CFP: Special Issue on Improvisation and the Liberal Arts


Improvisation and the Liberal Arts

Call for submissions

Special issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation

Guest edited by Jason Robinson, Mark Lomanno, and Sandra Mathern

Like improvisation, the liberal arts advance our understanding of how individuals and communities interact with and relate to one another and derive meaning from human experience.  In this special issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, we aim to present scholarship, creative work, and pedagogies that positions improvisation (in any expressive modality) within or in relation to the liberal arts, broadly defined.  We take the “liberal arts” to refer to several interrelated concepts: a type of intellectual inquiry for which reason, analysis, and interpretation are primary modes; a particular type of educational institution that centers this philosophy, namely, the liberal arts college; a concatenation of academic fields (artes liberales) and an educational system that trace back to ancient Greece; and a pedagogical system that has served as the basis for the modern higher education.  Today the liberal arts are both a mode of inquiry and a fundamentally interdisciplinary space— striving to privilege no particular field, to embrace equally the humanities, the arts, and the sciences, and to nurture and create connections across these disparate disciplines—within which different knowledges come together to create a broader, more collaborative and community-oriented understanding of humanity and our various perspectives and locations within the world.

The rapidly expanding field of improvisation studies activates wide-ranging interdisciplinary perspectives on improvisation, frequently embodying critical and creative ontologies common in the liberal arts.  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; film and media studies; gender and sexuality studies; linguistics; literary theory; musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory; neuroscience and psychology; performance studies; philosophy; theology; and elsewhere.  Within these numerous, overlapping discourses, improvisation emerges as a “polymorphous” and “polysemic” human activity. (1)  Similarly, George E. Lewis suggests that “improvisation is everywhere but it’s 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.” (2)

For the liberal arts, improvisation serves as a model of engagement with the world that brings together critical thinking and creative activity in dialogic and non-hierarchical ways.  Such a critical/creative model for interaction and knowledge production illuminates processes of individualism, collectivism, and community formation; promotes empathy and understanding across social and cultural boundaries; encourages negotiation, debate, and consensus; and emphasizes listening, attending, and active participation in the world.  We anticipate that contributions to this special issue may address, but are not limited to, the following questions:

  • How does improvisation engage and activate modes of critical thinking, creativity, and knowledge production in ways that draw from, intersect with, or forward the liberal arts?
  • How does improvisation serve as a model or suggest new kinds of interdisciplinary studies within liberal arts?
  • What new pedagogical models emerge from the practice of improvisation within the liberal arts?
  • In the context of the liberal arts, how is improvisation practiced and theorized in fields traditionally associated with improvisation (music, dance), as well as within fields in which improvisation is a more novel concept?

We invite proposals from scholars and artists whose research, creative work, or teaching engages or resides within the liberal arts, defined as broadly as possible.  Proposals may include:

  • Scholarly essays
  • Position statements
  • Documentation and analysis of one’s creative work (choreographic practices, musical performance, modes of composition, collaborative projects, etc.)
  • Interviews
  • Media-rich presentations

Proposals should be no more than 500 words and must be sent via email to Jason Robinson ( no later September 1, 2015.  Accepted proposals will be notified by November 1, 2015.  Full submissions of accepted proposals are due no later than May 1, 2016.

(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.

(2) 2011 University Lecture at Columbia University

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