Models of improvisation

photo by Chris McKenna via Wikimedia Commons, CC A-SA 4.0 License

photo by Chris McKenna via Wikimedia Commons, CC A-SA 4.0 License

Last spring, I was intrigued to read several blog posts discussing the idea of encouraging academic improvisation. Steve Fuller highlighted in his ‘Modest proposal for all future keynotes‘ that there is no point going to listen to academics who say the same things that they have said in publications. We should therefore be expecting more of them – to engage in unguarded experimentation that creates instead of repeating. Additional aspects of improvisation have been addressed in other blog posts – how it draws upon widespread reading, is linked to the non-linear creativity of writing, and might require us to practice as jazz musicians would in order to hone our skills. I find the general argument compelling, in part because improvised public speaking is not constrained by the logic of PowerPoint and has the potential to respond more intuitively to the context and participants. Fuller’s improvised plenary at the BSA Conference in April 2014 also inspired me to engage differently as a listener. Moreover, there is something about embracing the imperfections and spontaneity of ‘live’ encounters that keeps me returning to theater and music productions year after year.

But what exactly is improvisation? While general definitions point to creation with what is at hand, and without preparation, the bloggers’ comparisons with jazz musicians seemed to suggest a more specific type of improvisation based on accumulated skill and training. Years ago, I dabbled in jazz improvisation, and was also involved with improv comedy as a performer and a musician improvising live scores to long-form improvised stories. I have also watched numerous sessions of contact improvisation, a movement system of ‘spontaneous physical dialogues‘. Exposure to each of these practices highlights that they involve much more than speaking or acting ‘off the cuff’. They depend upon systems of rules and conventions that guide interactions between participants (and audiences). Improvisation is always occurring within particular contexts and structures. The question is therefore which academic structures we are seeking to escape and which we are reproducing through experiments with improvisation.

photo by David Olivari via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 2.0 License

photo by David Olivari via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 2.0 License

Starting from some of the principles of specific improv practices suggests what else could be gained by making improvisation a normal part of academic practice. In improv comedy, the interactions between performers are guided by basic rules that include a) don’t deny what other people say, b) there are no mistakes and c) the principle of ‘yes, and…’ wherein you always accept what others tell you as true and then build upon it. Trust is also crucial within this form and within contact improv, which adds a focus on physically supporting and giving weight to your dancing partner. When trying to imagine how these principles might apply to academic settings, it becomes clear that the keynote speech is a poor point of reference because it does not involve the same degree of interpersonal interaction as comedy or dance. Yes, academics may draw upon other authors (thanks to many hours of reading their work), but this gathering together is not the same as live discussion (e.g. round tables). Moreover, academics are regularly taught to break the ‘yes, and’ rule. Always accepting what other scholars say is a sign of weakness in a culture where critique is lauded and ‘new’, ‘innovative’ research is encouraged.

But there are many times when academics are a part of live interactions. The public exhibition I produced with colleagues last April was one such context, in which we found ourselves madly improvising when it became apparent that people were not interested in just silently reading the many posters we had prepared. PhD supervisions and group research meetings are others – and here trust, support, and embracing a sense that there are no mistakes can be crucial for the quality of ensuing results.

As much as I find the idea of improvising public lectures interesting then, I think any attempt to embed improvisation within academic practice would benefit from considering the term, its many models, and their implications in more detail. Though improvisation might be understood as something that frees the mind “from reproducing past social structures“, my experience with improv has been more often about recognizing structures and learning to play within them – realizing how jazz pianists play around with the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes within any chord progression and how new audience suggestions can make the same structure of interactions play out differently (as improv games like those on Whose Line Is It Anyway illustrate). Creating new structures proceeds alongside this recognition of existing ones. The question then is not only to improvise or not improvise keynote speeches or classroom lectures, but why do we continue to prioritize keynotes and lectures in the first place? How might prioritizing trust and support in academic encounters shift our attention – for instance to kindness and slowness instead of competition and speed? What would happen to research and teaching interactions if we created more contexts reproducing ‘yes, and’ instead of ‘yes, but’?

Becoming a writer

Last week I took part in my first structured writing retreat, which was sponsored by my Department and facilitated by wonderful colleagues. Although I was initially unsure about some aspects of the approach – in particular having to name specific goals before each writing session and writing for set periods of time in a room with eleven other people – it ended up being a wonderful experience. The weather and setting were beautiful, and it was incredibly nice to have time dedicated to discussing the writing process, given the fact that most of my interactions with departmental colleagues tend to focus around teaching or administration.

The three days reminded me of the occasions when I have felt most like a writer – like someone who prioritizes writing, schedules a day around it, and feels regularly energized by it. While writers have very different patterns of productivity (and sleep), I seem to find the most focus when I write first thing in the morning, before checking my email. It was the unexpected discovery of this routine (after having long thought of myself as a night owl) during the last months of my PhD that gave me renewed energy and to this day makes me miss the attic room where that writing took place. Rediscovering the pleasure of this routine has been lovely, and I look forward to using it to ground me as the chaos of term time begins.

On the topic of writing, I thought I would post a few other resources that I’ve come across and plan to use in my teaching. While we didn’t speak about teaching writing at all during the retreat, thinking about the writing challenges that still exist for my colleagues and I reinforces my interest in discussing writing with students. One thing I came across is a nice post by Rachael Cayley about how to use reverse outlines to edit a piece of writing. In addition, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings often provides me with interesting ideas to muse over, and part of David Foster Wallace’s discussions of writing struck me as potentially helpful for students:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

– David Foster Wallace

And to finish, another thought from David Foster Wallace that is useful for writers at any stage of their careers:

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

‘Bootlegging thought’ through sounds

Following my last post, and in preparation for what will be a significant amount of engagement work with the DEMAND Centre (more on that later), today I have been catching up on some recent academic experiments with audio. As Les Back argues in a podcast on the Goldsmiths University site, podcasting provides a very different mode of engagement than the tradition of university lectures, where students are expected to learn passively and silently from someone with a clear authority over them. While podcasts still engage aurally, they aren’t as easily controlled – and here he quotes Dizzy Gillespie:

You can’t steal a gift… and if you can hear it you can have it.

Part of the value of podcasting then is that it can’t be controlled, and as such it can become mobile more easily. This gives the medium a political potential for “bootlegging though and insight” as Back suggests, as students take others’ voices for a walk and can perhaps as a result engage differently. Given the fact that prominent researchers like Doreen Massey have discussed how their own ideas often germinate while walking, I think there is considerable potential in this portability of academic voices.

One project that has been exploring this potential is Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart’s recent project on off-grid lifestyles in Canada. While touring the country and speaking with people about their off-grid lives, the pair have been producing short soundbites on their very interesting soundcloud stream. Some are curated around topics like how and why people live off grid, but others just present snippets of participant’s voices: talking about how they deal with an excess of hot water or about a stove that they love. I think these soundbites are exciting because they not only provide a glimpse into people’s lives that is much more vibrant and immediate than what is often available through writing, but they also quite valuably eliminate the filter that can appear and cut public audiences off from academic research. The voices are a gift – perhaps the beginning of a conversation, or even a way to bootleg skills of self-sustainability. Regardless, I think Vannini and Taggart show that there are a lot of possibilities for exploring these audio engagements.

I can’t wait to discover more examples of how people are already giving and receiving through sound-based research and research-based sound.