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Creativity Crisis

Chapter 3


Student engagement is highly prized and for obvious reasons. It is a key element in a satisfying student experience and, insofar as it is created by teachers, it reflects on the quality of teaching. One assumes, rightly or wrongly, that it correlates with learning, on the basis that disengaged students do not appear to learn much and are more likely to drop out. There is every reason to encourage student engagement and to cultivate whatever yields the happy outcomes associated with it.

As for what student engagement is or what creates it, we have plenty of ideas; but they are not generalizable beyond platitudes about involvement, attendance and collaboration, and seldom rise above the obvious. We can ask students what they found engaging and can therefore measure the identified qualities using survey instruments. For years, therefore, we have known the obvious, namely that students consider subjects or modules or units engaging if their lecturers or tutors make the class interesting and demonstrate a personal interest in the topic, if they involve the class and encourage participation, if they make you see the relevance of the material, maybe if they have a flair for language and demonstrably love explaining the content, maybe are a bit eccentric but in all events are entertaining and bring the class with them.

Today, we hardly want to hear these dear old verities. They are all true, of course, but they do not support contemporary approaches to education. Following John Biggs, we are interested in learning as ‘what the student does’, not what the lecturer does. The many surveys that we once might have commissioned to discover what students find engaging have to be called off, lest they prove that teaching is influenced by ‘what the teacher does’ and still matters in the minds of students. Rather than ask students for their impressions, we count their behaviours, defining engagement as their aggregated activity on the learning management system (LMS). This appropriately named management system has arrived just in time to complete the managerial view of students. We now count student engagement and seek, in the next click, to manage student engagement through the very same system.

Now that we have achieved a perfect virtual panopticon of the student’s learning experience, we feel in a position to direct their every move, to micromanage their learning, to ask them to do X before proceeding to Y and not to allow them to see Z until they have fulfilled all the conditions of completing Y. Even their conversation is mandated and monitored. They must post opinions on the LMS forum and also respond to other students in the same forum, whether they feel inclined to or not. They are not allowed to withhold or brood or adopt a sultry indifference in the face of material that they are sceptical about or find odd or creepy or misguided. They are all lined up in digital files of exhaustive completeness and are compelled, watched, recorded: their learning has no privacy and no liberty. It is a humiliating digital prison, in which an unprecedented level of control is now legitimated because it yields superior levels of engagement. Bordering on abuse, this relentless culture of orders and inspection is inimical to imagination and creativity.

Because engagement is now a metrical phenomenon, tied to the anxious discourse of student success, its drivers are under pressure, because universities can be audited and ranked according to their completion statistics. To improve engagement and also to fulfil certain articles of faith about working in teams, group work is prescribed. Group work admittedly has advantages over individual work because, at least in some contexts, it is more authentic in reflecting the real world, where we might work in teams rather than on our own. The work of a group may or may not be creative and imaginative. It is possible for group work to be highly creative, as we know from films, which are the result of group activity on a large scale and which are sometimes imaginative. Structurally, however, the faculty of imagination of the individual is subordinated to a faculty of negotiation, diplomacy, compromise. The undertaking may be creative but the learning activity is much more characterized by ego management than imagination. Paradoxically, when it comes to assessment, discriminating between the effort of separate participants seems necessary. So a good check to attribute the respective contributions is the level of engagement as demonstrated by activity on the LMS. What begins in inducements to student solidarity ends up as a fracturing isolation of individuals through our need for discriminatory assessment.

If you consider the impact on creativity that these scenarios have, scenarios which are now the gold standard of global education, the outlook is baleful. There is scope for poetic moments within an LMS but not when the design is centred on engagement, on boosting levels of involvement in tasks or readings or comment, group work and forced interaction. Engagement, when understood through click counting, encourages the wholesale collapse of student autonomy. How, then, do we moderate engagement or see it in more creative terms? What could engagement be if it is not overwritten with these withering metrics? Can we look into the dark heart of this teaching trophy and discover historical reasons to redefine it for the benefit of creativity?

