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Hamilton's First TEDx Explores Creativity


The goal of the first TEDx talk at Hamilton College, sponsored by the Oral Communication Center and Dean of Faculty’s Office, was to leave the conformity of our everyday lives and return to no-strings attached inquisitive nature of youth in order to achieve uninhibited curiosity and creativity.

As the first speaker, Sandy Rao’15 and current first-year student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, demonstrated, we very often overlook and even avoid many of the most important aspects of creativity. Rao began her presentation by posing a question to the audience, “How many of you have been in a situation where you needed to come up with a new idea, and you were so pumped to create that idea?” As the audience all raised their hands, Rao responded, “Well, so was I when I had to come up with a title for my senior thesis on spatial learning. Ten months later when I finished, you know what the title was? Spatial Learning.”

Rao remarked that she had never really understood creativity until taking a course on the subject in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she learned, “how the mind thought, and how to use it.” To communicate these revelations, Rao presented five cognitive processes that effect creativity in every day life by both helping and hindering.

creativity is not linear.

Cognitive inhibition, a barrier we use to sort our thoughts and make sure they are relevant to our daily lives, is one process that impedes creativity, claimed Rao, because “creativity is not linear,” which conflicts with the goals of cognitive inhibition. Providing the examples of JK Rowling, who came up with idea for Harry Potter out of the blue on a train ride, and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, who wrote Green Eggs and Ham, “on a bet that he could not write a story with only 50 words,” Rao emphasized that we all need to find our personal sweet spot between freedom and rules to foster our creativity.

Fixation, the activity of one cognitive process inhibiting another, also hinders creativity, said Rao. Though fixation can be helpful in every day life, forcing us to stay on track and not get overwhelmed by distractions, it can “lead us to fixate on only one idea,” preventing us from inventing new ideas or altering existing ones. Rao advised to start any creative process with as many ideas as possible, and to not fall in love with any one idea, in order to avoid fixation.

Rao then moved on to a process that can both help and hinder creativity — priming. Priming occurs “when a word, event, or image makes the brain form particular associations.” This can help creativity as an experience can become the inspiration for an idea or piece of work, but it can also inhibit creativity when “you get stuck thinking about” or being influenced by, “one particular thing someone said” or did.

This brought Rao to two processes that promote creativity: remote associations, the connections your brain makes between two ideas, and incubation, the period of rest for the brain when inhibition is decreased. Rao used the story of Archimedes, who formed his principle of water displacement while “taking a bath to relax as he waited for some supplies to arrive.” Rao then gave the example of Thomas Edison, who was only able to create the light bulb “after buying the patent for a lamp” created by another inventor “so he could tinker with it to create his own new idea,” to illustrate the importance of remote associations.

In concluding, Rao recommended giving yourself more time and options, because “the more places you can draw ideas from the better,” however, she also reiterated that “these ideas help our innate creativity, but at the end of the day creativity does not exist in a vacuum,” and that is because “creativity is fostered by patience, revisions, and interactions.”  With that Rao urged everyone to work on their ideas, look at them multiple times, and talk to other people about them, claiming that these are “the tools that we need to create our next big light bulb idea.”

Following Rao, Jeremy Ohringer, a director and teaching artist, emphasized the importance of limitations in enhancing creativity. Ohringer said that in anticipation of this talk, he’d “been thinking a lot about Hamilton. Not just the institution, but also the man.” Ohringer pointed out that though Hamilton was born out of wedlock and raised as a poor orphan, “he still managed to become a founding father,” despite being born into significant limits, and “that,” said Ohringer, “is exactly what I want to talk about.”

Ohringer, a Skidmore College graduate, has been the director of numerous shows, including Spring Awakening and Orlando. He used his own experience of trying to put on the play, Who Rowed Across Oceans, under difficult circumstances in Edinburgh, Scotland, to demonstrate the benefits of limitations First, there was the limitation that all the supplies they needed to put on the play, had to fit into two bags. Ohringer claimed that this limitation actually turned out to be a great gift, because it “allowed us to focus on the plays essential elements and removed the temptations to rely on extraneous aspects that ultimately would not serve the purpose of the play.”

