Monday, February 2, 2009

How to Generate Original Ideas--Even as an Emergent Scholar

The First Year Writing faculty strongly believe that UW20 students are emergent scholars. By this we mean that we see our student-colleagues as writers capable of producing ideas and insights that are worth reading because they are both original and situated in existing scholarship. Not surprisingly, one of emergent scholars' (of all ages!) greatest anxieties is the problem of how to come up with and develop original ideas that other scholars will find interesting and productive. In this post, Professors Mark Mullen and Robert Rubin offer shocking and useful advice to emergent scholars on how to generate original ideas. Try these strategies, then come back and leave a comment on how they worked for you!

Prof. Mullen writes:

One goal of a lot of argument-driven writing, particularly that associated with academic work, is to offer new ideas, or at least new ways of looking at older concepts. Unfortunately, most of what we have rattling around in our heads represents the exact opposite: it's the prevailing wisdom, beliefs about the status quo, a finely tuned sense of what is acceptable. . .exactly the sort of thing that makes for tedious and pointless reading.

This is a technique to help clear your head of the accumulated cultural dross about any given subject and focus on something that you might find worth saying and someone else might find worth reading. First, pick three ideas that you might like to write about for the particular essay that you are working on. Write a short paragraph for each that attempts to make an argument concerning that idea. Now take that piece of paper, roll it up into a tightly wadded ball, and throw it in the nearest trash can. The first three ideas you've come up with are more than likely the most obvious things that would have occurred to anyone writing about this topic and you have just voiced them and disposed of them in a way that won't tempt you to try and cajole them into some kind of thesis.

Now list three completely new ideas. By this point you'll feel that you are getting a little stuck. You'll start putting down random stuff, ideas out of left field, ideas that don't seem as if they would ever have a snowball's chance in hell of making for a credible paper. . .and there's a good chance that at last you will have stumbled upon something interesting and worth writing about.
In a book he's currently working on, Prof. Rubin offers this advice:

In business, successful creative teams often hold a “brainstorming session” where they bring people together and get them to start tossing out ideas—good, bad, and crazy. One person’s crazy idea sparks someone else’s good one, and so forth. If done right, everyone leaves their skepticism at the door and no one worries about saying anything stupid; ten people come into a meeting with ten ideas apiece, but instead of 10×10=100 ideas, brainstorming multiplies the effect; it’s more like 10×10×10=1000. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to find a really good idea from a pool of 1,000 than 100.

“Wait a minute!” you say. “There aren’t nine other people in the room with me trying to find a good idea. I’m all by myself!”

Don’t be so sure. You might like raunchy jokes, beautiful sunsets, bad puns, soap operas, chocolate, Mozart’s concertos, Ultimate Frisbee, and hacking computers. You might like being sweet to children and being naughty when flirting during a date. But, when you sit down to write, typically you try to shut out all those other sides of your personality and just listen to the one that turns information into elegant sentences—the Editor, we’ll call it.

Sadly, the Editor lacks imagination. It knows to leave the hyphen out of anal retentive and to add it to anal-retentive proofreading. But don’t ask your inner Editor to dream up a good Halloween costume—or a good paper topic, for that matter.

When you’re brainstorming, forget about that Editor! Write for yourself. Record as many specifics as possible. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Explore as many avenues as your imagination opens up before you. Let all the different voices speak. Later, you can think about them more fully and turn them over to the Editor for cleanup.

In this context, brainstorming doesn’t mean sitting in front of a computer screen, racking your brain for something to write about. It means writing for yourself, when there’s no one else looking, as a way of generating ideas. [snip...]

Try a variation of the old game of “twenty questions” with your subject. The following technique, known as a heuristic (adapted from Twenty Questions for the Writer, by Jacqueline Berke), is a good way of learning something about your subject —“X”; it can be applied to everything from a paragraph to the entire essay. Ask the questions, and jot down answers quickly. When you get through, you’ll have a list of ideas and thoughts to work into your finished writing.

1. What does X mean? (Definition)
2. What are the various features of X? (Description)
3. What are the component parts of X? (Simple Analysis)
4. How is X made or done? (Process Analysis)
5. How should X be made or done? (Directional Analysis)
6. What is the essential function of X? (Functional Analysis)
7. What are the causes of X? (Causal Analysis)
8. What are the consequences of X? (Causal Analysis)
9. What are the types of X? (Classification)
10. How is X like or unlike Y? (Comparison)
11. What is the present status of X? (Comparison)
12. What is the significance of X? (Interpretation)
13. What are the facts about X? (Reportage)
14. How did X happen? (Narration)
15. What kind of person or thing is X? (Characterization/Profile)
16. What is my personal response to X? (Reflection)
17. What is my memory of X? (Reminiscence)
18. What is the value of X? (Evaluation)
19. What are the essential points or features of X? (Summary)
20. What case can be made for or against X? (Persuasion)

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