To be fair, engagement is sought in education in the same way that it is fetishized in other fields where, admittedly, the target audience cannot be controlled. Engagement is also a centrepiece of writing, museums, environmental science programs, theatre, television, social media, marketing, anything where enticing an audience and gaining a reaction seems to be important, the very raison d’être of a publishing house, a gallery, a lobby group, a production company, a network or platform. If a piece of writing is not engaging, it will have fewer readers; and those who persist in reading—perhaps because they want the information irrespective of how it is written—are less likely to be favourably disposed to the text or to develop an affectionate relationship with the content or its author.

Considered somewhere between an art and a mystery, engagement is just as hard to explain in literary, curatorial or filmic media. It lies close to rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion, and is seldom aligned with simplicity, science, objectivity or clarity. It is more likely to be highly voiced, partisan, passionate, as Baudelaire says of criticism: it may be engineered to have suspense, to be folded with surprise, colour and exciting juxtapositions, and perhaps a touch of morbid imagery. The full aesthetic register of controlled turmoil is inexhaustible. We have art not just because there are always new things to say but because there are also new ways to say old things; and this almost convulsive energy riddles cultural production, bringing interest to dull themes and investing brilliance in mediocre ideas. Pervasive and infectious, these tropes of winning attention dominate mainstream media, with their line-up of beautiful presenters, bright teeth and colourful backdrops; and from high culture to popular culture, our encounter with information and experience is comprehensively larded with artificial strategies for achieving engagement.

There are deep questions about the fitness of such artifice when it comes to learning. By virtue of belonging to a promiscuously marketed culture, the typical learner is already inevitably steeped in a medial environment of competitive messages, each vying with the other for attention. So to gain the student’s attention, it is tempting for teachers or any university video to try to adopt the same language of engagement, even if it turns out that the teacher’s rhetorical ruses to secure engagement are antithetical to learning. But remembering that learning is ‘what the student does’, it seems more legitimate simply to compel students to demonstrate their engagement by mandating and monitoring their activity on the LMS.

Supposing that you momentarily resist this low-level fascism. How much and what kind of stimulation to enjoin to the learning experience are questions that are structurally fraught, which perhaps explains why teaching is sometimes considered an art rather than a science. Fatefully, these pedagogical agonies are prefigured and to some extent explained by the history of the very words that we use to describe the objective.


In the history of language, engagement is a happy mutant, a bit like rigour, which begins with a somewhat negative, severe and even aggressive meaning and becomes positive and highly sought after in the modern epoch.1 In French, no less than English, the word ‘engagement’ commences as a transactional term. In the sixteenth century, one already ‘engages’ a mason or a painter to do work on the property.2 Montaigne, speaking for Plato, fears our ‘bitter engagement’ to emotions (nostre engagement aspre à la douleur et à la volupté);3 and this sense of the yoke or constraint is at times suffocating. In a genial passage, Montaigne gives reasons for discounting death: if it is a short and violent end, he says, ‘we have no leisure to fear it; if it is otherwise, I forswear life in the same measure that I am engaged in the illness’.4 ‘I am engaged with’—literally ‘I engage myself with’—means ‘I am in the grip of ’, in a deadly bond, as the illness takes over my faculties. In another place, Montaigne describes feeling the soul engage with death, like the body.5 Similarly, when the Cretans wanted to damn someone, they would pray to the gods to engage him or her with some ill custom.6 The engagement is a trap.

We search in vain for a happy connexion and there is certainly no talk of a sparkle in education that we recognize as engagement. It is more like the LMS. In one place, Montaigne laments how in France, only people of low rank engage in study, because they see in it a means of making a living.7 But this engagement is what motivates study for base reasons, not a stimulant inside the study itself, even if active individuals might somewhat positively ‘embrace everything, engage everywhere, who become passionate about everything and who give of themselves on all occasions’.8 Nor is this readiness to hop in necessarily a sign of a good enthusiasm. For example, Montaigne deplores the way we see thousands of soldiers-of-fortune engaging their blood and life for money in some disagreement in which they have not the slightest interest,9 recalling Shakespeare’s somewhat nobler ‘I do engage my life’.10

