Life Lessons From Patti Smith

I finished reading Just Kids last night - Patti Smith's incredible memorial to her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I am grateful that she let me into her world and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the social nature of creativity.

August 28, 2012

I finished reading Just Kids last night - Patti Smith's incredible memorial to her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I am grateful that she let me into her world and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the social nature of creativity.

Smith's working-class voice and sensibility made for a down-to-earth exploration of friendship, love, art, creativity, poverty, inspiration, and community-building. She did a fantastic job of illustrating the link between how the work we are able to do is directly related to the type of community we build and live within, and the people we choose to interact with.  (This was my read of the book; others may focus more on the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll).

Within the realm of education, I think there are several relevant lessons from Just Kids.

First - WORK HARD - Smith and Mapplethorpe were obsessed with their creative work: drawing, painting, making collages and altars, writing poetry, creating their daily costumes. Although Smith's depiction may be a bit romanticized, it is not a stretch to see this type of creative obsession in some of our students and fellow faculty members. I appreciate the fact that she does her part to debunk the genius paradigm.

Second - BUILD COMMUNITY - Part of building upon your past mistakes and successes requires creating community; solo creative work takes its toll. When most of the people you interact with don't get it and are constantly questioning why you waste your time painting, writing poetry, writing books, or studying obscure literary movements, it is very difficult to continue to push yourself. Smith thoughtfully shows the reader how different creative communities were crucial to her evolution as an artist. From this retrospective view, she carefully describes those who helped her, pushed her, encouraged her, inspired her and also, those who turned her off and discouraged her. She was wise to avoid the nay-sayers and to intentionally build a community of muses, coaches, and supporters. Ideally, our classrooms and departments would represent a space where we could encourage a collaborative and supportive environment, an incubator of sorts.

Third - SEIZE OPPORTUNITIES - In the 60's/70's, in Smith's life, this involved being at the right place at the right time - the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB's, the Factory, Max's - all of this built on community. It was about being in conversations with people who could push her ideas and her art but who could also offer her opportunities: roles in films and plays, performances at clubs, and funding for her (ad)ventures. Similar conversations happen across our campuses - how do we bring the right people together in discussions that create opportunities for students and professors? How do we encourage our students and faculty members to take creative risks and try out new ideas?

For the sake of brevity in this blog post, I’d like to focus on the second lesson and our roles in building community as a space to facilitate hard work and opportunities. How can we apply Smith’s lessons about the importance of community to the realm of higher education?

While the majority of the scholarship on the socializing aspects of higher education has focused on students, much of it applies to faculty as well. (See Stevens, Armstrong, and Arum (2008) on college campuses as “incubators” that shape our social experiences). It is important for a professor to keep in mind as she manages her class, but it is equally important for a chair or dean to realize as she leads her department or college.  We are creating a community that is, hopefully, a creative and nurturing community.  

Through sheer force of personality and luck, Smith and Mapplethorpe worked incredibly hard to create an incubator for their creativity. This is what happens in our classrooms, our departments, our dorms; while the student services folks have always understood this, academics have been less intentional about building community and incubating creativity. Some of us do it very well and some of us fail miserably.

Many academics find community through their professional societies and this can have severe limits on creativity: disciplines are interested in maintaining boundaries and gate-keeping within societies is rampant; some societies intentionally facilitate competition over collaboration and facilitate an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust; and too many of the same types of people thinking the same types of thoughts can be stultifying rather than inspiring. The same can be said for departments and colleges within larger universities.  The life of the mind requires inspirational muses, supportive cheerleaders, and coaches who will push us. Creating an incubator that facilitates building this type of community is challenging. Many of us choose to create this type of environment in writing groups outside of our institutions and others find validation for their work in their local communities.

If Smith and Mapplethorpe had been "just kids" in 2012, they probably would be going to college this fall and it is likely that much of their creative work would be happening in online communities. This is where I am witnessing obsessive hard work, intentional community building, and entrepreneurial opportunity seizing.

The next Patti Smith may be a new student in your class this semester or a new faculty member in your department - how do you support their creative work and where do you find support for your own work?


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