Risking It

Jay Billups

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Creative Notes from the Editor


Is it possible to be creative in a structured atmosphere? Is it possible to chart a new course in an environment such as corporations, production, call centers or the military? The short answer is yes. It can be a rewarding experience, but be aware, it will most likely be a painful and challenging voyage.

If you are passionate about what you want to bring about, then any discomfort you endure will be a minor roadblock in your journey.

In my long past military days I taught at the United States Air Force Academy where I operated the war game labs (coding software, maintaining networks, training cadets and instructors). I also taught doctrine courses, such as Air Power Theory and Joint Coalition Warfare. Much of the course content came straight from good ole AFDD-1 (Air Force Doctrine Document 1).
Are you excited yet? Well, I can tell you that it wasn’t a pleasant experience from the students’ point of view … classic case of death by PowerPoint. However, the information we were relaying was extremely important for these young airmen to understand, but our delivery left much to be desired. I knew there had to be a better way to get the concepts across to our students.

I started to experiment with some untested and unsanctioned teaching methods. First and foremost was ditching the prepackaged presentations and changing the format and even getting out of the classroom. I created a variety of exercises and activities using mini-nerf footballs (bombs), squirt guns (anti-aircraft defense systems), walkie-talkies, bottles of water (1 liter for fuel tanks, gallon jugs for refueling aircraft) and the list went on. The basic idea was to create different ways to get the doctrine concepts across in an engaging, fun (gasp), and/or entertaining (double-gasp) ways.

My students loved it, they were picking up the concepts and were actually able to apply them to scenarios. However, my bosses and fellow instructors were not so impressed. I was called into the office on multiple occasions to explain myself. I was flat out told not to do some things again. I was criticized by other instructors because my methods seemed to lack academic rigor. Also, it wasn’t our job to entertain our students – they should want to learn just by being in the presence of our knowledge. So, I knew I must be on to something!

I was passionate about the subject matter (yes, Air Force doctrine) and I was passionate about teaching, so I kept on pushing it. I’m not sure if it was pure will, improved student results (and evaluations), my obvious desire to improve the courses, or leadership exhaustion … eventually, my commander and fellow instructors (some of them) began to come around and see some value in what I was doing. So much so, that I was asked to teach some of my methods and exercises to Military Strategic Study faculty.

My Air Force teaching career culminated in being recognized as one of the outstanding academic educators of the year; something I’m extremely proud of to this day.  The journey was difficult and combative at times, but, in the end, extremely rewarding. I’ve even received several letters from former students noting some positive impact and how they are applying it to their career … doesn’t get any better than that!

Things worked out well for me, but they could have gone another direction. It would have been a great learning experience, no matter the outcome. This was one of those life moments that I can point to that has led me down the path to understanding the importance and power of creativity.

So, is there a risk to being creative in certain environments? Absolutely! However, only you can decide if you want to follow your passion and only you can decide if you want to make a difference.  jb

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