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Op-ed: Dr. Sonja Boon

What stories can yarn tell? Gender studies professor considers value of creative scholarship

By Dr. Sonja Boon

How can we best share the results of our research?

This is a question that I’ve long struggled with, both as a researcher and as a teacher. I fully appreciate the importance of the traditional peer-reviewed article or book, and, in classrooms, of critical essays and theses.

But at the same time, as a scholar with a background in classical music performance, I also know that research stories emerge in unexpected encounters between the critical and the creative. In my teaching practice, I’ve sought to make space for such encounters to happen.

Not just the “what”

Over the years, my students have created a number of different projects, including: choreographed dance, sculpture, spoken word poetry, and ‘zines. They’ve rewritten fairytales. They’ve engaged in craftivism, collaborated in blog spaces, tweeted discussions, made and analyzed selfies, and created YouTube vlogs.

This fall, students in one of my undergraduate courses will create ‘zines. In my graduate seminar, they’ll write detective fiction. In my own research, I’ve worked with creative non-fiction, memoir, and found poetry.

This kind of work has asked my students and me to engage not only in the “what” of research, but also to consider other questions: Whose stories are we telling? Why are we telling these stories? How can we best tell them? And for whom are we telling them in the first place?

“There is much room to manoeuvre, much room to explore.”

Such projects have been variously called “unessays” or “creative outputs” or “creative assessments” or “creative scholarship.” They ask students to engage differently with scholarly material.

Instead of the standard and now often formulaic five-paragraph essay that conforms as closely as possible to a given grading rubric (what Daniel Paul O’Donnell refers to as a “static and rule-bound monster”), creative assessments ask students to bring critical thinking into conversation with creative practice.

This is by no means an easy task. The questions we discuss in our classrooms are complex and often abstract. Finding ways to represent these discussions in creative forms is a challenge in and of itself.

Realizing these projects is another challenge. There are no rules; or, perhaps more accurately stated, the guidelines are broad. There is much room to manoeuvre, much room to explore.

‘Understand the context better’

Lucinda Matthews-Jones, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, observes in a recent blog post about her own creative assessments that traditional models of assessment “can reinforce social and cultural power structures.”

How we choose to tell research stories is thus of paramount importance. Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue’s recently published book, Nitinikiau Innusi: I Keep the Land Alive, bears this out. Written originally in Innu-aimun and translated into English, the book includes many photographs. These are not mere window dressing.

Rather, in the words of Memorial faculty member, Elizabeth Yeoman, who edited the book, “Tshaukuesh points out that the pictures in the book are essential, both because many elders do not read written text in any language and because the photos will help people from outside the Innu world to understand the context better” (xxv).

Beyond classrooms and into communities

Creative outputs have many benefits. They ask students to think laterally, to find connections that move well beyond the conventional.

They ask students to embrace whole body knowledge and to learn through thinking, imagining, making, and doing. They ask students to think about the ethics and responsibility of research storytelling. They ask students to translate abstract conceptual ideas into imaginative practices.

“What constitutes knowledge? Who constitutes a knower?”

More surprising (to me, in any event), is how such assignments move into broader communities. Students rarely discuss essay assignments with others; creative assignments, however, move well beyond classroom walls.

They become part of larger conversations with family, friends, and colleagues, all of whom are intrigued by the processes they see emerging before them.

What stories can yarn tell? Why might poetry be the best vehicle for a particular research question? Who can be a detective? What constitutes knowledge? Who constitutes a knower?

Critical, articulate and passionate

My students will work in a variety of environments once they’re finished their degrees. Some will work with non-profit organizations. Some will become teachers.

Others will work for the government. Some will start their own businesses. I know from keeping up with former students that the possibilities are endless.

They will work in environments that ask them to translate complex ideas into concrete forms, and to make persuasive cases for things they’re passionate about. They’ll be asked to think laterally, and to share ideas with others who have very different backgrounds and histories from their own.

They’ll be tasked with translating complex ideas for broad audiences. They’ll be asked to think about justice, ethics, and responsibility.

How can we best share the results of our research? Creative scholarship can be daunting, but every year, I am amazed by the work my students create.

It weaves critical and creative together in ways that I couldn’t possibly have imagined.  It is thoughtful, critical, articulate and passionate. It opens conversations.

It wears its heart on its sleeve, and it is deeply inspiring.

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