Oberlin Blogs

Interdisciplinary Extracurriculars

March 5, 2010

Tess Yanisch ’13

When I applied to Oberlin, I knew that it was highly interdisciplinary — that was a large part of what attracted me here. I have always noticed similarities or crossover influences between subjects and found it very exciting, for instance, to understand Walden when I read it in AP English because of what I’d just learned about Thoreau and Transcendentalism in AP U.S. History. I really wanted to continue to draw connections between different areas of study in college.

Another important factor in my decision to come here was the opportunity to do things beyond the classroom — all the student organizations, the co-ops, the intramural and club sports, the ExCos. Learning isn’t limited to books and class discussions, after all: there are other skills, useful or silly, to develop, and there’s something to be said for unstructured human interaction as well.

At the moment, I’m taking introductory classes in psychology and neuroscience at the same time, which is actually a very interesting and helpful combination that makes cross-disciplinary connections much more obvious and applicable. I’m also in the Sunshine Scouts and two ExCos, so clearly Oberlin is living up to my expectations about both interdisciplinary material and extracurricular opportunities. However, I must say that I never expected the two to combine as they have in my life. That is to say, I’m finding that skills I’ve learned working on improv are helping me with my genre fiction writing.

A little background might be useful here. The Sunshine Scouts is long-form improv, meaning we don’t just play funny games, we make up scenes and develop recurring characters. I came to the Scouts with virtually no experience in improv (and not much in general acting either), so I’ve been picking up tricks and advice as I go about how to develop a scene. To start with, you need good characters, a relationship between them, a clear location, and objectives for the characters. Then you let the characters pursue their objectives. Basically, scenes have to escalate somehow--they can’t meander, they can’t be boring, they ought to be going somewhere--and the speed of escalation is important. Two characters cannot simply explode into an argument over a game of Monopoly; unless they are children, that’s not believable. There must be hints dropped in the conversation indicating prior tension in the relationship, and that tension must be slowly built, until the climax of kicking over the board, screaming "I didn’t want Boardwalk anyway!" and storming away is not only understandable, but even satisfying.

The same principles apply in writing. For the Genre Fiction Workshop ExCo, we have to turn in short scenes every week and a full story — ready to be workshopped — twice in the semester. My own particular method of writing is usually to begin with a character or two and/or an interesting setting, which tends to be either a striking visual image or an intriguing social context. The problem is that these scenes tend to become lengthy descriptions: of characters, of cities and sunrises, or of societies. That’s fine for exploring the people and world I’m creating, but even I can notice when (a) nothing’s happening, or (b) it’s getting very difficult to write anything but introspection, philosophy, and description.

I was attempting to write one of these society-exploration pieces last week when I realized it was feeling very forced. When I looked back through it to see if I could figure out why, I realized these characters did not have an objective. That thought didn’t come from the workshop, nor from any English class I’ve ever taken: it came from Scouts practices. It was pure improv thinking, but applied to the process of writing social science fiction. And it was very helpful.

For reasons I cannot fully explain, I found this incredibly exciting. For one thing, it was useful — I couldn’t really come up with a good reason for the scene to be happening, so I scrapped it and used another one instead. (Hopefully I’ll be able to use that setting for something else, though; it was pretty cool.) Mostly, it was about finding connections between different fields and making something better because of it. That gives me the shivers even when it’s not heavily academic fields I’m uniting.

Beyond that, I just like anything that makes me a better writer. For a long time, I have wanted to be a fantasy novelist — in fact, the reason I was interested in Oberlin originally was that Oberlin has a Creative Writing major. I have since heard or read advice from actual fantasy novelists who say, "Be anything but a Creative Writing major! Expand your interests and your knowledge! Then you can write about things besides writing!" Well, okay. I discovered the social sciences in the same time period (through SF and fantasy novels, ironically enough) and decided that people are interesting too, interesting enough for me to major in studying them. I fully intend to take some Creative Writing classes and improve my writing, but I like character-driven stories, and really, the best preparation for creating great characters (besides talking to and observing actual people) is to study human behavior, isn’t it?

So now I plan to work in the social sciences in some capacity. But I still also intend to be a novelist — it’s one of my life goals. The point (which I have been rather fuzzy in making) is that I feel comfortable about not immersing myself in study directly related to that goal. I tend to be focused and Type A about most important things, so this "It’ll all work out somehow" attitude is unusual and very freeing.

The concept that I can accumulate meaningful experience without consciously setting out to do so is both simple and exciting, obvious and empowering. Rich experiences are very easy to accidentally stumble into at Oberlin, and I would argue that ease is a vital part of a liberal arts education.

I think Mark Twain had a good point when he said "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." Of course, I enjoy — and often geek out over — my schooling, but that’s no reason I shouldn’t get educated along the way, especially when it’s so easy and so much fun.

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