If you build it, they will come: the importance of infrastructure for creativity and innovation

Here’s a little factoid I’d forgotten about until my husband and I were discussing the recent Presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney:

The famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were not held during the 1860 Presidential campaign but, instead, during their 1858 campaign to represent Illinois in the United States Senate. 

Douglas won; Lincoln lost.

Although the two men ran against each other for President two years later, they did not debate each other during their 1860 campaign.  While Douglas undertook a campaign tour on a rambling two-and-a-half month trip that ostensibly was to visit his mother (it was the first “nationwide” campaign ever, and his meandering “trip” was widely ridiculed), Lincoln stayed home following his nomination as the Republican candidate.  He conducted a “front porch” campaign, meeting with visitors but not giving campaign speeches in any form we would recognize as such today.

Fast-forward 152 years.  Today it’s not unusual for candidates to make campaign stops in a new state every day.  Robots relentlessly telephone voters at all hours urging support of various election-related issues.  Candidates’ tax returns and medical records are scrutinized for potentially scandalous minutiae.

Sitting home on his front porch, Abraham Lincoln could probably not be elected in 2012.

In the mid-1960s, Marshall McLuhan famously noted that “The medium is the message,” meaning not not only that “form” can never be truly separated from “content,” but also that in some ways form  becomes the content.

What message does the medium of a modern Presidential campaign communicate?

And why am I talking about politics in my blog that’s supposed to be about “Ideas on creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and other random stuff”?  (Although, I suppose, politics could count as other random stuff 🙂 )

Because I realized earlier this summer that the writing I’m doing in this blog is better (in my opinion) than writing I’ve done elsewhere, for example, in my dissertation or conference papers or even literary essays.  Always in those other formats I’ve felt constrained by the unwritten “rules” of the genre I’m writing in, whether concerning quotations, source citations, or even routine transitions from one topic to another.

When I was writing my Jonah Lehrer essay in early August, for example, it was so freeing to be able to talk about somewhat complex ideas in ordinary language.  Example:  the blog post begins with the phrase, “Well, the sad news last week was that Jonah Lehrer . . . admitted to fabricating quotes . . .”

That’s exactly what I was thinking, and those words best described what got me started thinking about all the stuff I went on to talk about in that post.

I don’t know what my opening line would have been had I needed to write the essay more formally, for a traditional print publication.  I would have needed to demonstrate that what I had to say was “important.”  Certainly I would have felt bound to contextualize my utterance more profoundly, perhaps situate my own remarks in contrast to or agreement with what other people were already saying.  I also might have opened with an authoritative quote regarding some other famous literary fraud.  Anything other than opening with a statement of my own personal sadness for Lehrer and my dismay that his book was no longer available for me to read.

In other words, I might not have gotten around to writing the piece at all because the “form” would have inhibited my ability to pull together my scattered thoughts into a coherent articulation.

One moment in particular stands out in my memory of writing the Jonah Lehrer post.  I had just finished discussing the possiblity that student plagiarism in college classrooms might sometimes be a phenomenon related to writing growth.  Now I needed to return to talking about Lehrer, who obviously was not a student writer.  Tricky segue.  What commonality between the two topics could I find to make a smooth transition?

In another format (academic article, conference paper, newspaper article), finding the right transition would been a trouble spot for me.  Because it was my blog, however, I just breezily wrote: “But back to Jonah Lehrer, who is neither student nor apprentice.”

I remember thinking how easy – and liberating – it felt to write that sentence.  “But back to Jonah Lehrer . . .”  Done.  I couldn’t have gotten away with such a loose connecting sentence anywhere else.

So, again, you may be wondering: my point is . . . ?

Just this:  Infrastructure matters.  A lot.

Anyone who teaches composition knows the “Five-Paragraph Theme.”  Even if you’re not a writing teacher, you’ll no doubt recognize the format instantly.

In the first paragraph, the writer introduces the topic and finds a way to break it down into three subparts.  Then the next three paragraphs are devoted to discussion of each individual subpart.  The final paragraph summarizes what has just been said, often with instructions to restate the thesis.

