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People work on a chalk timeline on the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge.

Students add historical events to a timeline on the Washington Avenue Bridge, part of the Institute for Advanced Study's two-year symposium on time.

Right on time

Institute's timeline project kicks off two years of focused interdisciplinary exploration

By Jim Thorp

Sept. 22, 2006

Pedestrians on the Washington Avenue Bridge were given the chance to rewrite history last Tuesday--with sidewalk chalk. Historic and geologic timelines running the length of the bridge gave passersby a firsthand look at how our perception of time differs based on scale: eras and epochs versus ages and years.

The timeline event kicked off the Institute for Advanced Study's 2006-08 University Symposium, an interdisciplinary look at how we perceive time. According to institute director and history professor Ann Waltner, time was selected to spark discussions between disciplines as diverse as geology, philosophy, physics, history and dance. Throughout the coming year, the University community will be invited to take part in wide-ranging events including:

The idea behind the University Symposium is the concept at the core of the institute: To bring diverse scholars together to interact in ways they wouldn't otherwise. According to Waltner, time itself is one of the factors driving the need for such interdisciplinary activities on campus.


The Institute for Advanced Study:

>> Brings together exciting new work from across the University community.

>> Provides a place where faculty and students can meet for presentations, performances and discussions.

>> Sponsors "Research and Creative Collaboratives" in which scholars and artists come together to work on interdisciplinary projects.

For more information on the IAS-sponsored University Symposium, click here.

"Most disciplines are fairly new," she says. "Anthropology has been around since the late 19th century; ethnic and women's studies, only since the middle to late 20th century. Some of the sub-disciplines in the biological sciences are just a few years old."

As a result, Waltner says that scholars fight a constant battle to define their expertise and distinguish their work from that of more-established or better-known disciplines.

"You see a fair amount of 'patrolling the borders' by people working in these fields, trying to keep people from saying, 'OK, now how is that anthropology?' While that may be good for the discipline, it's not good for knowledge. ... That's why spaces [and programs] like this are so important."

In the past, the University Symposium was a year-long series of events. The institute decided to explore time for two years to facilitate the development of curriculum around the events, as well as to inspire future events. According to Waltner, next year's plans will be informed by the success of--and the questions raised by--this year's activities.