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" section.

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."

--DyShaun Muhammad

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