What is originality?

Academia d'pitori ,Alberti, Pietro Francesco, 1584-1638 ,Etching, black-and-white ,[ca. 1600] ,Romæ Super. permissu--lower left; Petrus Franciscus Albertus Inuentor et fecit--on stool in lower center; P / S / F [i.e. Petri Steffanoni formis]--at bottom (cf. Bartsch).

We all have an intuitive sense of what it means to be original, to exhibit originality.  It is to express something new or fresh, something that has no precedent.

At universities, though, originality almost always follows intellectual rigor. It doesn’t just appear magically out of thin air. In order to be original, you must first know what has come before.

Think of an academic field as an ongoing conversation with the goal of advancing knowledge about its subject-matter.

Before you can say something original in that conversation, you must first listen for a while to the conversation. This is so that you know what’s been said already and why it’s been said.

Otherwise, you risk reinventing the wheel—and signaling to your audience that you’re a newbie who hasn’t taken the time to learn the terms of the discussion.

At most reputable universities, when the faculty aren’t teaching, they’re doing research.  They’re trying to make an original contribution to the conversation in their fields, whether that field is literary criticism, political science, or theoretical physics. They spend their time making original arguments—new claims that advance knowledge in that field.

This approach to their research rubs off on their teaching. What professors look for in the work of their students is this same striving for first, intellectual rigor, and second, originality.

As you make your way through college, your professors will be looking for you to demonstrate your ability to listen, talk, read, and write with intellectual rigor.  And eventually, for the highest performing students, they will eventually come to expect originality in the arguments you make—during class discussions, in exams, and especially in your written work.

Dr. Sean

Dr. Sean

Co-Founder at Readerly
Dr. Sean has over a decade of teaching experience at universities in the US and Asia. He earned a BA with honors from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of London. You can read more about his teaching and research here.
Dr. Sean