In these examples, we see the origin of the word emerging, which has to do with being bound to a contract (gage), which survives in our word mortgage, a debt of obligations or a vow, like Shakespeare’s ‘engaged by my oath’ or ‘To break the vow I am engaged in’, always a constraint: ‘O limed soul, that, struggling to be free, / Art more engaged!’11 We also recognize the word in the military context, as when one engages with the enemy, meaning exchanging fire or doing battle, which one can also express as engaging oneself to fight for someone else.12 On another occasion, honour engages one to fight.13 Elsewhere, resentment can engage someone,14 meaning something like ‘move’ or motivate, in the same way that sadness can ‘engage’ the heroine.15

Our modern usage also expresses happy ties through the word, as when people about to marry are ‘engaged’, meaning that both lovers make a pledge: ‘the secrets of my heart: / All my engagements I will construe to thee’,16 which is echoed throughout the seventeenth century, as in Racine’s line that ‘you alone engage me beneath the yoke of love’.17 It follows that if one can engage someone in love in the seventeenth century, one can already speak of ‘engaging people in conversation’, though this is devious in order to entertain other love affairs;18 but still for the most part, one engages faith19 or ‘my engaging itself under under its law’.20 While the gerund ‘engaging’ is used in some of these examples, it does not describe a quality of an action or conversation. It has no adjectival agency but is strictly verbal. Further, it is always transactional, never far from the pledge and the root of a tie: ‘in receiving his faith at the altar, I will engage her to my son by immortal knots’,21 which explains why one also sees lines of astonishing coldness, as with ‘nothing engages you to love me’,22 meaning that nothing has to compel you.

The motif of engagement has remarkably little charm and is overwritten with obligation. In this severity, as noted, it is somewhat like other words that transition to the positive in modern language when understood in an aesthetic context. One of them is ‘compelling’. In legal or political contexts, the term is harsh. You could be compelled to sell your property to pay a fine or compelled to go to war. But in aesthetic discourses, the word is positive, a much sought-after quality of transporting emotion beyond one’s power of moderation. It is also hard to find a positive meaning for the word in pre-industrial languages; it is always rigorous and threatening. Other horrible terms that take on a celebratory air in aesthetic discourse are the violent words ‘striking’, ‘impact’, ‘a hit’, ‘stunning’, a ‘knock-out’. Nor is it a coincidence that these are all ingredients that might be considered core components of the theatrical engagement that a charismatic lecturer, for example, might achieve with a student audience.

Other terms that have swung radically from a base of certain horror toward aesthetic delight derive from the metaphor of captivity or confinement: to enthral, to capture (as in capture attention or capture the imagination), which extends to gripping, seizing or grabbing. These are deeply horrible motifs, reminiscent of the biblical peoples led into captivity and handled by the lash and the sword. But by the perversity of aesthetic discourse, the loss of freedom effected through beauty or rhetoric is an admirable property of art or human seduction. Thus, in poetic literature of the renaissance, it became fashionable to describe the completeness of love as a form of enslavement, whence the amorous courting songster would express a thrall, an emotional subservience. This poetic motif is very old and can even be traced to the Bible (or at least the Apocrypha: ‘his beauty made his soul captive’23) which is dominated by a series of horrible captivity narratives. It has great traction in English as well: ‘So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape’; ‘Love hath chas’d sleep from my enthralled eyes’. Romance aside, Shakespeare uses words like ‘captivate’ in a fierce and resentful spirit.24

Even closer to the theme of engagement, the term entertainment reveals a similar pattern. One thinks of something entertaining as gorgeously cheerful, funny, diverting; but this joy is by no means the main historical motif embedded in the fabric of European language. A little like thrall and captivating, entertaining has the root of ‘holding’ (tenere), which is logical and not necessarily negative, as when we hold someone’s attention or even hold someone dear. But contrary to such tenderness, entertaining in the renaissance is highly transactional and even managerial. For example, Francesco Guicciardini explains that a lord should always try to bring profit to his servants; however, they can sometimes become spoilt and begin to complain when benefits rendered in fat years are scarcer in lean years, so it is better to ration the indulgences, to err to parsimony rather than largesse, entertaining the servants more with hope than with goods (intrattenendogli più con la speranza che con gli effetti).25 The verb recurs in the same passage with a similar meaning, that we might also translate as ‘treat’.

