Tag Archives: creativity

Thinking, Adapting, and Thinking

By Marc Williams

Eric Ries

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, has some bold ideas about entrepreneurship.  In a recent interview for Wired magazine online, Ries argues that old adage “right place at the right time” is not a formula for business success:

 “There was a study done in the early 20th century of all the entrepreneurs who entered the automobile industry around the same time as Henry Ford; there were something like 500 automotive companies that got funded, had the internal combustion engine, had the technology, and had the vision. Sixty percent of them folded within a couple of years.”

Ford, according to Ries, was simply better at adapting to changing circumstances than his competitors.  It wasn’t the quality of his original idea, which wasn’t at all unique, but rather his willingness to change his idea.

A contemporary example Ries uses is Dropbox, a file-sharing program that allows uses to sync files and folders online—and allows users to designate folders as public, private, or shared with only selected users.  Dropbox didn’t begin with a massive PR campaign—it started small, adapted to what its small customer base wanted, and experienced overwhelming growth because they continued to adapt.

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Watch live video from Startup Lessons Learned on Justin.tv

So what can teachers do to help prepare students for a world in which adaptability is key?  In my online courses in the BLS program at UNCG, I typically utilize at least one assignment that requires revision.  Sometimes it is easy to focus on obvious errors—mechanics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, et cetera.  When reading student writing, I challenge myself to look for the ideas and challenge my students to strengthen, support, or even reconsider those ideas.    In what other ways can teachers promote adaptability in the classroom?

Video Games: Live!

By Marc Williams

RSC's production of "The Winter's Tale," photo from the RSC.

This summer’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York hosts one of the most highly-anticipated theatrical events in recent memory: a six-week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company that began on July 6.  The RSC is located in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town, and is widely considered the world’s top producer of classical theatre.  For this New York residency, not only has the RSC brought five of its exquisite productions to the Lincoln Center Festival but it has also reconstructed its Stratford performance space right inside the Park Avenue Armory.  For American theatre enthusiasts, the residency is a dream-come-true: a chance to see five RSC productions without purchasing five airline tickets.

While the RSC has generated appropriate buzz over the past few weeks, another Shakespearean experiment has stolen some headlines.  Sleep No More, a loose adaptation of Macbeth, is produced in a 1930’s Manhattan hotel on 27th Street.  The production embraces mansion-platea staging, a technique we study in my Eye Appeal class in the BLS program at UNCG.  Mansion-platea staging involves small performance areas (“mansions”) that represent a particular location in the story, with several mansions lined up in a row or circle, each representing a different location.  The actors and audience move together from one mansion to the next as the story progresses. This isn’t how most of us encounter theatre today, so Sleep No More may seem highly unusual.  However, walking through a haunted house or even sitting on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride replicates mansion-platea staging faithfully.

Sleep No More‘s producing organization, PUNCHDRUNK, has inserted an unusual twist on mansion-platea staging: audience choice.  This production not only immerses the audience into the playing space with the actors but also gives the audience freedom to wander about the six-story building however they like.  They can follow characters from one room to the next for a linear narrative experience, or move randomly around the building for a more fractured experience.  No matter how they choose, the audience cannot possibly witness the entire production at once since there are events happening simultaneously in different areas of the building.

One of the rooms from "Sleep No More," photo from the NY Times.

I’ve not seen the production but have read much about it.  I was surprised when I read Wired.com’s Jason Schreier’s review of this production.

[Sleep No More is] a nonlinear narrative in which the order of events — and consequently, the plot — is determined by what you see.

The primary problem with this method of storytelling is that you’re not really part of it.

Sleep No More has two rules: Keep your mask on and don’t talk to anybody. Outside those restrictions, you can do whatever and go wherever you want. At one point you might wind up in a dimly lit graveyard, alone and terrified. Then you’re in a ballroom, where garishly dressed gentlemen and ladies are dancing to an infectious beat. Next you’re in a pantry, opening jars of candy and trying to decide whether eating them will kill you. Problem is, nothing you do really matters.

A screen shot from "L.A. Noire," by Rockstar Games.

The title of his review (“Interactive Play Sleep No More Feels Like a Game, But More Confusing”) suggests the experience is intended to be interactive but that  isn’t true.  He goes on to compare the production to several popular video games like L.A. Noire and Fallout: New Vegas, arguing that the games are superior experiences primarily because the game player isn’t “just an observer.”  This perspective probably seems reasonable to Schreier, who is primarily a video game critic.  My question for Schreier is: are audiences accustomed to having an effect on the outcome of a theatrical performance?

