Combinatory Play: Creative Writing, Mathematics, and Improv

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Winter 2019 and Spring 2019 quarters

Taught by

mathematics, computer science, improvisational theater
book arts, literature, creative writing


Note that there is no math prerequisite for this program. This program is well suited for students who are uncertain of their mathematical skills, or who have had negative experiences with mathematics in the past and are ready for a different kind of mathematics experience.

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought. — Albert Einstein

Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material...  — Italo Calvino

Creativity is not mysterious. While aesthetic traditions, genres, disciplinary assumptions, and even our personal idiosyncrasies often seem to conspire to limit the imagination, the spirit of play is always accessible to us. Perhaps surprisingly, it can take a little mathematics to remind us of it.

Borrowing from the mathematical study of combinations and permutations, the phrase "combinatory play" for us—as for Einstein and Calvino—suggests an approach to creativity in which chosen rules create the conditions under which the mind might escape received ideas and limitations. This strategy works for creative writers building plots and word-smithing, for improvisers developing the instincts necessary for spontaneous storytelling, and for mathematicians struggling at the abstract edges of reasoning. In literary works, such rules range from the strict formal conventions of sonnets to the central axiom of Perec's La Disparition, an entire novel written without using the letter e. Improv performers use audience suggestions, rules of conduct, and predetermined formats to pursue spontaneous invention and narrative discovery. Mathematical thinkers are most invested in the power of rules; formal conventions and a deep commitment to the search for truth lead to rigorous exploration and creative leaps of imagination. In each of these practices, combinatory play becomes a key strategy that drives the work forward. This program will study such strategies, both within and shared between different disciplines, allowing us to better understand the nature of creativity and develop new methods of problem solving, critical thinking, and creative expression.

The regular work of this program will include book seminars, critical writing projects, and weekly workshops in creative writing, mathematics, and improvisational performance. We'll have two overnight retreats to provide time for extended creative collaborations and community building. Credits awarded will reflect student learning and achievement in literary studies, creative and argumentative writing, critical reading, liberal arts mathematics, and improvisational performance.

Note: There is no math prerequisite for this program. It is well-suited for students who are uncertain of their mathematical skills, or who have had negative experiences with mathematics in the past and are ready for a different kind of mathematics experience. Students taking the program for 12 credits will negotiate with faculty an appropriate reduction in workload, but will still participate in learning activities in all content areas.

Program Details

Fields of Study

literature mathematics theater writing

Preparatory For

creative writing, theater, literature, and mathematics.


Winter Open Spring Signature

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning


$125 in winter and spring for overnight field trips.