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Creativity & Academia

A conversation with Professor Katie Shester about creativity and the quilt that inspired our 2024 Graphics

The graphics for SHECP’s 2024 Summer programming were inspired by a recent quilt designed and pieced by Professor Katie Shester. We had the opportunity to talk to Katie about her quilting, creative process, and the role she sees for creativity in academia.

Dr. Shester is a professor of Economics at Washington and Lee University, and a core faculty member for the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability as well as for the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department. She teaches courses such as Urban Economics, Women in the Economy, and US Economic History. Her current research focuses on maternal health and fertility.

How did you get into quilting?  

I love learning new skills and I love making things. Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to make farmhouse tables, bookshelves, built-in bookcases, mantles, and even a Murphy bed. I started some of these projects out of necessity, but I quickly discovered it’s so empowering and gratifying to be able to do that sort of thing. Quilting is just a different medium.

Quilting is super time-intensive, but this is what I love about it. I enjoy that there are so many steps to quilting. You can buy patterns or design your own patterns, you can buy curated fabric bundles, or select fabrics yourself that go together, you can sew the quilt top yourself and pay someone to quilt the top, batting, and bottom together, or you can do it yourself. If you do the quilting yourself, you can stitch straight lines or crazy complicated doodles. I get inspiration from all sorts of places, and I can make pieces to share with those around me.


What was your inspiration for this quilt?

I started this quilt when I wasn’t feeling very creative. I had a lot of these half-square triangles left over and I wanted to make something but wasn’t sure what to do. So, I turned it into a game — I tried to make as many 4x4 blocks as I could that were all different. For me, this quilt is interesting because it’s not made from a bunch of repeating blocks. There’s no one thing that looks super out of place, and yet no two 4x4 squares are the same either.

How does creativity help you as a researcher?

I love this question because it helps in so many ways! In research, I find questions that I’m curious about, and then try to figure out how to answer them. What are potential explanations? How could I measure them? If I can’t find my dream data, can I answer the question in a slightly different way? Good problem-solving often requires creative solutions.

How about as a teacher?

In teaching, I am constantly tweaking my courses, thinking about the best readings to cover, how to best explain the material, the most interesting and applicable examples. On assignments, I want students to be able to apply what they’ve learned in new ways. Students also learn differently, so I try to find ways to make my courses interesting, accessible, and relevant to lots of different students.


Is creativity something we should nurture in all of our students? If so, why?

Yes! Good problem-solving requires creativity. It helps us figure out which questions to ask and how to answer them. So, creativity can boost productivity, but I think it can also make you happy. I think some people don’t see the importance of creativity in a range of disciplines and how creativity is a needed skill, just like knowing how to use statistical analysis software.


We are working to prepare students for a lifetime of professional and civic efforts to diminish poverty and enhance human capability— what is the role, that you see, of creativity in this type of work?

If there were simple solutions to poverty, I would like to think that we would have already found them. These issues are so important and there really aren’t any easy answers. We need people to think outside of the box and this means working with people who bring a diversity of experiences, thought, and skills to the table. Just like a quilt, that is made up of so many different pieces of fabric we can create something spectacular when we all work together. Nurturing students’ creativity is the first step towards this goal.


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