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Make it Your Own: Creative Projects as Agency in Language and Literature Classes

In a time of information overload, the flux of input might seem to either dull individuality or motivate it, curb creativity or encourage it. One of the roles of teachers in the classroom is to make use of such consistent exposure and turn it into opportunities rather than challenges. Specifically focusing on individuality and creativity among students, this is the first of series of posts on how creative projects from my experience at the University of Michigan-Dearborn can positively impact students make sense of, and perhaps even benefit from, the neon signs of news, memes, and streaming, while studying what could easily veer into a boring limbo of assigned readings. As a literature and language professor, my experience revolves around words, stories, images, whether verbal, written, or visual. 

What does a creative project do? The simple answer is it is fun. The more complex answer is it is engaging. The answer I am looking for is that it internalizes information and then externalizes response. In a way, I perceive creative projects as a learner’s space to grapple with, problematize, and individualize what they have been acquiring throughout a given course. In that sense, it is not very different from how social media operates, where a user can take a news item and creatively mess it up a little then throw it back at the world. A photo of a politician distorted for a comedic effect. A scene from a movie taken out of context and used to apply to real life. A rewriting of the lyrics of a famous song with the intention of critiquing a situation. Or more. In class, it can always be more and it should be more.

A creative project in class is a learner’s sign that they own the material. They make it theirs now. The Arabic letters they have squinted over for a semester are now calligraphically presented, spelling a name, a word, a phrase, or an entire poem, depending on the level of the class. A character from a novel is no longer the creation of the novelist only, but of the learner as well, who painted them, chose to give them thick eyebrows and no hair, for instance. When I was in college, I couldn’t really feel I grasped a literary work I was studying until I managed to sketch some of the characters. I could painstakingly study all I wanted, but I only felt I am “there” when I could draw Mrs. Dalloway (I wish I could say my pencil drawing inspired Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf as it was a decade before The Hours but I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t know I existed) or have my very own comic book version of Qais and Layla, a 7th century tragic Arab romance of star-crossed lovers separated by family traditions that predates Romeo and Juliet by 900 years. Many years later, I painted the same image and used it in a graphic novel. So, just by scratching the surface of a creative project. I hope to instill that sense of urgency and agency in learners: the need and the joy of making words and stories your own. 

Image is a painting by the author from his graphic novel, Jamila (2017).