"The inner fire is the most important thing mankind possesses."
- Edith Södergran, Scandinavian poet

"Contrary to popular myth, original thought is not restricted to rare individuals in isolation. It is a uniquely human enterprise that requires critics and supporters, senders and receivers, real-world grounding and unrestricted flights of the imagination."
- Jerry Hirschberg, automotive designer

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


Creativity - "the mastery of information and skills in the service of dreams" (Hirschberg) - is much prized in the arts, science, business and the classroom. What does the creative process look like? Under what conditions does it flourish - what ignites the creative spark? Attempting to answer these questions, this class explores ways creativity has been understood in Western culture: what we prize and fear about creativity and its wellsprings; how writers, artists, scientists and inventors have described their own creative processes; how psychologists and philosophers have theorized it; ways in which creativity has been represented, particularly in 20th century films; and creativity in everyday life, including our own lives. Readings include portions of psychologist Rollo May's The Courage To Create, and essays by Joan Didion, John Updike, Alice Walker, Oliver Sacks, and others. In addition, we'll watch video profiles of choreographer Paul Taylor, architect Maya Lin, and jazz musician Dave Brubeck. We'll keep journals in which we note our own observations and reflections on creative process. We will also watch a film together as a class one evening early in the term.

Successfully completing this class gives you Communication Intensive, HASS Writing credit.

Objectives and Assignments

The primary work of this class is to develop your skills in writing and speaking clearly and effectively, and to help you become aware of your own purposes as writers and aware of the audience(s) you are writing for. You will write three essays on themes relating to the creative process for a minimum total of 20-22 pages, and give considerable attention to revision. In homework and class discussions, you'll look at the way accomplished writers engage readers and shape the parts of their essays into a satisfying whole; you'll also write about the writers' ideas. To help you become better readers - not only of others students' writing, but also of your own - you'll review peers' writing in workshops.

  • Journals comprise 10 short entries on the topic of creative process: your observations, responses to readings and discussions, memories, questions, beliefs. (Journal writing will not be revised.)
  • Essay I is a 5-page personal, exploratory essay inspired by our first group of readings and the documentary Dancemaker. It gives you practice in developing ideas based on your own experience and heightening your awareness of the audience(s) you write for.
  • Essay II, a 10-12 page research essay focusing on a movie of your choice from a list I will provide, gives you the opportunity to develop your investigative and critical skills along with practice using sources responsibly.
  • Essay III is a 5-6 page analytical essay that examines one or more of the theories about creativity we've read and discussed. It gives you more practice working with other writers' ideas.
  • You'll also give two brief oral presentations: a five-minute talk on an element of writing that I'll assign individually; and a 10-minute presentation on an aspect of creativity of your choice.

The major class assignments and homework assignments are detailed on our class site. The schedule of class meetings and homework assignments (our syllabus) is also available.

Reading Materials

  • There is no textbook for this class. A few readings will be handouts or available through web links.
  • You will need a guide to citation, integrating quotations, and other research-related writing practices. I recommend A Pocket Style Manual, edited by Diana Hacker, Bedford Books. It is concise and contains most of the important elements of MLA style, which we will follow in this class. If you do not choose to purchase it, note that you will still be responsible for following the research protocols and style guidelines we use.
  • I also strongly urge you to purchase a good college dictionary if you do not already own one. By that I mean, not a pocket dictionary. Do not imagine that access to on-line dictionaries is an adequate substitute: it's not! If English is not your first language, you will need at least two good dictionaries.

Course Policies


This class is structured more like a workshop than a lecture class. Therefore, attendance is important. Your responsibility in the class is not only to be a writer, but also to read and respond to classmates' work and to participate in discussions. If you miss more than two classes for any reason, you risk getting a lower grade. With five unexcused absences you will be withdrawn from the class. It is your responsibility to let me know why you are absent and to keep up with assignments when you do miss class. Lateness is discourteous to your classmates and to your professor. If you are 10 minutes late three times it will count as an absence.


To participate in class discussions, you must read assignments on time. It is also imperative that you bring a draft to class on workshop days, post drafts to workshop partners on time, and be prepared for oral presentations. Your will be graded down if you are not prepared for class. Due dates for all drafts are listed on the course syllabus. Portfolios (see below) are due no later than Session 25.


I'll give you evaluative comments on all essay drafts, and √, √+ or √ - for homework, journal entries and oral presentations. You will receive one grade at the end of the term for all of your work, which is to be handed in to me in a portfolio. This means I will not be grading individual essays but, rather, guiding you toward effective revision of your work. You will revise each essay at least twice. The quality of your writing will be the primary criterion for your semester grade. I'll also take into consideration effort and improvement, especially as demonstrated by revision; homework, including journals, and class participation, including your participation in workshops. A grade of C or better satisfies the Communication Intensive requirement for students who have matriculated since the summer of 2001. No later than mid-term we will consult on your progress.

Note: All required work must be completed satisfactorily for you to receive a passing grade for the course.


To borrow someone else's language and/or ideas without attribution is academically and professionally dishonest, and cheats both you and your readers. It can also have serious consequences to your academic career. MIT takes plagiarism seriously: Plagiarism in this class will result in an automatic F and a letter in your file; a second violation can result in expulsion. We'll discuss in class ways to properly acknowledge sources. Style handbooks such as A Pocket Style Manual contain discussions of plagiarism, and offer many examples of how to cite sources, as does The Mayfield Handbook for Technical Writing .

