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Why Universities are Rebranding Creativity & and Why We Need Activist Pedagogy  to Take It Back

Artists, activists & students at The Studio's "Laboratory of Feminist Memory", Glad Day Books, 2018. Photo: Calla Evans

Recently, one of the unnumbered administrators at my university dropped into a faculty meeting. Absorbed in some urgent matters on Twitter, I snapped to attention when I heard this sombre figure mention Ontario Premier Doug Ford. “Ford’s business focused government aligns well with our focus” intoned this grey-suited harbinger of neoliberal doom.

Many of us at the meeting were surprised to find out that our focus as a academics, according to our visitor, is this :”Skills training for the industries that we serve.” And yet, as Herbert Pimlott pointed out in a 2017 special issue of Canadian Journal of Communications, it is taxpayers’ and students’ money that mostly funds our universities. “If the public pays our salaries, “ he asks, “do we not have a moral, an ethical, or even just afiduciary responsibility to teach and research in the public interest […] we should be working to support the public interest over governments and corporate interests, especially given that the latter are often more powerful than the former

and influence public policies to private advantage." (39).

But these wise reflections came later. Back at the meeting, I found my heart rate escalating.‘Deep breaths!’ I told myself, as Admin Guy grimly urged us to start finding “creative, smart ways to tighten things up at the margins.” It seems that even though this populist enemy of academic freedom (Ford) is our good friend, cutbacks were on the way no matter what, and it was best that we get ahead of them. Creatively, that is.

As I took notes, I was struck by the unconventional use of the descriptor ‘creative’. Unconventional because one of the primary definition of creative is, “relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” ( My American Heritage Dictionary suggests that creativity produces (rather than takes away) something: “Having the ability or power to create things […]Characterized by originality and expressiveness; imaginative.”

Neoliberalism is a framework that subjects everything, including creativity, including learning, to market forces. William Deresiewicz , in a 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine argues that universities no longer have any interest in a well-rounded education, one that promotes ethical and intellectual pursuits alongside career-building. We are asked to fashion “creative” cutbacks while vast amounts of funding support a bloated administration as well as what Deresiewicz calls “the parallel university”: zones and labs and empty rooms filled with bean bag chairs. Creativity, he says, ““is not about becoming an artist. No one wants you to become an artist. It’s about devising “innovative” products, services, and techniques — “solutions,” which imply that you already know the problem” (7).

Five years ago, as an alternative to the university’s burgeoning entrepreneurial focus, I founded Canada's first university research centre devoted to media activism, The Studio for Media Activism & Critical Thought. With it, I designed a course, “Social Justice Media”, where students devise arts-based responses to social issues. What began as small seminar with ten or so bemused students is now an energetic, jam-packed course with students from across the university. Uniquely, the course is linked with The Studio's yearly speakers’ series, so students get to attend events like a feminist gaming workshop, a Death Café focused on disability issues, or a panel on the neoliberal university. The students respond to the content by creating alternative media. One group went around campus with a projector. On a lecture hall wall: “How can one think freely in the shadow of student debt?” On residential schools co-founder Eggerton Ryerson's statue: “Your education can mean nothing without admitting it was founded on betrayal.”

Other students have created podcasts on disability issues; an online game about the York University strike; a video remediating a guerrilla action from over 30 years ago, called "Curfew For Men." The students are learning to link creativity and intellectual thought with social justice. Cuban artivist Tania Bruguera, whom we study in the class, calls this ‘socially useful art’, or, ‘arte util’. She sees art as a way to establish democratic citizenhood, and to, as she says, “create a conversation with power.” This semester, I have invited activist scholars and community organizers to the class to collaborate with students, whose final project will have them developing creative solutions for such projects as: a feminist archive; a design fiction project on disability issues; an online feminist teen magazine.

Not only does this approach to creativity allow the students to expand their critical vocabulary, it also gives them a different kind of skills training: real-world communications skills, persuasive rhetorical strategies, and the ability to understand and recommend changes to, community and government policy. They learn, in an experiental way, about a world beyond their devices in which empathy, commitment and self-reflexivity are crucial elements of citizenhood. Moreover, as corporations shrink their workforces and being a Youtube star becomes but a tarnished dream, my former students report that they have found internships and jobs in legal advocacy, in community media, alternative theatre, and even in the academy itself.

Ryerson is big on professionalism, and “professional” programs like Creative Industries are proliferating. The neoliberal university has put a great deal of energy into appropriating this word ‘creative’ into something resembling a business model. But courses like Social Justice Media - which, thankfully, is included in Creative Industries’ offerings - expand the meaning of professionalism. It’s not just about being slickly entrepreneurial, but rather, about being accountable.

As Ford’s government places increasing pressure on universities to support hard right values under the guise of “free speech” and being “open for business”, it’s never been more important for academics to defend the core values of academic life, which include critical thinking, creative expression, and dissent. For who else will take up the task of finding current and future solutions and alternatives to climate change, to #MeToo, to right wing populism, to anti-immigrant legislation, if not our forthcoming generations?

I take comfort in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s advice from a 2017 lecture at Stanford University: “If you want to be a true professional you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community…That’s what I think a meaningful life is – living not for oneself but for one’s community.”

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