The Edges of Knowledge

Four areas of study that blur the boundaries between disciplines.

Interdisciplinary innovation stems from UNC Asheville’s classes, programs and undergraduate research projects. Take a look at four areas of study that merge majors, create connections and might change your view of the world.   

Ecomusic-Environmental Science and Music

Consider Pete Seeger singing a protest song about pollution in the Hudson River, or the music created by whale and birdsong. 

Those topics come into focus in Ecomusic, which collapses the boundaries between music and the natural world. 

“I think it’s a mark of our times that we’re beginning to ask whether or not the kind of philosophy that we’ve been applying to music is tired out, and that maybe we should start seeing the environment as an equal partner in our music-making,” said William Bares, assistant professor of music at UNC Asheville and host of the global Ecomusics and Ecomusicologies Conference held on campus this fall. 

The conference appeals to both musicians and environmental activists, at all points on the spectrum. 

“Ecocriticism is meant to turn our attention as scholars and as human beings to the ways we tend to tune out our environment,” Bares said. “And tuning in may be precisely the thing that’s needed right now in order to address the pressing issues that we’ve got.” Ecomusic, as an expression of ecocriticism, is ideally suited to encourage that.

“As a liberal arts campus, we believe that it is through inter- and intra- and trans-disciplinary study and education about issues like sustainability that we will achieve the greatest effect,” said Sonia Marcus, director of sustainability at UNC Asheville, who co-hosted the event.

“To me, the Ecomusicologies Conference is a perfect expression of this academic and philosophical approach that we have here at this institution.”

That intersection took the form of a multimedia performance presented by the Fry Street Quartet and physicist Robert Davies, aptly titled “The Crossroads Project” for addressing climate change and environmental sustainability through a combination of scientific information, imagery, theater and—of course—music. 

Oulipo-Mathematics and Creative Writing

We hold these tubers to be self-evident, that all manageresses are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creek with certain unalienable Rigorists, that among these are Lifetime, License and the pushover of Hardship.

“That’s one of the most well-known constraints in Oulipo—the N+7 algorithm, where every noun in a given text is replaced by the seventh noun following it in an agreed upon dictionary,” explained Associate Professor of Mathematics and University Honors Program Director Patrick Bahls.

Oulipo—an acronym for ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature—requires writers to use special constraints under which to write. Bahls taught a special topics course
in the subject this past summer. 

“It wasn’t so much to produce new works of literature as it was to produce new means of focusing or forcing the way in which one could write literature,” he said.

Other constraints include lipograms, in which a specific letter is intentionally omitted from the text. For example, Georges Perec’s novel La disparition was written entirely without using the letter “e.” 

It may seem silly—and it is, a little.

“The line between what is serious and what is playful can sometimes be blurred,” Bahls said. “But this is the beautiful thing about Oulipian constraint; it really forces a sort of creativity to come to light.”

Adrian Suskauer, a junior double-majoring in history and Spanish, found that source of creativity, though he wasn’t entirely sure what Oulipo was when he signed up for Bahls’ class. He became such a fan of the writing style that he’s considering starting an Oulipian writing group, and he and Bahls have plans to write an Oulipian play together.

“I don’t know why math and literature come together in that way, but they really do work together beautifully,” Suskauer said. “The biggest reason why Oulipo really speaks to me, and why it’s really so effective, is that it’s a way to exert control over our creativity, and by doing so bring out its potential more.” 

“The kinds of constraints that mathematics forces on you are artificial in the sense that you would not discover them if you were ensconced comfortably in literature only,” Bahls said. “I think it helps coming from a perspective outside the discipline to nudge people in another discipline and say, here’s an idea, have you thought of this?”

Creative Fabrication-Art and Computer Science 

You don’t need a paintbrush and easel to create art.
In the Creative Fabrication course, taught by Rebecca Bruce and Susan Reiser, students create art through technology, gaining hands-on experience in the process. 

Students were asked to design and create a number of artistic and functional projects based on the theme of disability. They used a 3D CAD (computer-aided design) software program to create virtual models of their projects, and then turned their designs into reality in the machine shop.

“The notion is that technology can be used creatively for personal expression, for exploring yourself and representing yourself,” said Bruce, professor of computer science and associate director of engineering programs. 

“We were looking for more of the tangible technologies,” explained Reiser, lecturer in computer science and new media and associate dean of natural sciences. “We wanted to combine shop skills and electronics along with computer science in the class.”

For example, engineering major Jason McCrary’s project included an origami hand embedded with red LED lights that pulsated as a representation of arthritis. While the project was primarily an artistic one, it took computer science and engineering capabilities to design it and make it work.

For her final project, mechatronics engineering major Jennifer Cory created an electronic medication reminder—a functional project that required an artistic touch to produce.

“You could program it to store up to so many medications,” Cory said. “So if you had to repeat it every third day, you could. Everything was compact. It had a screen, which told you which medications to take, and a light. It was simple.”

Cory drew inspiration from family members coping with illness and caretaking. She did everything from designing the program to soldering the pieces together. 

“Technology and art don’t seem to go together, but they do,” Cory said. “They have to. You have to be creative to invent.”

Gender & Globalization-Women’s Studies and Sociology 

Connecting multinational corporations and deforestation to uterine prolapse in women is not an easy path to trace, but students in Lyndi Hewitt’s sociology course have taken the steps to discover the link.

How? The answer is complicated, and it lies in the study of globalization and development, and its intersection with women and gender studies.

“Women in parts of the developing world are responsible for gathering water and fuel and firewood for their families,” explained Hewitt, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology. “The gendered division of labor means that those are considered women’s responsibilities.

“As governments and private corporations have destroyed or claimed natural resources such as forests and clean water, women are having to travel farther and farther while carrying wood and water, which are very heavy. This form of structural violence can cause substantial damage to women’s bodies” she said. 

The increased physical strain not only increases their caloric need, which they may not be able to satisfy, it also puts them at higher risk for uterine prolapse, which increases the risk of problems during pregnancy and birth.

“So when we ask questions like how can we improve women’s health in the developing world, or how can we decrease maternal mortality, the answer is not simple,” Hewitt said. 

Hewitt’s course in Gender, Globalization and Development explores a variety of complicated issues like this one, such as violence against women, the percentage of women living in poverty, and women’s participation in the labor force and in political leadership. Students in the course study the works of economists, sociologists, political scientists and feminist theorists to gain a variety of perspectives. 

“You can’t boil it down to one issue,” she said. “You have to address multiple issues, and intersections of those issues in order to craft meaningful solutions.”