Thinking outside the box

How can we be original in academia?

It’s Friday night, and I feel a little like Frankenstein assembling together human body parts as I sift through piles of journal articles in darkness, trying to patch together some kind of thesis that could be passed off as ‘original thought’. After all, that’s a necessary tick-in-the-box if what I’m hoping for is a HD for this English Literature essay.

Miles away from high school, which liked to spoon-feed us information, university treats us like adults who aren’t ready to be adults yet. We’re told that our perspectives matter — but only if we back it up with plenty of scholarly evidence.

Maintaining this equilibrium between originality and research — between saying something fresh and saying something persuasive — can be difficult. As Charlie Brookes, a second-year English and History student, observes, “I’m young and impressionable so if I like the way someone has approached a subject, I then find it hard to think outside that approach.”

“When you’re reading authoritative academic essays, it’s easy to forget they aren’t actually gospel,” he says. “[So] it’s about “finding something you disagree with and asking yourself why.”

Third-year Media and English student Alisha Brown agrees that it’s often “difficult to be original in English because we study texts that have been stripped to the bone with analysis over the centuries.” Her media courses, however, offer much more breathing space for original thought: every amendment, social media trend and event that saturates the news cycle gives students the opportunity to build on academic works.

“Students surprise me all the time,” says USyd Marketing lecturer Jeaney Yip. “Which, to me, is a good sign that they are engaging, thinking, reflecting and putting in their best to be original and critical at the same time.”

Teachers play the dual role of equipping students with fundamentals as well as nurturing them to challenge the status quo, says Professor Yip.

Just as important, says Professor Alan Fekete of the Information Technologies faculty, is teaching students how to apply the fundamentals to different situations. The emphasis here is on practical originality, rather than academic originality. Third-year Computer Science students, for instance, must complete a project where they solve a real-life problem for a client. Because, like fingerprints, no two clients are the same, originality becomes not just necessary but inevitable.

“A big part of it is trying to get across very clearly the message that computing can’t just be following a recipe,” Professor Fekete says.

But second-year Computer Science student Dawei doesn’t believe this message comes through effectively enough, saying that the only time lecturers bring up originality is in relation to plagiarism.

Dawei says that the “pressure to follow a guide” restricts his ability to be creative. With over 20 contact hours per week, computer science is one of the most time-consuming degrees at university and he has found self-learning and investing energy in side projects nearly impossible.

“I can attempt to be original but then I’ll fail every course,” he says. The result: “I just copy what the lecturer says.”

To combat this culture of rote learning and prove that there’s no such thing as the ‘right answer’, Professor Fekete constantly updates, reworks and modifies teaching content. For example, the faculty completely rethinks the whole curriculum every few years, changing alongside an industry that constantly demands new kinds of workers and skills.

Still, teaching demands innovative thought even on a smaller, more trivial scale. “You can’t just use last year’s lecture notes again,” Professor Fekete says. “There are new technologies, the examples change a lot, computer costs and capacity are different every year.”

Professor Fekete then laughs. “There are these old jokes: [The] professor comes into the room, brings out these yellow lecture notes, blows the dust off and reads them. They’re the same notes that was taught when the professor was a student, probably going back to Aristotle… That’s just not the way it is.”

Although the essence of a subject remains the same, “that essence has to show up in new ways,” he says. In originality, we look for ‘ah-ha moments’ that fundamentally change the way we think, that give us warrant to feel just a little hubristic, and that ultimately empower us to solve unique problems in the wider world.