Five paragraphs, hence the name.

The five-paragrah structure is a handy tool.  But while a good writer can write a beautiful essay using the form, a weak writer does nothing except fill the container, usually mistaking a declaration of topic for a thesis:

A certain topic is very important to know about, and in this essay, I will discuss three things related to it.

First thing.

Second thing.

Third thing.

In conclusion, three things about this topic were discussed in this essay.

In most five-paragraph student themes, the medium is the message.  You can fill in the blanks with anything.

Recycling is very important in our world today.  The most common types of recycling that everyone should know about are paper recycling, metal recycling, and glass and plastic recycling.

[Note to reader: glass and plastic are obviously two things, but students who are desperate to have three categories, because they believe they are only allowed to have three categories, will find a way to combine them into one thing.]

Paper recycling involves x.  Paper items that should be recycled include x.  The paper recycling process is x.  The end result of paper recycling is x.

Metal recycling involves x.  Metal items  that should be recycled include x.  The metal recycling process is x.  The end result of metal recycling is x.

Glass and plastic recycling [treated as a single unit, remember] involves x.  Glass and plastic items that should be recycled include x.  The glass and plastic recycling process is x.  The end result of glass and plastic recycling is x.

It is clear that recycling has many benefits for society.  It is important for all of us to do our part in protecting the environment.

Empty writing.  The reader is left to wonder: so what?  What is the point?  Where is the thesis?  What value has this writer added to society’s conversation regarding recycling?

Ironically, instead of enabling student expression, the five-paragraph theme shuts it down.

Aristotle defined rhetoric this way:

the art (or faculty) of finding (or discovering or observing) the available (possible) means of persuasion in a given case

The parentheses indicate different translations I’ve found for the original Greek, and it is very interesting to think about the different shadings of definition carried in the alternate terminology.  Not knowing Greek myself, I figure Aristotle’s original meaning lingers somewhere in the aggregate, so I’ve included all the terms I recall ever seeing.

The word “faculty” refers to an innate ability a person has, like the faculty of sight or speech.  “Art” is in oppostion to “dialectic,” “logic,” and “science.”  For me, “art” also connects to Peter Elbow’s distinction between the “Learning Game” and the “Doubting Game,” which I wrote about this past summer.  Science involves certainties and facts; art involves uncertainties in the form of emotions, feelings, and opinions.  The Doubting Game, as Elbow points out, exists in a closed universe that limits inquiry; the Believing Game exists in an infinite universe that allows unfettered inquiry.

Which brings me to another metaphor for rhetoric: the “Open Hand” of Zeno, a Stoic philosopher in ancient Greece.  One of the elder statesmen of my field (rhetoric and composition studies), a man I was privileged to meet in graduate school, was Edward P. J. Corbett.  Andrea Lunsford, a Stanford professor whom I would describe as probably the chief luminary in our field today, studied under him.  In a famous 1969 article, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist,” Corbett appropriated Zeno’s closed fist and open hand metaphors as a way to differentiate logic/dialectic from rhetoric.

(Let me pause a moment to say thank you for hanging in there with me if you’re not a composition teacher yourself.  I’m almost finished with this meandering lead-up to my main point.)

Logic is a form of inquiry concerning empirical fact that exists inside a closed universe, like Elbow’s “Doubting Game.”  Hence, the closed fist.  Rhetoric is a form of inquiry concerning belief and opinion that exists inside of an open universe, like Elbow’s “Believing Game.”  Hence, the open hand.  The method of logical inquiry is via syllogism; the method of rhetorical inquiry is via enthymeme.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric contains discussion of “enthymeme,” but it is a confusing concept to understand  In fact, many composition textbooks completely misinterpret the enthymeme as nothing more than a truncated syllogism.

Here is a logical syllogism (the one composition texts usually use):

Socrates is a man.

All men are mortal.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

A syllogism is like a math equation.  If your premises are true and your argument structure is valid (i.e., not a logical fallacy), then your conclusion is unassailable.  It absolutely must be true.

