Improvisation in academic life

really like Steve Fuller’s arguments about ‘improvisation’. He rehearsed them yesterday in a post for Sociological Imagination about the originality of conference keynotes:

For about ten years now, I’ve been arguing about the benefits of improvisational performance in academia, not simply as an experience for the audience but more importantly as a way of getting ‘experts’ and ‘luminaries’ to speak unguardedly on what they think about a topic on which they have established a reputation. Indeed, this is how I believe that academics might earn some entitlement to being called ‘intellectuals’. But increasingly I also think that this skill might be vital to the future of the university as a clearly branded institution in a world where just about anything is a ‘knowledge producer’ by default.

More specifically, public academic speaking might serve as a living moment of intellectual experimentation, not simply a reproduction of past thoughts. This means that improvisation should be taught to aspiring academics – and if you think that ‘teaching improvisation’ is an oxymoron, then you know nothing about performance, regardless of all the Judith Butler you’ve been force-fed. (Maybe I’m wrong but invocations of ‘performativity’ in an academic talk’s title is usually a dead zone for intellectual engagement – unless you like to hear about non-humans ‘performing’!)

It reminded me of this experience I had a couple of years ago. I had a talk planned for a conference (albeit only some bullet points in notes on my iPhone I wrote on the train to London) but decided to talk about something else because the talk prior to mine was so thought provoking. I’m not sure about the quality of the presentation but, at least subjectively, it was peculiarly enjoyable to get up and elaborate a line of thought on the fly:

I really dislike using slides. If someone has invited me to talk then I feel obliged to use slides. Much of my antipathy towards slides (beyond the fact that I’m bad at producing them) stems from how difficult I find it to improvise with them. I enjoy presenting most when I have the equivalent of index cards on my iPad – a short series of grouped bullet points. This reminds me what I’m intending to say but usually means I improvise about how and when I say it. On some occasions, it doesn’t work. If someone has gone a bit wrong prior to the event then the lack of planned structure amplifies my situational anxieties and incapacities. But when it does work, I’m a much better speaker if I just stand up and chat.

Blogging represents another form of improvisation. I thought earlier “I want to write something in response to Steve’s post yesterday”. I didn’t know until I started writing exactly what I would find myself writing. Reflecting on it, it’s not a particular surprise in this case. The influence of Fuller’s concept of ‘improvisation’ on me has largely been about public speaking, so it’s not unexpected that a blog post about it has turned into one considering public speaking. But many blog posts are a surprise. I discover a new idea or a new theme when writing. Or I find a new way of looking at a familiar idea. In this sense, I see ‘improvisation’ as intrinsically linked to what I think of as ‘non-linear creativity’:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outine, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

So while I think Fuller’s argument could sound trivial to someone determined to be critical of it, such that it’s concerned primarily with entertaining audiences, it’s actually much more significant than that. There’s immense creative importance in the capacity to think on your feet or, as Nietzsche might put it, to write on your feet

Not with my hand alone I write:
My foot wants to participate.
Firm and free and bold, my feet
Run across the field – and sheet.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude in Rhymes: 52

I don’t think ‘improvisation’ and ‘creativity’ are co-extensive. But I do think that an intellectual environment hostile to improvisation will tend to constraint creativity. If we don’t have space to experiment, to improvise on the spot, it’s unlikely that we’ll have much space for creativity. We may be perfectly free to create but the forms we produce will be familiar and routine. If we have room to improvise then we’ll be better able to cope with what Howard Becker describes as the ‘chaos’ involved in writing:

You can’t deal with the welter of thoughts that flash through your head when you sit at your keyboard trying to think where to begin. No one can. The fear of that chaos is one reason for the rituals that the students in my seminar described. First one thing, then another, comes into your head. By the time you have thought the fourth thought, the first one is gone. For all you know, the fifth thought is the same as the first. In a short time, certainly, you have gone through your whole repetoire. How many thoughts can we have on one topic?

Howard Becker, Writing for Social Scientists, Pg 55

Improvisation makes this chaos into a virtue. It licenses us to jump headfirst into the flux and see what has happened to us once we emerge from it. In the absence of improvisation, the creative flux becomes a problem. It becomes something to discipline through routine and repress through ritual. It means the most live moments of creative production are approached in a way which, to paraphrase Les Back, seeks to assassinate the life within them.

4 responses to “Improvisation in academic life”

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