On a recent afternoon, three Emerson first-year students—Liam Hefferman, Emily Kidd, and Nate Smith—were pitching a new magazine, Emerdaughter, billed as a “woke Vogue” for college students who weren’t quite ready for The New Yorker.
The trio was thrown together the week before at random and were pitching to a faculty member they had only known for a couple of weeks, even though it was more than halfway through the semester. Yes, they were learning to pitch. But what mattered was not so much whether Senior Electronic Publisher-in-Residence John Rodzvilla bought their ideas, but how they brought their own skills, personalities, and collaboration styles together to create something.
The students are part of the first cohort of Emerson’s new Business of Creative Enterprises major, and the class is Creative Collaboration, part of BCE’s core curriculum.
“It’s so needed, because even though creativity is very personal, where it happens in the work world and in life in general is when you’re collaborating,” said Brenna McCormick MA '06, executive-in-residence in Marketing Communication and lead teacher of BC 111.
The class begins with McCormick teaching students about different collaboration styles and what they mean in practice.
Then students cycle through three “industries,” taught by guest faculty, where they learn about the different roles that make each field tick, as well as the work that one might encounter in those worlds. For each unit, the groups are jumbled so that students collaborate with different classmates every time.
In Rodzvilla’s publishing unit, students will ultimately come up with a concept for a digital content platform using the Agile Project Management model. Before that, Billy Palumbo '10 MFA '14, an affiliated faculty member in the Visual and Media Arts Department, had them create a two-minute film project. For the final unit—marketing—McCormick will tie it all together by having them create a campaign to market either their film or their content platform.
But the common thread throughout the semester is the “soft skill” of collaboration, which not only propels them through the various projects in the course, but along with creative thinking, will form the foundation of the Business of Creative Enterprises major itself, McCormick said.
“The creative economy is idea-led, so being able to pitch and ideate, as well as work in a team… these are core skills for any creative industries, any companies synonymous with the creative economy: Google, Pixar, Netflix,” she said.
Ways of working together
In the fall, students all took Intro to the Creative Economy, so they already had a certain familiarity when they came into Creative Collaboration, McCormick said. But this semester they’re learning which parts of their personalities surface in a group dynamic and how to work in an “ensemble” that respects everyone’s ideas and best utilizes everyone’s style.
One way of looking at how people interact in groups is to look at the directional model: North and South (leaders and cheerleaders) and East and West (dreamers and doers). Liam Hefferman discovered that he is an “East thinker.”
“I’m big on the vision and the long-term goals,” he said. “I have to have someone pull me by the neck out of the atmosphere and say, ‘We’ve got to get things done.’”
Hefferman could probably benefit from collaborating with Julia Perry, another student in the class.
“I’m definitely very much a leader in groups, and I’m very good at facilitating people while they’re doing work and making sure everyone stays on task,” Perry said. This was something she has long known about herself, but she said the class has helped her “define more clearly” what she was good at.
She also said that in another class that requires teamwork—Creativity in Context, an interdisciplinary discussion course—she finds she works best with a certain student who is also a Business of Creative Enterprises major and is taking Creative Collaboration, even though the two have never actually worked together in McCormick’s course.
Palumbo, the VMA faculty leading the film unit in the class, said the students came to him with varying levels of experience and knowledge of filmmaking, but for his final project assignment, he gave them carte blanche to be as expressive and creative as possible.
“I wanted to put four or five of those people in the room together to see what kind of self-expression they would come up with,” Palumbo said. “They came up with some totally off-the-wall ideas and ran with it.”
One group did a film of them redesigning the American flag to reflect their own values, with a Black Lives Matter symbol where the stars are and rainbow stripes. Another group did a meditation on light, with each student shooting illumination in a different way.
Palumbo said in the short time he led the class, he noticed changes in the way students talked to one another. He saw students who were reluctant to take center stage on a project step up, and he saw natural leaders start to back off and let others take the reins.
“It was actually really cool,” Palumbo said. “It was only three weeks. I didn’t expect I would see these big changes; I thought that would be a semester-long process.”
The Creative Collaboration class is one of the first building blocks in a program that is almost the inverse of traditional business majors. The Business of Creative Enterprises starts with a strong foundation of skills such as creative thinking, collaboration, and aesthetic sensibility; moves into best practices; and finally “hard” business skills, such as accounting and management.
“I think the program and the students are doing really cool things,” McCormick said