An enthymeme looks very similar to a syllogism, which is why composition textbooks get it so wrong.  Building on the syllogism above, textbook writers assert that an enthymeme is a syllogism with a missing premise.  In rhetoric, the authors say (incorrectly), you don’t want to bore readers by making them read all the way through a tedious syllogism, so you save time and allow them to feel like they’ve constructed the argument themselves (which makes them buy into the argument more deeply) by leaving out some of your premises.

Here is an example of such an incorrect, so-called enthymeme:

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

But this is not an enthymeme; it is, in fact, nothing more than a syllogism with a missing premise.  It is about logic and empirical fact, not about rhetoric and opinion/belief.

Here is an actual enthymeme:

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates looks forward to watching the football game on Saturday.

The difference is that an enthymeme’s missing premise is a matter of opinion/belief rather than empirical fact:

All men enjoy watching football games.

A good writer will be able to employ an enthymeme effectively ONLY if he understands his audience and knows that they will automatically assent to the “truth” of that missing premise.  Not all men enjoy watching televised sports every weekend, but if the writer guesses correctly that this premise reflects a generally held opinion of his audience, then most audience members will accept it as a true statement within the context of the writer’s argument.

In fact, a better analogy for an enthymeme is not a syllogism but a joke, instead.

A joke employs a premise or premises that eventually lead to a punchline.  That punchline only works, however, if an audience can supply the missing premises and will assent to their “truth.”  A comedian needs to know his audience well.  If audience members lack knowledge about the topic, they will not “get” the joke.  If audience members hold an opinion about the topic contrary to the punchline “conclusion” the comedian wants them to reach, they may “get” the joke, but they will not find it humorous.  Instead of laughing, they will feel insulted, even angry.

So, finally, pulling all of these thoughts together, here’s what I mean when I say that infrastructure matters.

Creativity and innovation do not occur in a vacuum.  Context is everything.  If companies, schools, and societies want to encourage creativity, they need to lay a good foundation, prepare the soil, set the stage, whatever metaphor makes sense for you.  Creativity requires an environment in which it can naturally occur.

Infrastructure is as important as “getting the right people on the bus,” to use an expression I hear a lot.  But getting infrastructure right is tricky because you’re dealing with the human beings who will be riding that bus.  Just as rhetoric (or comedy) requires judgment (in building enthymemes or jokes), no single “right” formula exists for building a creative environment.

In politics, the 1858 debates allowed Lincoln to express his intellect and grasp of key issues in a way that was still remembered in the Presidential election two years later.  The front-porch campaign worked for Lincoln because people cared enough about the ideas he’d put forward in 1858 to come and visit him in 1860.  In the first televised Presidential debates of 1960, John F. Kennedy famously won against Richard M. Nixon among those watching the television broadcast but lost among those listening to the radio broadcast.  The medium was the message.

In student writing, the five-paragraph theme usually signals empty, passive content that merely compiles and organizes commonplace knowledge about a topic.  The medium is the message.

Pixar, Apple, and Google are famous for providing environments in which creativity and innovation flourish.  So is 3M, as immortalized in countless books and articles (including Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine) for its tale of near-mythic status recounting the invention of Post-it® notes.

This post is already ridiculously long, so I’ll write another one later in the week about the in-house infrastructure these companies provide to promote creativity and innovation.  Meanwhile, suffice it to say, you reap what you sow, you get what you pay for, etc., etc.  I have read and thought quite a bit about creativity and innovation over the past 15 years.  The most reliable “engine” for generating them appears to be the lifelong learning mindset produced within a framework that encourages individuals to cultivate their own curiosity and exploration.  The medium is the message; form becomes content.

In business and industry, as in education, if people are given a challenge and then provided the necessary time, space, and social infrastructure to do the work, they are capable of astonishing ingenuity.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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One Response to If you build it, they will come: the importance of infrastructure for creativity and innovation

  1. Pingback: “If you build it, they will come” (parenthetical afterthought) | Katherine Wikoff

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