In a way, all theatre is interactive in that actor and audience inhabit the same space; the audience’s reactions and attitudes psychologically affect the actors and this effect subtly (and sometimes boldly) influences the performance.  But audiences aren’t typically expected to participate in the action, which is what Schreier seems to expect: a kind of theatrical “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

In contrast to Schreier’s dissatisfaction, several major theatre critics have responded positively to Sleep No More and audiences have been attracted to the production’s novelty.  However, many theatre practitioners have long wondered how video games and other electronic media might affect the next generation of theatregoers.  Will the theatre adapt to its changing audience? Will there be an audience at all?  Schreier’s review makes me wonder if the if the next generation of theatergoers is already clamoring for theatrical evolution.  And while PUNCHDRUNK and other organizations are experimenting with theatrical form, one has to wonder how (or if) a theatrical institution like the Royal Shakespeare Company will adapt when the time comes.  How will other artistic forms evolve with the video game generation?

Are You Ready for Some Football?

By Marc Williams

I’ll begin by confessing that I am among America’s truly die-hard football fans.  I follow football throughout the year, even though the season only lasts about four months.  Serious fans like me are thrilled this morning: the NFL’s 130+ day lockout appears to be ending today following months of intense negotiations.

During the past few months, analysts have criticized both owners and players in news articles and fans have sounded off on sports talk radio.  Given America’s economic struggles, how could these sides complain about having to share $9 billion in revenues?  While the owners initiated the lockout, most of the criticism I heard seemed to be directed at the “overpaid” NFL players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and NFL Players Association Director DeMaurice Smith, right.

Listening to talk radio over the past 130 days, I often heard fans suggesting, “the players should be more grateful–I’ll go play football for a fraction of what those guys make.”  Every time I listened to the radio, I heard someone cite his $30K salary, how hard he works, and how happy he’d be to play football for the minimum NFL rookie salary, which was $325,000 in 2010.  What many fans fail to realize is that these players earn a minimum of $325,000 because they have specific skills and physical attributes that are exceedingly rare and have found a way to capitalize on those traits.

Consider one of my favorite players, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as an example.  In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covered the first 40m of his record-breaking 100m run at a speed of 8.6m/second.  When Calvin Johnson was entering the 2007 NFL draft, he was timed at a similar distance at about 8.4m/second, only slightly behind Bolt’s pace. These numbers are especially notable since Bolt, the 100-meter world record-holder, weighs only 198 pounds while Johnson weighs almost 240 pounds. Further, Johnson is 6’5” and has a 42” vertical leap (four inches better than NBA star Kobe Bryant’s). Johnson, like most NFL athletes, possesses not only exceptional football skills but also a rare combination of size and athleticism.

While these physical attributes are indeed rare, many argue that twenty year-olds have no business earning so much money for simply playing a game.  After all, many of us go to school, earn degrees, work from the bottom-up in our chosen fields, taking years to earn promotions and raises, and never approach the $325,000 minimum NFL rookie salary.  Is this evidence that something is out of whack?

Shakespeare

Perhaps what is truly out of whack is the notion that education, job skills, and a lifetime of service should entitle one to fame or a generous salary.  Consider Shakespeare as an example.  Unlike most of the successful poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was not college educated.  His success generated enormous jealousy from writers who had “paid their dues” through university education.  To this day, there are scholars dedicated to attributing Shakespeare’s work to other individuals from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself, arguing that an uneducated son of a glove maker couldn’t possibly be the author of Hamlet and King Lear.

 In my BLS course on Shakespeare, we discuss this “authorship question,” a premise I dismiss as snobbery.  Perhaps Shakespeare was simply brilliant; an individual with exceptional skills who was creative enough to find a way to apply and capitalize on those skills.  Mozart composed his first opera when he was twelve years old—there is no accounting for that kind of genius.  Isn’t the same true of professional athletes? When we express jealousy about the financial success of professional athletes, are we jealous of their unique gifts or are we jealous because we haven’t figured out what to do with our own talents?

Usain Bolt breaks the world record in the 100 meters, Beijing 2008:

Calvin Johnson in action:

Is the Future of Racing a Thing of the Past?

By Jay Parr

NASCAR

As anyone who has made the mistake of taking I-85 past Concord on a race day knows, NASCAR is one of the largest professional sporting organizations in the country. Major events draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the stands, and sometimes millions of viewers watching from home or their favorite sports bar. Total revenues are in the billions of dollars, and the revenues of the top teams are in the tens of millions of dollars apiece. It’s a huge business.

