Category Archives: Public Humanities

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.