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L sing b unds and c nnecting d ts Adventures in multidimensional creative thought


“THE WORLD OUR GRADUATES WILL ENCOUNTER,” writes President Philip Glotzbach in Skidmore’s strategic plan, is “a world marked by conflict, unpredictability, insecurity, and an accelerating pace of change. At the same time, it is a world of unprecedented opportunity for both personal and collective achievement. To comprehend this increasingly complex envi- ronment, our graduates must be intellectually nimble, self- directed, lifelong learners, with the flexibility of mind required to master new fields of inquiry…. To prevail over multi-dimen- sional problems that defy one-dimensional thinking, they must combine analogies and insights from disparate sources.” Accord- ing to interdisciplinary-studies scholar Julie Thompson Klein, “heterogeneity, hybridity, complexity, and interdisciplinarity” have become “characterizing traits” of important knowledge. And Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, outlining a cognitive toolkit for future lead- ers, calls for “the synthesizing mind: the ability to integrate ideas from differ- ent disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole.” Harvard’s Veronica Boix Mansilla, writing in the journal Issues in Inte- grative Studies, notes that interdisciplinary inquiry can “leverage understanding with a clear sense of added value that is unlikely to emerge through single disci- plinary approaches.” Certainly at Skidmore, crossing canonical bound- aries in a creative liberal arts edu - cation is seen as a powerful trans - formative process. Val Wilson, Skid- more’s president from 1957 to 1964, said a comprehensive liberal educa- tion builds a “mature mind ... that probes the truth about itself and its world.” Like Wilson, Glotzbach points to the liberating outcome of such a liberal education: “to free individuals from the grip of received opinion, unchallenged assumptions, and prejudices.” What Glotzbach calls Skidmore’s pervasive interdisciplinary spirit is reflected throughout its liberal education, in everything from its eclectic and collaborative faculty to its freshman Scrib - ner Seminars, Water Resources Institute, Skidmore Analytical Interdisciplinary Laboratory, majors in integrative fields from American studies to neuroscience to gender studies, the new and already popular program in arts administration, and even that venerable classic: classics. Take, for example, Flip Phillips, a psy-


chologist who often works with artists, musicians, and others. A drum-and-bugle-corps veteran who did computer animation for the Pixar movie studio before joining Skidmore’s faculty, he has blindfolded sculptors and nonsculptors to compare their recognition of abstract shapes by feel alone. This year he’s advis- ing one senior project testing musical rhythm-keeping and an- other examining athletic reactions.


Under Phillips, Jared Spencer ’11 is studying “synchroniza- tion by drummers playing together and playing with a metro - nome. We’re looking at moments of rhythm change and the effects of external stimuli, such as whether visual cues might help the drummers keep in sync, or whether manipulating their audio feedback by using a metronome with slightly irregular beats or ‘jitter’ might impair their ability to adjust.” Pete Possi- dente ’11 is studying saber fencing in his thesis. First he’s making videos of fencers —all dark except for white dots at elbows, wrists, and other key points (including the sword’s)—as they make attacking moves. Then he’ll play back the videos and monitor how other fencers respond with parries and blocks. He hopes to demon- strate “where the crucial infor- mation is localized”—do the defenders focus on an attacker’s shoulder? wrist? blade move- ments?—“or whether it’s more dis- tributed.”


A MULTIDIMENSIONAL GRAPH TRACES AN ATTACKING FENCER’S MOVEMENTS ACROSS TIME. EACH COLOR REPRESENTS A WHITE DOT ON HIS BLACKOUT SUIT—FROM HIP AND KNEE, TO HEAD AND SHOULDER AND HAND, TO THE SABER TIP. HOW DO OTHER FENCERS REACT TO SUCH FAST-MOVING SENSORY INPUT TO PLAN THEIR PARRIES?


According to some theories, a trained fencer or drummer has reac- tions “preloaded” as discrete sets of movements and simply “fires” one at the right moment, but Phillips says his lab treats perception and action in such situations as “far more online or eco-


logical—as a complex, dynamical system that’s intimately tied to the environment as it changes. Perception is not just the taking in of information but is part of an ongoing interaction.” The human brain, in other words, is an interdisciplinary life- long learner. And Skidmore’s brand of integrative, creative thought suits that notion nicely. The following stories—of inno- vations inspired by the Tang Museum, commentary by the hold- ers of interdisciplinary professorships, and the careers forged by alumni with self-determined majors—illustrate how the College is fostering boundary-bending exploration as a key to what the strategic plan calls “the knowledge most worth having.” —SR


WINTER 2011 SCOPE 11


COURTESY OF PROF. FLIP PHILLIPS


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