In addition to drawing pictures, dancing around my apartment, and getting creative in my tiny, ovenless kitchen, one way that I occasionally try to jog my brain out of dissertation malaise is by going to a local improv workshop. I have no desire whatsoever to perform in front of an audience–given the choice of 1) going on stage in front of people who expect me to be funny without a script and 2) eating a live octopus, I’d probably choose the latter (depends on the size and vitality of said octopus). But improv is a great way to get your head into a totally different space, especially when you feel that your focus has gotten a bit narrow. It can also, surprisingly, offer you a few guidelines that will serve you well in the academic world. For example:
1. Say yes. This is one of the most basic rules of improv. When someone walks up to you and says, “Jane, I haven’t seen you since prom!”, you’re not allowed to say “Prom? We didn’t go to prom together, who are you?” You have to take what’s given to you in a scene and roll with it. In academia, of course, saying yes can be a problem–as a junior faculty member or grad student, you’re often not allowed to say no to a lot of suggestions, requests for committee time, and participation in projects that you really don’t have time for. But I know that I have a tendency to say “no” to a lot of things before I even think about them. These days, I try to say “yes” more often to a few specific things–conferences that I wouldn’t normally attend but that turn out to be really informative, invitations to social events where I make some unexpectedly good connections, and requests to give lectures / presentations that are time-consuming but ultimately teach me a lot just in the act of preparing for them. So if you’re inclined to say “no,” a lot, try saying yes.
2. Somebody has to win. In any improvised scene, at some point someone’s going to have to give way–maybe they simply find a way to exit the scene, maybe they die a dramatic death, or maybe they shift the focus to someone else. When neither party will give way, the scene drags. From an academic standpoint, I translate this to mean “pick your battles.” We all have occasional small (and huge) frustrations to deal with in the form of unreasonable colleagues / superiors, humiliating interviews, dissertation chapters that just won’t come together. In the end, sometimes the best strategy is just to walk away from the fights you can’t win.
3. Run toward danger. Another fundamental improv rule–when your scene approaches a scary place (a monster in the woods, violent conflict with another character), the first instinct may be to run from it. Instead, you’re supposed to run toward it, because that’s what makes for the most compelling scene. This can be a tough one, since in our daily lives so many of us shy away from conflict or risk. In academia, running toward danger might mean taking your dissertation in an utterly different direction after you’ve already written half of it, applying for a job or fellowship that you think you’re utterly unqualified for (but might not be), or even, in some cases, leaving academia altogether. A lot of us get stuck in a mindset of “this is the way I have to do things” to the point that any real risk-taking is ruled out. Kudos to those academics who did a total 180 on their research interests, left the university to become stand-up comedians or organic farmers, or published the books that nobody said they could publish.
4. Listen well. Improv is a two-way (or three-way, or four-way) street, and it’s always depressing to watch an improviser who is clearly interested only in showing off–one who doesn’t listen at all, and just takes the scene in whatever direction they choose without incorporating the work of any of the other improvisers (thankfully this hasn’t happened at the workshop I attend, but I’m sure everyone’s seen something like it before). At some point I feel like this happens to a lot of academics, who become so caught up in their own brilliance that they don’t bother to listen to anyone else. During a Q&A session they’ll nod and smile, but you can tell that they don’t really care about your questions or input. I’m always impressed by professors who give credit to grad students and even undergrads in their publications, citing classroom discussions as a great source of new ideas and directions for their own research. Sure, there’s a lot of meaningless chatter out there, but none of us are so brilliant that we can afford to turn a deaf ear to everyone.
Time to start jogging toward my own danger, in the form of this chapter draft that feels like a very scary monster in the forest…
Oh, and for those academics (and non-academics) in Tokyo who need a break from the daily grind, you can find out more about the improv workshop here.