Perpetual internal negotiations between utility and creativity: Research choices
(a visualization of this blog organized by some metric I cannot remember. I see this as learning in that we are trying to push on multiple fronts simultaneously, to expand our reality further and further. It just isn’t always linear.)
This is rather a personal (re: non mlearning) post so please feel free to skip if you so desire. I find myself reflecting a bit on my career choices, my academic choices (not usually the same thing), and the schism that exists in my own head between what I perceive to be meaningful and creative. I am old enough now (36) to know that life isn’t linear and that all we can expect to do is push on the perimeters of what we know in the hope that the unknown is awesome. In my experience, the unknown has generally been awesome and so I am thankful for that. I have always tried to trade up, always tried to work hard, take nothing for granted, and generally tried to better myself.
I have generally surrounded myself with people who have meandered much the same way I do, making all of it seem so normal. But I confess it isn’t always that. I grew up in a wonderful family (wonderful=nuclear and loving) in a not-so wonderful city (Youngstown, Ohio). I was an average student (apathetic, really) prone to bouts of introspection (and depression) and clumsy creativity (lots of bad verse and poetry floating around somewhere). I dreamt of far-of places, exotic locales (Europe seemed exotic to me at the time), and imagined art would be the vehicle to take me there. I was of an artistic temperament without being an artist; it was a creativity hellbent on reconstructing a reality that I knew was insufficient. I went to university, majored in Education, failed student teaching (yes, I somehow managed to do that through some combative experiences with my mentor teacher), became embittered, but did it again and passed. I then walked around with a chip on my shoulders for about a decade.
I taught for a bit here and there and then answered an advertisement for teachers in Korea and there I went with a few hundred dollars, not a word of Korean, and a youthful irreverence for what is difficult. I didn’t care that this could be difficult. That part all worked out. I met my wife, we stayed in Seoul for a long while, relocated to Princeton, New Jersey for five years and now find ourselves back here in Seoul. My wife and I both got Masters degrees during that time. We talk of Paris as someone we might live and it all seems perfectly reasonable to think that will indeed be the case. London will be in our future as well. My home is anywhere my wife is. I don’t doubt any of this.
Yet I am torn between practicality/perceived meaningfulness and raw creativity. This is reflected most in my research choices. I focus on ICT4D (ICT for Development), Africa in particular, higher education, and mobile learning. All the stalwarts of research for (educational) impact. These are developmental issues and they make sense to me; in general, my creativity is now applied to determining optimal structures for learning in these environments. I find myself again pushing on the perimeters of my reality (and someone else’s reality) trying to expand, expand, expand. But it is a practical, measured sort of expansion, designed specifically to help people imagine what I imagine. To have capacity to better themselves and contribute, if they so desire.
I have had opportunities to pursue research that balances creativity and impact in slightly different ways, with a more favorable split towards creativity (think multimedia/multimodality/etc) and I was torn. I wanted it in some ways, to break free from practicality, to just create (kind of like the hardon collider of the Humanities; smack things together and something might come out of it) , but I ultimately lurched towards the ‘meaningful’ in terms of developmental work. I battle myself on this daily. Is this the wrong choice? Absolutely not. I can happily work in ICT4D for everyone’s benefit and take professional pride in such a decision. One is never bored in that field.
Yet, life being life, I pause and reflect and occasionally lament that other decision not taken. My predilection towards practicality over creativity, even in this rarified environment of being an expat. I wonder, wonder, wonder. I struggle for metaphors or analogies to articulate these emotions. I would like to think that the dire straits of many I grew up with influenced my choices in this topic (ICT4D), but they haven’t. I don’t know anyone there anymore (family having moved out of those neighborhoods) and emotionally never returned after I left after high school. I came to ICT4D through a few magical trips to Africa for work, was overawed at the energy and enthusiasm and the sheer ingenuity being demonstrated. I was hooked. I have seen a bit of this elsewhere as well, in Southeast Asia (in Asia anywhere). Raw, undulating energy towards pushing out perimeters further and further. We are restless people and this is a restless place. Much of the world is. I belong here, amidst this din and bustle. And despite all my longing for an artistic, creative reality, this is my environment, where I will labor. It has to be. Yet, your heart doesn’t always agree with your head.
This post is full of contradictions, as it should be. We never really put old dreams to bed; they linger in the ambient flow and reveal themselves in times of uncertainty. My research is an extension of this battle and I would like to think these battles (or perpetual negotiations, if that is nicer) occur throughout society, globally. Yet, I know ICT4D is my world. I do. But the heart just wants to create.