivan, Patrick. The UnEssay. Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom. College Composition and Communication 67.1 (2015): 6-34. Print.
 This portfolio is informed by scholarship and studies that document the pedagogical advantages of including creative and multi-modal assignments, including, John C. Bean’s book Engaging Ideas, articles by Patrick Sullivan, Christian Knoeller, and a report prepared by my colleagues in the English Department at Dawson College (Susan Briscoe and Jeff Gandell).
 My inspiration for the Brouillon comes from Chapter Two of John C. Bean’s book, Engaging Ideas.