Fifteen years ago, I began to experiment with the power dynamics between my students and I and among students. Those experiments drew me to notice the influence of those power dynamics on the students' creative output. In the process, I observed several factors that influenced the way their creative mind worked.
The first factor to come to the forefront came from observing their online experience. I noticed that they were infinitely more brutal but also more expressive in their online interactions. Their "wit" was sharper in the digital realms. Of course, we are all recoiling at the brutality of online interaction in social media today. That social interaction tends to be antagonistic, battle-like and destructive. Still, their ability to find a new turn of phrase, a new visual explanation of a conflict was remarkably more creative than their writing assignments.
It took a while to accept the fact that, although I thoroughly disagree with the race to the bottom of ideas and the violence of interactions in the social media realm, that realm, at its core, unleashed a much more interesting, freer and ultimately creative set of patterns than anything I had seen on assignments.
As I began to prod, I realized that part of the creativity was derived from the "riffing," the “jamming” on each other's ideas the students were engaged in. I began experimenting with ways to duplicate the creative output and created or modified a series of exercises in the classroom to guide them into the kind of collaborative interaction I was seeing online.
Soon, it became clear that, while their quality of writing improved, their creative output reverted to the expectations of their own power dynamics—the students that had dominated the class were more creative than the students who fell further down the power structures of the class. All output bent towards what their idea of a "good" or “interesting” assignment was--slightly shocking (pregnancy, drug use, sexual or physical abuse), with sentences of similar length and structure; using multi syllabic or latinized words regardless of speaker or audience. In dramatic pieces, students reverted to descriptions of theme, spoken by a protagonist, towards the end of the piece and a chronological description of events, killing all suspense in their writing.
In my classes, access to technology has always been problematic, but students had very consistent access to phones. Those became the go-to gateway for quick notes and prompted writing. As I began to experiment in ways to disrupt the power dynamics that kept students from unguarded collaborating, I realized that any anonymous interaction brought about a freer persona to the classroom.
I began to use Google Docs for collaborative games. When students used laptops, their names were visible, but when they used their phones, their names were anonymous. I began to notice a marked difference in the creativity of the writing when their names did not appear.
In the end, we collaborated together to come up with a variety of exercises, some of which I have kept tweaking over the years. The button at the top of this page will take you to some.