Do everything that you can, Guicciardini later counsels, to have yourself entertained well (intrattenervi bene) among princes and the estates that they rule.26 It is not as if the word meant something entirely different to its current acceptation. The modernity of the conception can be witnessed in Guicciardini’s century. For example, Bandello, writing to Baldassare Castiglione, describes the joyful festivities and sumptuous banquets in Milan, music and other virtuous entertainments (onesti intrattenimenti). One of them, a performance of a farce, held the joyful company in the greatest pleasure. The windows to the east admitted fresh air and after dancing, the lieta brigata turned to discourse.27 In a later novella, Bandello also speaks of a garden where one could well entertain oneself with some decent and pleasant discourse;28 and Giorgio Vasari, also writing in the mid sixteenth century, describes how sometimes fatigue gets the better of artists: they cannot face up to the challenge and become lazy and cowardly, indulging rather in entertainments (si intrattengono più volentieri) with chatter and drinking by the fire, relinquishing all vigour of soul.29 So too, Vasari tells of the desire of the Paduans to keep Donatello in their city: in order to entertain him or keep him (per intrattenerlo) they commission him to make relief sculptures beneath the main altar at the Church of the Minor Friars. The term is used in a similar sense of ‘retain him’, ‘keep him here’, with Perino del Vaga. The most light-hearted entertainment arises when Vasari narrates that in his last days, the sculptor Verrocchio made a joke in hospital that he needs a bit more fever in order to remain entertained in the hospital in comfort and service;30 but even this circumstance tellingly involves an arrangement and a privilege: to ‘keep me here’. In most of Vasari, entertainment has a positive connotation but it is nevertheless transactional.

In French, the same observations hold; though occasionally, the term indicates a more autonomous humour, as when the philosopher Montaigne describes his aspiration to a contented retirement in which he can think of no greater favour to his spirit than to entertain himself in full leisure.31 Montaigne also describes his interaction with a company of Germans who spoke no French but excellent Latin: they entertained me in nothing but Latin.32 In French, the very word for conversation or discourse takes the same form as entertainment (entretien),33 rather like the form of the German conversation (Unterhaltung), literally under-holding, where the French is inter-holding.

In sixteenth-century French we also find the meaning that we retain today of considering or contemplating: it would be better to entertain some sterling foundations of truth.34 From there, it is highly suitable for baroque convolutions, as in Shakespeare: ‘Until I know this sure uncertainty / I’ll entertain the offer’d fallacy.’35 That means: I will accept the suggestion, perhaps with an air of condescension. To entertain in premodern cultures sometimes has the reverse sense to the one prevailing today, where one entertains in the sense of granting an audience rather than having an audience and making it laugh. A good example is Shakespeare’s character Rosencrantz who admonishes Hamlet over his morose disposition against humanity when the actors have turned up to perform a play: ‘what lenten entertainment the players shall receive from you’.36 We would say that the players entertain Hamlet; instead, Hamlet entertains the players. For Shakespeare, Hamlet is the patron, so it is Hamlet who entertains by virtue of indulging the players. To entertain somebody is to give your time to them and hence dispense your grace. It is Hamlet’s prerogative, not the players’.

To be ‘worthy your lordship’s entertainment’ means that his lordship will endure a meeting: the person in authority—the patron who controls time—is the one who entertains, not vice versa. This meaning persists in contemporary language, where we entertain visitors or dinner guests, have them over for the evening and provide an extravagant table for them. In the same economy that Derrida identifies with the gift, the guests are in some sense obligated by this generosity; and until they feel compelled to reciprocate, they are in debt.37 To acquit this debt, they must entertain you in return; and if they do so more extravagantly than you did at the outset, you will in turn go into debt.

Perhaps to relieve the tension inherent in the relationship, entertainment could be built on a commercial basis, where it is provided for a fee. It is the structure of theatre and restaurants, elements of a happy society that accord payment for services in a free market. Throughout the periods examined for the roots of our concepts, the term entertainment was developing as a commercial cultural proposition, as one can see in a preamble to one of Goldoni’s plays in the eighteenth century, where the genial playwright describes the exemplary Signor Antonio Grimani who led a life of charity in his retirement after having acquitted himself of every duty as a good citizen; but after having satisfied the pious inclination of his heart, he was still keen on recreating the spirits with noble and honest entertainments (intrattenimenti), whence he admired Goldoni’s comedies.

