AALAC Workshop, November 21-23, 2014, Amherst College
The Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges

Contact: Jason Robinson (Amherst College), jrobinson@amherst.edu

Sponsored by the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges (AALAC), “Improvisation, Interdisciplinarity, and the Liberals Arts” brings together liberal arts faculty from several disciplines whose scholarship, creative work, and/or pedagogies engage improvisation as a fundamental and critically engaged human activity. The workshop will provide opportunities to build collaborative networks among the faculty of AALAC institutions whose work and/or teaching explores improvisation. Participants will learn about the ways in which improvisation studies is taking shape at liberal arts colleges and will explore ways to further integrate improvisation into their pedagogy. While music continues to provide trenchant models for understanding the dynamics of real time human behavior, the burgeoning field of critical improvisation studies forges broad interdisciplinary perspectives and activates core critical methods in the liberal arts. In his 2011 University Lecture at Columbia University, George E. Lewis suggests that “improvisation is everywhere but itʼs very hard to see, because this ubiquitous practice of everyday life, fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, is as close to universal as contemporary critical method could responsibly entertain.    And thus [...] the humanistic and scientific study of improvisation can provide us with new understandings of the human condition.”

There is a significant and growing body of critical studies that focus on improvisation. In the near future, Lewis and Benjamin Piekut (Cornell University) will publish The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, a highly anticipated, extensive, co-edited two volume work dedicated to improvisation at the intersection of numerous disciplines. Indeed, influential work on improvisation is now taking place in a number of fields, including anthropology and sociology; architecture and urban studies; cognitive and computer science; contemplative studies; cultural studies; dance; economics; education; linguistics; literary theory; musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory; neuroscience and psychology; performance, film, gender, and sexuality studies; philosophy; theology; and elsewhere. Within these numerous, overlapping discourses, improvisation emerges as a “polymorphous” and “polysemic”[1] human activity.

For the liberal arts, improvisation serves as a model of engagement with the world that brings together critical thinking and creative activity. Such a critical/creative model for interaction and knowledge production illuminates processes of individualism, collectivism, and community formation; negotiation, debate, and consensus; listening, attending, and active participation in the world. The proposed workshop will explore these processes and their ramifications for the liberal arts by focusing on the following questions:

  • How does improvisation engage and activate modes of critical thinking, creativity, and knowledge production in a liberal arts context?
  • How does improvisation serve as a model of interdisciplinary studies within liberal arts? How might it be incorporated into the curriculum?
  • How might improvisation offer new pedagogical models?
  • How does the burgeoning field of critical improvisation studies encourage new ways of thinking about real time human activity in fields traditionally associated with improvisation (music, dance, theatre)?



1 Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, “The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue,” The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, eds. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004): 31.