Montclair State’s Landmark Creative Thinking Course Garners Kudos

New course is designed to explore interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the creative process

Sarah Bishop-Stone

Liz Lerman, visiting artist, leads faculty and students in a session of the Creative Thinking course.


A landmark course offered by Montclair State University for the first time last summer has garnered positive feedback from students and faculty and others who were involved in its creation.

In the course, Creative Thinking (CRTH-151), students studied the theoretical and experiential approaches to understanding the creative process. The course included interactions with visiting artists and thinkers and drew from a variety of disciplines, including the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the performing arts.  

The inspiration for the Creative Thinking course was the landmark curriculum developed by renowned artist and educator Paul Baker, whose course, offered from the 1950s to the ’90s at Baylor and Trinity universities in Texas, produced many creative people in a variety of fields. Baker also wrote The Integration of Abilities: Ideas for Creative Growth (Anchorage Press, 1977), which also served to inform those involved with creating Montclair State’s course.

The course was the culmination of a two-year Creative Campus Innovations Grant, awarded by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) to Montclair State in 2010 and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.  The grant was aimed to better integrate the performing arts, and works of performing artists, into academia and the community, as well as to invite visiting professional artists to fuel creative work across disciplines at the University.  

Upon receiving the grant, Montclair State’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming (ACP) and the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL) commissioned seven faculty members  culled from the University’s various colleges and schools to create a multi-disciplinary course on creative thinking predicated on Baker’s curriculum. The lead instructor was Assistant Prof. Ashuwin Vaidya, who teaches physics in the Dept. of Mathematical Sciences (CSAM).

The initiative also integrated the creative approaches of artists, performing as part of ACP’s Peak Performances, into the intellectual and cultural environment of the campus in order to foster students’ understanding of – and confidence in – their academic and personal lives. The three visiting artists were visual/theater artist Robert Whitman; artists from the UK-based company Wayne McGregor|Random Dance; and iconic American director Robert Wilson, all of whom committed to residencies at Montclair State from 2010-2012. All three of the visiting artists are known for their interest in multidisciplinary creativity.

The course was designed to dispel the myth that creativity is like a bolt of lightning or a stroke of genius, that “strikes” without warning, but, rather, it is possible to develop tools and approaches that take advantage of cross-disciplinary pollination and foster innovative creative thinking.

“The whole course was designed to get students to focus on the process of learning, not specifically on how to think creatively, but how to think out of the box,” Vaidya explained.  

Asst. Prof. Marissa Silverman,  coordinator of undergraduate Music Education at the
John J. Cali School of Music, added one of the major goals of the course was to encourage students to gain the confidence to attempt to be more creative.

“Most traditionally developed courses seek to cover ‘content, however, this course sought to re-define a students' sense of 'self,' “ Silverman added. “In other words, throughout the course, we hoped that students would feel the confidence to be a better--i.e. more 'creative'--version of themselves.”

As an example, Silverman recalled an in-class exercise in which she asked students to perform some 20th-century “music:” Permutations, which uses "vocalizations, clapping, snapping, and stomping as musical medium, " by Canadian composer Gabriel Charpentier; and Clapping music, written originally for two people, both clapping their part, by Steve Reich.  

“Only one student was a music major, while the rest of them assumed they were not musicians[ but]  I …[wanted] to challenge the students' sense of self as ‘musicians,’ “ she said.

After students performed the pieces in class, Silverman said she asked them if they were now considered "musicians," to which some said "yes" and some said "no."

“But, then I asked them: What does it mean to be a ‘musician’? They didn't have an answer,” she said. “I then asked: Doesn't a musician make music and isn't that what you just did?

“In other words, I provided exercises and thought-activities that challenged their notions of ‘music,’ ‘musician,’ ‘musicianship,’ ‘composer,’ and ‘composition,’ “ she explained. “I hope their disposition to the term ‘musician’ changed.”

Students who were in the pilot course said the course did effect a change.

“It happened for me,” said Victor J.  Carinha, theatre artist and actor. “As a result of this course, I can never approach a new thing the same way. I must always invent a personalized, but completely different, way of going about something. My vision of how I see an object, an idea, or a situation, through having taken this course, has helped me to study how to isolate and mesh elements of the problem that needs to be solved, or an idea that needs to be invented, and allows that to exist in a completely new form.

“The material that I've been able to invent as a result of this course is growing each and every day,” he added.

Sophomore Eileen Strungis, a psychology major, said the exposure to the various disciplines was eye opening.

“The interdisciplinary approach broadened the experience,” she said. “Every class surprised me in some way. The areas that the creative process can be applied to are infinite.”

Vaidya noted that was another intended goal of the course.

“We wanted to highlight that all these processes and disciplines are the same,” Vaidya added.

Strungis said she would highly recommend the course to everyone, adding that the guest artists were “incredible” and her fellow students were interesting and unforgettable.

“The passion that was expressed by every individual involved in this course was palpable,” she said.

Carihna concurred.

“Taking this course isn't like any other normal courses,” he explained. “You will open up as an individual and see exactly what it means to have an imagination. Then, it will take that concept and flip it upside down before leaving you with a completely new sense of the world.

“I'm not saying it's on the verge of a new religion, but it really is a wonderful way to start thinking and seeing the world,” he continued. “It leaves you with opportunities that you can take hold of--what's better than that?”

Students weren’t the only ones affected by the experience.

“We weren't there as instructors, we were guides,” said Vaidya. “We went through everything the students went through. Whatever they were asked to do, we had to do. If they were asked to dance, we were asked to dance. I think it was fantastic.”

Silverman said taking part in the class has been thought-provoking.

“Being engaged in this course, especially because my area of expertise is in 'music education,' has forced me to re-think the nature and value(s) of creativity,” Silverman said. “I don't have an answer yet, and I may never have an answer, but it has been an important process to go through both personally and professionally."

Vaidya said he hopes the course is offered again, with more sections, so all students and faculty may avail of the experience.

Sarah Bishop-Stone, cultural engagement associate for ACP, said plans call for the course to be offered again in spring 2013, but in a full-semester format for the first time.

“We're hoping that changing from a summer-intensive course to a twice-weekly, 13-week class will provide the opportunity for the concepts and practices introduced in the course to more fully integrate with students' lives, habits, and other academic classes,” Bishop-Stone said.

But, students' outcomes are not the only ones under consideration she added.

“One of the unexpected outcomes of the process was the professional development our faculty group got out of it,” she explained. “Many are already applying some of the activities and concepts developed for the Creative Thinking course in their own classes.

“The long-term goal,” she said, “is further developing the course so that it is scalable to the full student body, as an undergraduate foundational experience. And we hope to eventually be able to scale the model so that more instructors can participate, but we do not yet have a timeline for that.”
For more information, visit the blog about the Creative Campus initiative at Montclair State University.