Then, another limitation occurred, one of the six cast members without warning dropped out. This forced Ohringer to creatively change the play, and instead of having an actor play a key character, he would have the part played by “a voice coming out of an old radio.” Ultimately, Ohringer found this conception of the play to be even better than his original staging of the show in the states when he had not been so constricted by circumstance.

Embracing the benefits of limitations, Ohringer has begun to incorporate limitations into the lessons he teaches his students. He frequently places time and content restrictions on his students when they work in groups. Ohringer says “some groups have panic, in others a student established themselves as leader and sometimes dictator, and some groups are calm, or maybe its just shock” but that all of them “experience an adjustment, and this is the most important part, the students must establish their own limits.”

Ohringer claimed that his students’ best and most creative work often comes from exercises like these, because they are forced “to think quickly and dynamically, and they put things together that don’t seem to work, kind of like putting chocolate and bacon together.” Ohringer emphasized that you have to push beyond the limits and break the rules sometimes. When a play can no longer fit within the set limits, “tt is not a desire to be rebellious, but a need to break the rules of the play to express something.”

Outside of the realm of theater, everyone is “faced with limits every day, the list is infinite” said Ohringer, “but, every time we are faced with a limit we are also faced with a choice, it can stop us,” or force us “to embrace the challenge and overcome it with whatever we’ve got.” Summing up his presentation, Ohringer stated, “imposing limits can be a helpful way to make creative solutions” that we would otherwise not have devised, “and that’s what I find so beautiful about limits, limits are the limitless in disguise.”
— Ben Isenberg '17

In the second TEDx session, Max Schnidman ’14 propelled the conversation from a place of science and social interaction into the realm of numbers and data analysis. Now an econometrician and employee of the Postal Regulatory Commission, Schnidman relishes the “sweet satisfaction of statistical analysis” and humorously illustrated the importance of creativity and curiosity in a mathematical, statistical context.

He began his section of the talk with a recap of his statistical work as a Hamilton student, where he organized a matchmaking site for his classmates during their senior week. Throughout his introduction, he emphasized the modern day accessibility of data and the innovative ways in which to collect and analyze it. After this general overview, he explained that creativity and curiosity are the primary principles of data analysis because they force us to ask the important questions; what to you want to learn from your data, and how can you use this data in dynamic ways?

Schnidman then listed the various processes and programs used for data analysis, and explained that there are three primary sources of data; economic data, survey data, and non-traditional data. In the modern world, developments such as Google Sheets allow workers to collaborate and innovate their data analysis projects. Programs like Microsoft Excel allow us to perform complex calculations in a matter of seconds. Fitness trackers such as Fitbits give us access to data that can be applied to hundreds of health and wellness studies.

After he masterfully explained the complex principles of data analysis, he tied his presentation into his own personal experience once more, and talked the audience through the process of analyzing the “readability” of his essays throughout his college career.  By the end of his section, Hamilton students and visiting parents, and economics majors and literature majors alike held a firm grasp on the roles of creativity and curiosity in statistical analysis thanks to Schnidman’s humorous and accessible explanations.

During the brief intermission between Schnidman’s talk and Caesar McDowell’s discussion, the audience viewed a short video of a session at TEDx Sydney, Australia titled “An Orchestra In My Mouth.” The video featured Tom Thum, a small town beat boxer. Thum told tales of the many different places that his beat boxing has taken him, and took the audience on a sonic journey through time and around the world as he effortlessly blended a wide selection of different genres, classic tunes, and modern hits into a stunning, cohesive beat boxing masterpiece.

In the latter half of the second session, Caesar McDowell, president of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and a professor of practice at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussed the racial and ethnic complexity of “the human universe” and the social injustices that exist in our modern society. He described today’s population as a “constellation of differences” in a daunting universe. Rather than merely spell out the issues and injustices in the world, however, McDowell posed a solution: Big Democracy.

The principle of Big Democracy relies on the fostering of conversations and interactions between people who can create a more socially inclusive future using their knowledge of a socially exclusive past. He explained that voting is merely an artifact of a democratic system, and not, in fact, the primary goal of such a system. The true goal of democracy is to create a society in which all citizens struggle and succeed together.