Note: For this class and most classes, it is not acceptable to hand in a paper that you wrote for another class, even though it is your own work. If you are ever in doubt, ask your instructor.


You are required to have two conferences with me and may have more. Bring specific questions about your writing, such as how to make an introduction more vivid or how to connect the ideas in your essay. You are also welcome to use conference time to continue discussions begun in class or try out ideas sparked by your reading. If you can't make a conference appointment, please e-mail me or call my office number and let me know.

On Portfolios and Contract Grading

This document is adapted from one with the same title by MIT writing instructor Lucy Marx. It is the best description I have seen of my own philosophy of grading, so I give her comments to you here with slight modifications to represent the differences between her class and ours.

So, yes, let's talk about grades, since we all know that at the end of the day - that is, in twelve weeks - each of you will be getting one, and I will have to sit down and decide what it's going to be.

The good news (at least for me) is that we won't have to think much about grades before then. That's because, though I will always respond fully to your work, I won't be putting any grades on your writing - until you submit your final portfolio. I've settled on this grade-free policy not only because I dislike grading (which I do) but also because I'm convinced that the more we can push grades to the back of our minds the better we will function as a group of writers, the better I will be able to help and guide you as you take on new writing challenges, and the more you will ultimately develop as a writer.

Peter Elbow - the guru of freewriting - hands out a letter to his students each year in which he invites them to:

"Imagine that this weren't an official course for credit, but instead that you had all seen my advertisement in the paper and were freely coming to my home studio for a class in painting or cooking or computers (and paying me directly). We would have classes or workshops or lessons, but there would be no official grading. Of course I'd give you evaluative feedback…pointing out the good things you do and the places where I see problems. And I'd give you suggestions for improving your work. But I wouldn't put grades on your individual paintings or omelets or give you an official grade for the course."

He then points out, "Notice how different the evaluative situation would be from what we have in this course - where many of you are not here by choice and I am obliged to give an official University grade." And he concludes, "But I believe that home-studio situation is more conducive to learning."

The Portfolio Approach

Well, I agree. When I grade every piece of your writing, I know I am inviting you to write while looking over your shoulder to see how you are doing in relation to others. I know I am encouraging you to regard what you've created as a static "product" to be submitted for judgment by me and then put away as a failure or success. Ultimately - and this troubles me the most - I know I am asking you to think more about what I want you to write and less about what you want to say.

On the other hand, when I refrain from grading individual pieces of writing, and wait until your final portfolio is submitted to give you a grade, I know that I am encouraging you to loosen up. I am asking you to put my response in the context of the multiple responses that our class will be organized to give you. And I am acknowledging what should be obvious (but what's often, I'm afraid, obscured in the classroom setting) - that no one can stand as ultimate authority on the merits of someone else's words.

For me, the portfolio approach allows me to engage with your work with the respect and enthusiasm of a fellow writer, and it lets me try to offer you what I would offer a peer: a thoughtful and attentive response based - I hope - in sensitivity to what you are trying to do, and sometimes even an insight that can inspire revision.

But really most important is this: As you turn away from looking at your writing as a product, a vehicle for acquiring grades, you'll feel encouraged to take more risks and to think primarily about what you want to say, not what somebody else wants you to say. You will find yourself approaching your own words in a very different way - looking at your writing as a continuing enterprise, one which you are free to return to, revising with whatever new skills and perspective you will be acquiring along the way. Who knows, you may even begin to find yourself wanting to revisit your own work, to re-envision, to reshape, and to clarify your stories and essays based on others' responses and your own fresh insights. This then will be our success. So what perhaps is most valuable, and liberating, about the portfolio approach is that it encourages you to take risks, to forget about that high school mode of psyching the teacher out and to think, instead, about what you want to say.

Contract Grading

But then of course, there's always the "real world" to come back to - in this case the highly competitive real world of the elite academic institution in which we all are functioning. So, I do want to be as clear as possible from the beginning about the criteria on which your grade will ultimately be based. To this end, I've taken the policy that Peter Elbow first developed, what he calls "contract grading", and adapted it to our course. This is what I want to assure you: You will be guaranteed a final grade of B or better if you meet a basic set of conditions which in turn, I believe, will ensure that you grow significantly as a writer over the course of the semester. Most of these requirements are clearly outlined in the syllabus but I will spell them out again here to avoid confusion.

  1. Don't miss more than two classes (or any conferences).
  2. Don't be habitually late. And remember that three latenesses are equivalent to an absence.
  3. Bring in enough copies of assigned versions of your work on time and make them full versions, not drafts.
  4. Read assignments carefully, and bring copies of readings to the class in which we will discuss them.
  5. Use your written homework assignments and Journal to really engage with the readings, and do them on time.
  6. Give full and thoughtful responses to peers' writing.
  7. Contribute regularly to class discussion.
  8. Make good use of revision. Use this opportunity to extend or clarify your thinking and reshape your writing.

Getting an A

At a less quantifiable level, this is what you might try to focus on in your own writing: For every essay, try looking for what you do not already know, deepening your thinking and exploring your experience, aiming towards fresh insight, and extending your use of language in order to express what it is you have to say. Let your writing move somewhere, and press beyond what is glib or easy or clichéd. Aim for exemplary clarity, and show that you respect your readers by proofreading very carefully.

The ability to work more and more consistently at this level might well be what distinguishes the fruits of your efforts as A level writing. But for this, it would be difficult to provide a contract.