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How to be an academic original

My newsletter for October 10 will be on "Six Steps to an Original Contribution."

Of course, the way to be original is to think creatively. In Barbara Lovitts' new book Making the Implicit Explicit: Creating Performance Expectations for the Dissertation, she clarifies what the 270 faculty members who took part in her focus groups indicated went into an original contribution.

So what is an original contribution? The description starts out: "Something that has not been done, found, known, proved, said, or seen before that results from:" I won't write out the rest of her description -- the book is worth reading in its entirety, plus I don't have permission! But I want to note the actions that cause the "something new" to be created:
  • Asking or identifying
  • Applying
  • Developing
  • Inventing
  • Creating
  • Finding
  • Coming up with
  • Producing
  • Combining
  • Synthesizing
Clearly these are all actions that demand creativity.

Let's assume that you are trying to think up a research topic in a relatively new area. Here are some tricks for launching creative thinking. These ideas all relate to the idea of jarring your thinking loose from its old associational pathways, in order to allow yourself to perceive in fresh new ways.
  • Identify one area you might be interested in exploring. Force yourself to ask 5 questions about this area. Write them down quickly and don't be critical.
    • Try "what if" questions. If your questions seem silly or dull, don't worry; just write them down. For example:
      • "What if they did this research on children?" or
      • "What if I applied this to countries with socialist policies?"
      • Often it helps to come up with truly wacky questions
  • Try repeated "why" questions, asking and then answering "Why."
    • "I'd like to study the history of quilting in Ohio." "Why?"
    • "Because it will show how pioneer women in this area differed from those in the South." "Why?"
    • "Because..."
  • Try "who, what, when, where, how" questions. For example:
    • "Who else could I study using this method?"
    • "What would I gain from examining this?"
  • Write down 10 facts or problems associated with the area of interest on small pieces of paper. Move the pieces of paper around and notice if new associations come up.
  • Create a mind map with the possible topic or area of interest in the middle. Draw a circle around it.
    • Think of a word that you associate to it, and draw it on a line radiating out from that circle
    • Repeat with as many words as you can
    • Then draw word associates to that word.
    • Try using colors and pictures
  • Make a storyboard of your ideas or thoughts (again, don't be self critical at this stage) by writing them on post-it notes and putting them on the wall, either in radiating patterns as in a mind map, or in columns.
I've got a lot more ideas to spark your creativity -- for later posts.


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