We tend to think of auto racing as being at the forefront of high-performance technology, but that’s not actually the case in NASCAR. The regulations in that organization dictate that the cars must be front engine and rear wheel drive, despite the fact that the street versions of those cars are almost all front-wheel drive. But it doesn’t stop there. The engines must have carburetors, not the fuel injection of most cars on the road today. They must be naturally aspirated, so they can’t have the turbochargers that are becoming so common in passenger cars today. They must have pushrod-operated valves, so they can’t even have the overhead cams found in a twenty-year-old Saturn. Far from being at the leading edge of engine technology, NASCAR engines use hundred-year-old technology that is arguably fifty years out of date.

Tour de France

Auto racing is not the only racing sport where the rules place big restrictions on the technology used. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or any other major bicycle race, you may have noticed that all the bikes look almost identical. That is not a coincidence, and it is not because the bike you see is the best configuration for performance. Nearly a century ago, shortly after the familiar diamond-framed “safety bicycle” took over popularity from the dangerous old high-wheeled “ordinary bicycle,” a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet designed the first commercially-produced recumbent bicycle. The rider sat back as if on a chaise lounge, with his feet stretched out in front of him and the rear wheel behind his back. It won several major races, and in 1934 it broke the one-hour world record when his rider covered 28 miles—and the wins and the record were all piloted by second-tier cyclists. At their very next meeting, the International Cyclist’s Union (UCI) decided that recumbent bicycles could not compete against diamond-framed bicycles in any major bicycle race. That is why you never see a recumbent bicycle in the Tour de France—despite the fact that they’re faster, more aerodynamic, more comfortable to race, and much safer in an accident.

Recumbent bicycles

In both of these racing venues—motorized and human-powered—political decisions have kept the sport from evolving toward superior technologies. The philosophy in both cases is to put the emphasis on human competition, but the technological ramifications reach far beyond the racetrack. In the past, the highly-funded and competitive environment of racing has led to major advances in both efficiency and safety. Your brake lights, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, and radial tires were all pioneered in race cars, as were many other features you take for granted, like the side-impact bars in your doors, the fuel injection that has doubled your gas mileage, and the variable timing advance that allows your engine to run efficiently at a wide variety of RPMs. Even on a dime-store bicycle, the gearing and brake technology were perfected in the racing world before trickling down to the kids’ beater bikes.

Restricting the natural advance of racing technology has a negative impact, not only on racing sports, but on the society as a whole. Consumer technology tends to mimic high-performance technology, and to benefit from high-tech advances in a trickle-down effect. Imagine how the world might look if the UCI had forbidden the chain-driven safety bicycle. Would the serious cyclists be teetering around on top of huge 54-inch wheels? Would we be afraid to teach our children to ride bikes for fear they might take a header and break their necks? Now, imagine it the other way, if the UCI had not forbidden the recumbent. Would most of us be cruising around on comfy lawn chairs? Would we stare in amusement when we saw one of those old dangerous head-first relics? Would our kids be more likely to land on a nice soft buttock instead of a fragile face or wrist when they dumped their bikes?

What if NASCAR technology had been allowed to develop unchecked? Pit stops happen on the clock, so it’s entirely conceivable that racing engineers would have poured a lot of attention into increasing fuel efficiency to minimize those stops. If they had been allowed to experiment unchecked, would we have race cars that could complete a 600-mile race on ten gallons of fuel? Imagine how that technology would trickle down to a little Nissan on the highway. Think about that next time you’re fueling up for that trip down I-85.

Cyclist Sam Whittingham exceeds 82 mph in a streamlined recumbent bicycle.

Bad Apples?

By Marc Williams

Public school performance in the U.S. is measured, most noticeably, by state-mandated standardized tests.  These tests are used to measure not only student achievement but also the effectiveness of teachers, administrators, and entire school systems.

Unlike the SAT and other standardized tests that are administered and proctored by independent contractors, public school tests are typically administered by the school’s faculty and staff.  The teachers and administrators whose jobs are on the line are actually responsible for collecting the data that could either enhance or jeopardize their careers.  In Atlanta, 178 educators appear to have manipulated or falsified testing data in an apparent effort to preserve their jobs.

In Atlanta, teachers who confessed to cheating told investigators they felt inordinate pressure to meet targets set by the district and faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn’t. The behavior was reinforced by a district culture of fear and intimidation directed at whistle-blowers.

Certainly schools should behave ethically but the cheating that is being investigated in Atlanta–and across the country–should come as no surprise since schools could face stiff consequences if standards aren’t met.  And since the schools have access to student answer sheets, manipulating data is quite easy.