McDowell then provided an example of a situation in which Big Democracy proved extremely successful. Members of the Interaction Institute for Social Change requested the general public in the greater Boston area to not merely ask, but to donate a question relating to transportation and navigation in Boston to a research study on mobility in the city. In doing so, the voiceless not only felt as if they had a voice, but rather felt assured that their voices actively contributed to a positive change in their community.

Another primary focal point in McDowell’s talk related to an intense focus on the margins of society. If, as a society, we listen to and cater to the needs of the margins, we inherently cover the needs of the central figures in society as well. McDowell provided the example of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the ways in which the campaign’s intense focus on the needs of members in society’s margins has inspired an all encompassing “all lives matter” movement as well. 

McDowell concluded his powerful message on social change by emphasizing the importance of choice. “Democracy is a powerful framework for an equitable society” he said, “but we must choose to imagine and build a future of Big Democracy in order for equality to reign.”
— Maddy Maher '18

The TEDx Hamilton series concluded with presentations by Azriel Grysman and Crystal Leigh Endsley. Grysman launched the final session with an analysis of social narratives and his own research in “Gender and Memory: Clues for Consciousness.” As a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton, Grysman teaches classes on cognition and consciousness, and has spent years researching and reporting the connections between gender and memory.

Grysman first shared his observations of the correlation between gender and memory, which spurred his interest and further research in the field. He has found that as a general rule, men remember less than women. In his research, women tended to report more vivid memories than men; men, he said, routinely incorporate fewer details. He stated his own theory that our culture has “established social norms about how men and women talk about memories,” and our internalization of these norms affects the way we remember past events.

By internalizing these social norms based on our group—specifically gender—we “adopt certain conversation styles,” Grysman explained, and the critical reflection period of discourse plays a large role in what “pathways [we create] to access memories.” Citing the data from a memory study, he noted that men self-reported far fewer memories than women. In questioning why these gender differences come to exist, Grysman analyzed possible factors within parenting styles, such as the mother’s tendency to be elaborative or repetitive when raising a child of either gender.
Grysman’s research helps illuminate the link between gender and stereotyped personality traits such as warmth, emotion, and kindness, among others; these traits then predict the way one experiences and reflects on life events, and ultimately, the way a memory is formed through multi-dimensional mapping. The significance of these findings, Grysman argues, is that they “help us appreciate what’s in our brain,” and help us further understand the different ways that gender shapes social norms and in turn form our consciousness.

Endsley followed Grysman’s presentation with a spoken word self-introduction to preface her talk, titled “Spoken Word Poetry and Power: Re-mixing Master Narratives.” During her passionate opening orations, she claimed: “Honey, I am what you get when you mix Cornel West with Lil’ Wayne.”

True to her word, Endsley conveyed her intense passion for both social justice and self expression through spoken word poetry. She posed an important question to the audience to begin her lecture: “How do words and your life connect?” Endsley, currently assistant professor of Africana atudies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, answered this question by elucidating the different ways in which we have the “ability to speak things into existence.”

Endsley referenced her work with the annual “Girls Speak Out” at the United Nations to illustrate her point. Girls Speak Out, created as a means for girls to call attention to their own lived experiences through song, poetry, monologues, and other artistic self-expressions, has occurred for a third year at the UN to celebrate “International Day of the Girl.” Endsley stressed the significance of events like these, which give an opportunity for young individuals to make their voice heard and ensure that political power, and the resulting policies, do not remain concentrated in the hands of a few.

A believer in and teacher of critical pedagogy, Endsley encouraged students to be active in their pursuit of learning, rather than a passive object in which a teacher is simply depositing information. Spoken word performances and rehearsals, she argued, give a chance for individuals to embrace their agency and collaborate with peers. “It gives us the space to try things out,” she said, and ultimately we can “take the things we learn onstage and bring them offstage.”

“Spoken word is how I know who I am, and who I am not,” said Endsley. She explained how the art of articulation can be a tangible way to “determine who we are, who we stand with,” and further, a tool to create social change. Finally, she dared the audience to take action: “Will you be bold enough to write? Will you be bold enough to speak? And most importantly, Hamilton, will you continue to dream with me?”
— Shea Patrick '16

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