When a lecturer self-consciously entertains the class with jokes or harmonica or funny cartoons, however, these arrangements do not resolve themselves as paid entertainment, because there is no trade or agreement that the funny act deserves the door charge. Instead, it is gratuitous in a structural sense: the lecturer performs the joke or guitar solo as an unconditional extra, hoping that it will pay off by creating admiration or perhaps a happy mood or light relief. In this aspiration, the entertaining lecturer recedes to the position of player or clown of the early modern period: will the audience indulge him or her with their polite attention or, recognizing authority in those who judge, will the audience entertain the lecturer?

The motif is unstable and tense in a way that has nothing to do with learning. If the audience laughs, the lecturer is in credit and the students owe him or her a bit more attention and admiration. If the audience does not laugh, the lecturer must attempt to recover, a bit like a lover committing a faux pas and having to overcome the embarrassment and re-establish trust and innocence. For a spell, the lecturer will be in the audience’s credit, anxious not to be seen as awkward or gauche, a fool or a loser. And if both lecturer and audience are concerned about these outcomes while the impressions are psychologically negotiated, it is hard to imagine much learning taking place.

Entertainment is only one strategy for achieving student engagement; and it may be unself-conscious and endearing. Some lecturers have natural charm, which should be respected, of course. If students are asked if the class or the teacher is entertaining, responses will naturally vary; and, provided that there is no inverse relationship with learning, the entertaining aspect is likely to remain popular as a means of engaging students. Lecturers with a skill for gaining comic credit are likely to be favoured with the large class; and, alas, student audiences can be quite demonstrative in their intolerance of a boring lecturer. Sadly, however, the ability to animate the content as content is easily collapsed with comic talents; and so the faculty of engagement is misconstrued as a theatrical condiment rather than a narrative or interlocutory aptitude proper to the content.

If this misunderstanding occurs, it fulfils the historical paradigm by which our vocabulary of engagement has slipped from negative to positive meanings under aesthetic privilege. The lecture is seen as a performance and the beam of light controlled from the lectern is the proscenium arch. The terms of the interaction are theatrical and the way that the lecturer snares the audience puts his or her rhetorical gifts to the test. If the content is animated as content, we have no quarrel with the lively lecture, because this process of animation is proper to the intellectual grasp of the material. But insofar as it is framed by an artful construct of entertainment, it is more likely to damage learning than enhance it.

When, on the other hand, engagement is sought though participatory strategies, there are fewer risks of an aesthetic distraction constructed around the lecturer’s ego. Students are organized into collaborative groups and are asked to solve problems together, thus activating the process rather than passively—so the theory goes—attending a lecture and absorbing the content. Certainly, if that is the choice, we would not deny the greater efficacy of an active or participatory mode of learning. But the contemporary wisdom on collaborative participatory learning paradoxically invokes engagement with its ancient emphasis on the contractual.

Learning is construed as a learning task: a job is set and a convention for splitting up the contribution of participants must be established. Though this process is understood as liberal, emancipating the student from an assumed passivity in the lecture theatre, we are in fact led to a somewhat managerial paradigm. Learning through the workshop is more likely to instil process skills in teamwork, projection and leadership than content in physics or grammar. If, on the other hand, we think of learning as integral with reflexion—much the same kind of reflexion that we need for research and originality—it is less clear that collaborative forms of engagement are helpful; indeed, they may even discourage reflexion. Meanwhile, the maligned lecture may stimulate high degrees of reflexion, including when its very theatricality casts a coloured light on the content. It depends on the individual and the discipline; but nothing is more engaging than the faculty of critical deconstruction, and it is totally free of the contractual bonds and ties of archaic engagement.