There are plenty of debates about the value of these tests in the first place, as they typically don’t measure critical thinking, communication, creativity, and other key skills. But if the data on the tests are so easily corruptible, how useful can these tests be in evaluating anything?  How can school performance be better evaluated and measured?

Maybe Almost Probably the End of Harry Potter (perhaps)

By Marc Williams

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

The eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter film series is to be released this week, one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years.  It has generated excitement reminiscent of the release of the second generation of Star Wars films.  Indeed, tickets for Friday’s opening began selling out in the U.S. several days ago–a week ahead of the July 15 premiere–making it one of the fastest-selling films ever.

The opening is bittersweet for many fans who would like to see the series continue and at the July 7 London premiere of the final film, author J.K. Rowling left open the possibility of future Potter stories. While her statement doesn’t indicate that more stories are imminent, the possibility is tantalizing for fans.

In the meantime, serious fans await Rowling’s online venture, Pottermore, which won’t be fully available to the public until October but promises some new Potter content that has not been previously available.

Here’s J.K. Rowling on Pottermore:

Fans can also visit Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a very impressive theme park treatment of Rowling’s vision that allows fans to immerse themselves in the world of Potter.

The Things We Don’t Know

By Marc Williams

According to a recent Marist poll, only 58% of Americans know that the United States declared its independence in 1776.  Respondents were slightly better at identifying England as the country from which the United States sought independence; 76% responded correctly.

Revolutionary War Reenactment, Photo by Michael Warner

Similar polls are conducted year-round, demonstrating an often surprising lack of awareness of seemingly important issues.  For example, in November 2010, following the mid-term elections, a Pew Research Center poll revealed that most Americans knew that Republicans gained power in Congress but didn’t realize that Democrats maintained control of the Senate.

Far fewer are familiar with the specifics relating to the GOP’s victories. Fewer than half (46%) know that the Republicans will have a majority only in the House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January, while 38% can identify John Boehner as the incoming House speaker (Pew Research Center).

Polls like the one above from Pew Research Center are always surprising on some level.  This is perhaps because media outlets enjoy summarizing the results, highlighting only the most troubling findings. This particular poll examined American awareness on a variety of current events and the respondents did pretty well when asked about the BP oil spill and their general sense of federal budget deficit was accurate.  With that in mind, I wonder if the results really are so troubling after all.

Is this just sensationalism or should we really be concerned?    In the BLS program at UNCG, we examine big ideas about the human experience.  But what about names, dates, and other factoids acquired by rote?  Who is responsible for this information?  Is it really important in the first place?  What, exactly, should we all be expected to know?

What are “liberal studies” anyway?

By Marc Williams

This entry begins the official blog life of UNCG’s Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  We’ve begun our Facebook life with some discussions on education.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to begin our blog with the term “Liberal Studies.”  What exactly does that mean?

Image from "Education in Ancient Greece," Michael Lahanas

The phrase derives from artes liberales (“liberal arts”), which describes the kinds of knowledge (“arts”) that free citizens (“liberated”) should possess. This definition of liberal arts can be traced from Ancient Greece all the way through the Middle Ages.   Artes liberales can be contrasted with artes illiberales, which refers to a kind of education intended specifically for economic gain (such as vocational training).    The branches of knowledge that comprise the liberal arts include mathematics, music, literature, logic, rhetoric, grammar, and oratory.  In this regard, a “liberal studies” education is intended to be broad in focus and inclusive of a variety of disciplines.

Most universities today offer degree programs with a liberal arts structure. First-year university students are often surprised by how many courses are required outside of their intended field of study.  “How will a philosophy course help me if I want to work in advertising?”

One answer to this question comes from a recent Carnegie Foundation study, recently outlined on Businessweek.com by William M. Sullivan:

More than ever, American business needs leaders who are creative and flexible enough to innovate in a complex, competitive, global economy. The recent near-collapse of the world economy underscores the importance of business professionals who can act with foresight and integrity, aware of the public impact of their decisions. […].

The Carnegie Foundation study found that undergraduate business programs are too often narrow in scope. They rarely challenge students to question their assumptions, think creatively, or understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts. […] .

The study, soon to appear as Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass/Wiley), went in search of business programs that set out to provide students with more than tools for advancing their careers, as important as those tools are. […].

Not surprisingly, this report suggests business programs include a healthy dose of liberal arts courses—courses that specifically develop the analytical and critical thinking skills required to deal with ambiguous and complex questions, as well as courses that manage to connect to the business curriculum.  These critical thinking, analytical, and creative skills are precisely the focus of the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  To learn more, please visit http://www.uncg.edu/aas/bls.