Teaching with creativity and courage

Heather Rhodes, assistant professor of biology

There has been a lot of buzz on the hill about “Creativity and Courage,” this year’s theme adopted by the Spectrum Series for campus-wide exploration, and here, three professors from very different disciplines weigh in on the subject and how they experience it in the classroom.

Heather Rhodes, assistant professor in the biology department, Ching-chu Hu, assistant professor in the music department, and Margot Singer, associate professor of English, tackle a couple of key questions. How do creativity and courage affect your work? How do you encourage other people to take risks?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the laboratories of the biology department are fertile grounds for inventiveness. Rhodes says, “In order to conduct the experiments I do in my laboratory, I’m always problem-solving, constantly tinkering with the equipment, building electrodes, and even writing computer programs to analyze the data.” She adds, “It takes a lot of courage simply to try new experiments, but it also takes a huge amount of courage to publish and present to your peers. You have to develop a real confidence in your abilities.”

Ching-chu Hu, associate professor of music

Composing music is Hu’s forté, but that doesn’t mean he takes it lightly. “To understand music, we need to consume and listen to all we can. But when you write something original, you need to shut all that out, seek a place of honesty and truth and write something that represents who you are. That means working to find your voice and to put your fingerprint on your music.” And when it comes time for your work to be performed on a public stage, giving up control to the musicians and conductor takes a certain level of fearlessness, too. “Now it’s really out there and open for interpretation,” he says. “I put this on the page, now what do you think it means?”

Singer says that in some ways, being a writer is pretty simple. “A writer is not someone who dresses in black, lives in a garret, and drinks too much coffee. You simply need to write.” That may sound easy, but it’s not. “It’s a very messy process,” she says. “You try and fail and try again and fail better. Each time you try again is another small act of courage. A word, followed by another word, followed by a third…”

When it comes to encouraging their students to take risks, reach out and grow, these professors have some heartening words of advice.

Margot Singer, associate professor of English

Rhodes emphasizes the design and execution of experiments more than the outcome. “I work to give them confidence in their abilities and in their knowledge base—a real mastery of the subject.” But it’s a fine line to find the balance between giving knowledge without giving them answers. “I want to inspire my students to find their own answers and give them the space to create and find them,” she says.

“Honesty about who you are and about what you want is something I stress with my students,” says Hu. He gets to know his students very well, sometimes meeting with them on a weekly basis during their four years at Denison. “I watch them struggle with discovering themselves, and I try to ask them questions that will allow them to think about their choices and their future. I ask them what will make you get out of bed 10 years from now? And what are you doing now to build that dream?”

The desire to be perfect is a prevalent and pernicious one in our society, notes Singer. “It’s human nature to look at an end product and not understand all the trial and error it took to get there.” She gives her students lots of opportunities to practice writing different criteria. “We have to accept that some of what we write will just be bad. We have to get over the fear of not being perfect and simply explore.”

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