Category Archives: Around Campus

The Humanities and Public Life: Working towards Social Change through Critical Reflection and Creative Solutions

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Doris Sommer, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish at Harvard University, is this year’s Cline Visiting Professor in the Humanities. During her visit this spring, she led the April 4th meeting of the Faculty Fellows Seminar, and was the second lecturer in the Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Series, “Narrative and Social Justice.” Sommer’s discussions focused on how bringing the lessons, activities, and texts of the humanities into public life can foster positive changes in societies across the globe.

Sommer began her lecture by explaining that her current efforts to engage with the world and address social injustice through the humanities came from her realization that early humanities scholars espoused serious and active “engagement with the world” but by the latter decades of the 20th Century dominant theoretical paradigms led many scholars to devalue attempts to use the humanities to work for social change. She shared examples of how the humanities can be used to produce creative solutions to social problems. For instance, a creative and fun use of mimes at intersections reduced traffic fatalities in Bogotá.  According to Sommer, pleasure is perhaps the most powerful incentive to get people to think and act differently, and humanities-oriented solutions effectively produce social change by associating new ways of thinking and acting with pleasure. She also claimed that admiration is conducive to respectfulness and engagement, which are key characteristics of good citizenship. Because the aesthetic products of humanities-oriented solutions are well-suited to inspiring admiration, they may be used to deepen communities’ civic engagement.

Throughout her visit Sommer discussed her own engagement with social issues through the humanities by describing her current project, Pre-Texts, a program that uses theories and techniques from humanities studies to provide literacy training and space for creative and critical reflection on social issues for groups around the world. These have included, for instance,, incarcerated men in Dublin and employees of The Housing Authority of Buenos Aires. During her visit she facilitated several Pre-Texts workshops at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art (which partnered in the residency), offering local educators and children opportunities to experience the creative learning strategies the program employs. During one of the workshops for educators, Sommer asked participants to respond to James Baldwin’s short story, “Stranger in the Village,” by creating and performing short tragic plays inspired by Baldwin’s text. The production of these tragedies allowed participants to engage in “Forum Theater,” a practice created by drama theorist Augusto Boal to allow community members to consider how to address social issues by performatively intervening in tragic plays dramatizing those issues. Workshop participants performed potential solutions to tragic conflicts in each other’s plays by taking on roles in those plays and reversing their tragic plots. In short, participants were asked to creatively represent how their community is and then improvise performances of how their community could or should be. Sommer also led workshops in the Blanton Museum of Art designed to connect reading practices to art interpretation. A workshop for educators asked participants to relate one of the items in the Blanton collection to a theme in “Stranger in the Village,” while a children’s workshop centered on the fairy tale “Rapunzel” and Natalie Frank’s painting, “Rapunzel II.”

In the seminar, Faculty Fellows discussed selections from Sommer’s book, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, which argues for re-engaging the humanities in civic life. Faculty engaged in a lively discussion of how teachers in the humanities should respond to students and other educators’ apparent devaluation of humanities studies. Fellows discussed whether pedagogically emphasizing the value of the humanities’ capacity to produce professional skills in literacy and communication conflicts with efforts to use the humanities to teach students to think critically about social forces and oppose social injustice. Throughout the discussion Sommer emphasized that it is not necessary to choose, and emphasized the importance of literacy for democracy.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

March 27-31, “Orality and Literacy XIII: Repetition”

By Deborah Beck
Associate Professor, Department of Classics
Organizer, Orality and Literacy XIII

One of the most important contributions that the Humanities Institute makes, both to the UT community and to Central Texas, is to bring together groups of people interested in the Humanities from a wide range of different perspectives. Academics in different disciplines; people at different stages of their professional life; people in the academy and in the community; all of these find a home at the Institute. A conference being hosted at the University of Texas at Austin on March 27-31, “Orality and Literacy XIII: Repetition,” is known for being similarly wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary.

This three-day conference has something for everyone. The largest number of the twenty-odd papers relate to various aspects of the Classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, spanning literature, oratory, philosophy. art, and religion. But Orality and Literacy, which has been meeting every two years since 1994 in different spots around the world, ranges beyond the Greeks and Romans to religious traditions of the ancient world, including the Quran, the Hebrew Bible, and religious texts of India and the Ancient Near East.

Each iteration of this conference is called “Orality and Literacy,” a common theme tying all thirteen meetings together. But each of the thirteen “Orality and Literacy” conferences also has a unique theme that relates in some way to the dynamic interplay between orality and literacy as modes of creating and sharing meaning. Our theme this year is “repetition,” which applies not only to the formulaic language that underlies the Homeric epics, the ritualistic modes of expression in religious texts and practices, and the rhetorical patterning of oratory, but also to our conference itself.  It, too, incorporates repetition into both oral and literate modes of communication, to create and to share meaning.

Our keynote speaker, Ruth Scodel, is an expert in Greek poetry equally renowned for her insights into ancient literature and the engaging and accessible style in which she presents her ideas. Her scholarly research focuses primarily on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and ancient Greek tragedy, and she regularly writes and speaks for a general audience. Perhaps most prominently, her book An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (2010), which assumes no prior knowledge of the subject, has been translated into Spanish. Professor Scodel’s lecture, entitled “Reperformance, Writing, and the Boundaries of Literature,” will take place in RLP 0.102 (305 East 23rd Street, Austin, TX) at 7:30 p.m. on March 27. This lecture is free and open to the public.

Thanks to funding from a number of generous donors, including the Humanities Institute through the Barron Ulmer Kidd Centennial Lectureship, there is no fee or registration required to attend any of the conference paper sessions. There will be a full day of papers on Thursday, March 28 and Saturday, March 30, with a half-day of papers on Friday afternoon March 29 and a final three papers on Sunday morning March 31. The full schedule of papers can be found on our conference Web site. For further information, please email us at oralityliteracyxiii@austin.utexas.edu.

Excerpt from “What the Body Told” by Rafael Campo

Not long ago, I studied medicine.
It was terrible, what the body told.
I’d look inside another person’s mouth,
And see the desolation of the world.
I’d see his genitals and think of sin.
Excerpt from “What the Body Told” by Rafael Campo, poet, essayist, and physician. Dr. Campo will deliver a poetry reading on April 21st at 12pm at the Blanton Museum of Art, sponsored by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies, with support from the Humanities Institute. See our calendar on the left sidebar for more information.

Present/Absent Bodies

Ann Hamilton reflects on the evolution of her public art works in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Clare Callahan
O N E E V E R Y O N E by Ann Hamilton
O N E E V E R Y O N E by Ann Hamilton

Last week’s Humanities Institute Faculty Fellows Seminar on “Health, Well-Being, Healing” hosted internationally recognized visual artist Ann Hamilton to speak on O N E E V E R Y O N E, a public art project commissioned by Landmarks for the Dell Medical School. O N E E V E R Y O N E opened on January 27, and Hamilton was in Austin for the opening. Hamilton’s O N E E V E R Y O N E, as Landmarks describes the project, “is framed by the idea that human touch and intimacy are the most essential means of contact and the fundamental expression of physical care. More than 500 participants in several Austin locations were photographed through a semi-transparent membrane that sharply focused parts of the body that made contact with the material and softly blurred the parts that moved away from it. The optical quality of the material renders touch—something felt, more than seen—visible.”

Continue reading Present/Absent Bodies