To perceive the listener in the auditorium as passive is fair when the content is factual and when the communication is purely transmissive. But in many cases (as in humanities and social sciences), the lecture can be understood as a representation with selective material and an interpretation that is highly available to the student’s critique. Far from passively absorbing content, the student may be furiously seeking the reasons for the lecturer’s bias or misguidedness (in his or her critical estimation) and may spend time pondering the appropriate correction. This form of engagement may or may not be readily socialized—as in a Socratic tutorial—but it is nonetheless powerful, in fact research-friendly, and is free of the obligatory and contractual dimensions of engagement that we have reason to scruple about. One might argue that the prime form of engagement in study is where a person engages with his or her own thought or reading, quite possibly in solitude, which could also be called reflexion. It is what Montaigne meant in speaking of people ‘who make a study of it, their work and their calling, who engage themselves sustainably, in all faith and with all force’.38

Depending on how we define it or think about it, engagement in modern language remains positive and will continue to be sought across all educational settings. But it has a tellingly shady history and, uncannily following some of the dubious motifs revealed in its philology, engagement in education sometimes returns to its roots of a pledge, a bond, a yoke. Perhaps the worst aspect of engagement is that it is very difficult to question, because no one can ever say that we should have less of it; and as a consequence, it is pursued somewhat dogmatically at the expense of things that we may not fully understand; and in fact, we do not fully understand engagement either, especially in some of its monitoring guises which are so inimical to creativity, the privacy of the imagination and student dignity. The history of the concept and its many contingencies throws helpful light on a dimension of learning and teaching that needs urgent review; because if we are to create a creative university, we will at times need emancipation from the engagement that we are mechanistically fixated on.

1 Robert Nelson, ‘Toward a history of rigour: an examination of the nasty side of scholarship’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 10, no. 4, October 2011, pp. 374–387 (doi: 10.1177/1474022211408797).

2 ‘il engagea pour quinze cens.’ Marguerite de Navarre, L’Heptaméron des nouvelles 2.15.

3 Essais 1.14.

4 ‘qu’à mesure que je m’engage dans la maladie’, Essais 1.20.

5 Essais 2.12.

6 Essais 1.23.

7 ‘il ne reste plus ordinairement, pour s’engager tout à faict à l’estude, que les gens de basse fortune qui y questent des moyens à vivre.’ Essais 1.25.

8 Essais, 1.39.

9 ‘engageant pour de l’argent leur sang et leur vie à des querelles où ils n’ont aucun interest.’ Essais 2.23.

10 As you like it 5.4.

11 Respectively Richard II 1.3, Love’s labour’s lost 4.3, Hamlet 3.3.

12 ‘Je le vais engager à combattre pour vous’, Racine, Alexandre le Grand 1.3.

13 ‘l’honneur m’inspire … il m’engage à sauver mon empire’, Alexandre le Grand 1.2.

14 Racine, Britannicus 2.3.

15 Racine, Iphigénie 3.6.

16 Julius Caesar 2.1.

17 ‘Que toi seul en effet m’engageas sous ses lois’, Alexandre le Grand 4.1.

18 ‘Engageant Amarante et Florame au discours’, Théante in Corneille, La suivante 1.1.

19 ‘engageant notre foi’, in Corneille, Horace 3.4, Racine, Bajazet 5.4.

20 ‘mon cœur s’engageant sous sa loi’, Axiane in Racine, Alexandre le Grand 1.3; Racine, Andromaque 2.1.

21 Racine, Andromaque 4.1.

22 Racine, Andromaque 4.5.

23 ‘pulchritudo ejus captivam fecit animam ejus’, Judith 16.11.

24 ‘To triumph, like an Amazonian trull, / Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!’, III King Henry VI 1.4; ‘women have been captivate ere now.’ I King Henry VI 5.3.

25 Ricordi 5.

26 Ricordi 174.

27 prologue to Novelle 1.53.

28 ‘bene d’intrattenersi con alcuno onesto e piacevol ragionamento.’ 3.12.

29 Life of Luca della Robbia.

30 ‘per potermi intrattenere qui agiato e servitor’, Life of Andrea del Verrocchio.

31 Montaigne, Essais 1.8.

32 ‘ne m’entretenoient d’autre langue que Latine’, 1.26.

33 e.g. Montaigne, Essais 1.39.

34 Montaigne, ‘entretenir des vrays fondemens de la verite’, Essais 1.32.

35 The comedy of errors 2.2.

36 Hamlet 2.2.

37 Jacques Derrida, Donner le temps, Galilée, Paris, 1991.

38 ‘qui s’engage à un registre de durée, de toute sa foy, de toute sa force.’ Essais 2.18.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson