Epstein uses Internet to create virtual community of scholars
In an age where interdisciplinary perspectives are quickly becoming the
standard in academic inquiry, new modes of information generation and exchange
are being developed. Addressing the issue of "Collective Improvisation:
Creative Community Building," Mikhail Epstein, associate professor
of Russian Studies, was the featured speaker at the Oct. 29 Chaplain's Tea.
Epstein presented his procedure of collective improvisation as a way in
which productive interdisciplinary communities can be created.
Epstein began the conversation with a brief description of how the idea
of interdisciplinary exchange developed and flourished in Moscow before
its ascendance in the West. According to Epstein, the popular fascination
in interdisciplinary problem solving, "was connected to some traditions
of Russian spirituality and Russian mentality which tries to avoid the narrow
specialization that is characteristic of western tradition. The Russian
way to think of things is more holistic."
While living in Moscow, Epstein noticed that in meeting with intellectuals
from different disciplines, people often "removed their specific interests"
from their shared conversations. He noted that these exchanges yielded very
little because they became "common" in the overly structured attempt
to communicate. "One would think that when three or four very talented
people came together, it would be a feast of God; it would be a multiplication
of `talentness,'" said Epstein. "On the contrary; it was the neutralization
and subsequent extinguishing of these potential capacities."
To overcome the situation and to foster a "more creative" form
of exchange, Epstein and his colleagues developed the method of collective
improvisation. In this collective setting, thinkers from distinct disciplines
are brought together to consider a broad fixed topic through a series of
impromptu discussions and writings. After the participants have engaged
in conversation on the topic, they stop to incorporate their thoughts and
reactions in writing. The writings are discussed, and then the participants
write once again to sum up the experience.
"This alternation of conversation and writing proved to be a rather
powerful instrument for creative communication," Epstein said. "Creativity
is dialogue with somebody else's conscience." In the extemporaneous
setting of the collective improvisation model, participants share creatively,
because they are forced to think of new ideas during the meeting.
Epstein, who brought the model to America, claims that it is the injection
of "self communication" that fosters the resultant creativity.
Building on the idea of collective improvisation, he established the INTELNET
(http://www. emory. edu/ INTELNET/), which he sees as, "an international
community devoted to the discussion and promotion of interdisciplinary ideas
in the humanities."
The INTELNET web site attempts to bring scholar's together in a virtual
setting by allowing representatives from different disciplines to deposit
thoughts in its "Bank of New Ideas," investigate relationships
between concepts in the "Thinklinks" section and help develop
new ways of using the electronic environment in its "Intelnetics"
The site has received more than 3,000 visits in the last year and will
likely become more prominent as scholars learn of its existence. Epstein
hopes that the "interconnectedness" of this new use of the Internet
can help to prove his belief that "everything is connected to everything."
to the November 18, 1996 contents page