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.

Mental Health Blogs, Medical Education, and the Humanities: The Value of Public Scholarship and Interdisciplinary Training

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

On May 9th, Dr. Carrie Barron, Director of the Creativity for Resilience Program at the Dell Medical School and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, led the final spring session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Barron engaged the Faculty Fellows in a discussion of the therapeutic value of mental health blogs and the positive impact that studying the humanities may have on medical education and care.

Barron explained to the Faculty Fellows that in trying to decide upon her next intellectual project she realized that of all her previous projects, including several academic articles and her book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands, she felt that the 115 blogs she wrote for the popular website Psychology Today are her most valuable work. These blogs, some of which have attracted two to four hundred thousand readers, have allowed Barron to connect with and offer general therapeutic advice to the “layperson in simple language.” Barron noted that readers’ comments and messages have given her hundreds of pieces of evidence that blogs like “I Do Not Like Being A Mother: A Monologue about Parenting” and “If You Are the Target of Narcisisstic Abuse: Ways to think, words to say, and how to move on” have had a significant impact on the lives of people struggling with serious mental health issues. Barron regularly responds to readers’ comments and messages, and she sees these digital interactions as an important and meaningful way for her to use her professional knowledge and skills to support people unsure of how to navigate difficult or unhealthy relationships and thought patterns (she emphasized that this correspondence should be understood as support, not therapy). Barron expressed a desire to better understand the therapeutic impact that her blogs appear to have on readers and asked Faculty Fellows to weigh in on what the mental health blog genre offers readers.

Barron went on to discuss ideas for a possible book project that would explore how engagement with the humanities enhances the ability of medical caregivers to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity. According to Barron, medical students’ intense focus on STEM subjects reduces the flexibility of their thought. In some cases this causes medical caregivers to lean too heavily on providing a swift solution for patients in the form of a diagnosis when they might provide better care by focusing more on listening to patients and seeing ambiguous medical situations as opportunities to learn and respond creatively. Alongside coauthors Dr. David Ring and Dr. LuAnn Wilkerson, Barron suggests in her blog, “Humanities in Medical Education,” that writers like John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald have shown us the importance of “honing” our ability to be emotionally intelligent, intuitive, and creative—especially important for medical students and clinicians “when the anatomy is anomalous, when the facts don’t match the textbook,” or when patients’ stories are ambiguous.

Faculty Fellows responded to Barron’s discussion of her blogs by saying that they may work therapeutically because they provide a digital safe space for people experiencing difficult psychological situations to share their experiences and concerns. Fellows also observed that her blogs were valuable because they accomplish something other academic projects seldom do: they translate professional knowledge into a format that appeals to and benefits a broad public audience. Barron and other Fellows indicated that this kind public scholarship appears to be undervalued in academia, where peer-reviewed articles and monographs, publications that tend to have narrow target audiences, are valued significantly more than other kinds of scholarship.

In response to Barron’s ideas about the role of the humanities in medical education Fellows agreed that the humanities’ emphasis on forming connections between and understanding the complications of human lives could enhance caregivers’ comfort with ambiguity and attunement to others. Other Fellows noted that it is important that those interested in medical humanities distinguish between exposure to the arts, which would entail activities like reading poetry or painting, and studying the humanities, which would entail activities like critically analyzing a poem or painting. Fellows suggested that both are valuable and that practicing the critical methodologies used in the humanities would allow medical students to cultivate certain forms of attention that would enrich their interactions with art and other human beings.

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

Biblical Narratives and the Legacies of Utopian Aspirations

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, led the May 2nd session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Kaplan discussed his current book project, The Biblical Jubilee and Ancient Utopian Visions of Liberty, which explores the history of the reception of the biblical jubilee to analyze “the ways in which ancient Jewish and Christian writers employed [it] as a tool in shaping the narratives of their utopian visions.”

The biblical jubilee refers to the description of the sabbatical and jubilee years in Leviticus 25. According to Kaplan, “The jubilee year concludes a forty-nine-year cycle during which, every seven years, the land of Israel is afforded a year of ‘complete rest’ (šabbat šabbātôn; v. 4),” also known as the sabbatical year. Kaplan explained to Faculty Fellows that, according to Leviticus 25, celebrating the jubilee year entails releasing debt slaves and returning property to “familial allotments putatively made during the Israelite settlement of Canaan.” Biblical scholarship on the jubilee has tended to analyze whether the sabbatical and jubilee years were ever actually observed and frequently describes the biblical jubilee as impracticable and utopian, according to Kaplan. Kaplan indicated that biblical scholars’ association of utopianism with impracticability has caused critics to overlook the impact that the “utopian character” of the biblical jubilee has had on “Jewish, Christian, and Western” political and social thought.

Kaplan draws on the utopian theories of Lyman Tower Sargent to claim that the vision of an Israelite society that frees slaves and redistributes land in Leviticus 25 is specifically a “eutopia,” or positive utopia, “because it envisions the enactment of a society in the context of a time and space…that its writer imagines as ideal in comparison to his current situation.” Kaplan highlighted the “generative power” of the biblical jubilee’s eutopian vision by observing that the inscription of Leviticus 25:10 on the Liberty Bell (“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof”) “helped motivate” the movement for American independence from Britain, the abolitionist movement, and the women’s suffrage movement.

Kaplan explained to Faculty Fellows that he sees The Biblical Jubilee and Ancient Utopian Visions of Liberty as addressing the surprisingly underexplored relationship between biblical studies and utopian studies. He suggested that engaging with utopian studies provided him with critical tools to analyze the implications of the idealistic and aspirational qualities of the biblical jubilee. For example, theories of utopia enabled him to consider how Leviticus 25’s assertion that Yhwh is the divine owner of the land of Canaan suggests the aspiration for an ideal social structure with “Yhwh’s kingship as its organizing principle.” He noted that examining how this ancient Israelite aspirational narrative influences the thinking of people centuries later reveals how the imagined ideal societies of those who came before us may shape our own visions of an ideal society and inspire us to work towards its realization.

Faculty Fellows mentioned that aspects of the biblical jubilee appeared to ensure that wealth would remain in the possession of a privileged segment of the Israelite population and wondered whether such a social structure truly constituted a eutopia. Kaplan indicated that an imagined society’s eutopian status depends on whether the imagined society represents the social ideals of those who imagine or interpret it. Other Fellows made comparisons between the notions of land ownership in Leviticus 25’s divinely-organized eutopia and those in Karl Marx’s socialist eutopia. Further, Kaplan’s discussion of the receptions and influence of the biblical jubilee in different historical moments prompted Faculty Fellows to consider the extent to which different cultures, faith traditions, and fields of study view the path to an ideal society as one that returns to a past way of life, leads to an entirely new way of life, or creatively combines the old and the new.

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

Historicizing Narratives of Queer Women: Lesbianism, Childhood Sexual Abuse, and Christian Conversion Therapy

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Lauren Gutterman, Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies, led the April 25th session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. She discussed her unpublished essay, “Out of Egypt: Lesbian and Ex-Lesbian Child Sexual Abuse Survivors’  Narratives, 1978-2003,” which “investigate[s] the ways lesbianism and childhood sexual abuse have been historically intertwined from the late nineteenth century to the present.”

“Out of Egypt” outlines how some psychologists from the 1920s to the 1970s claimed that childhood sexual abuse contributes to homosexuality. These psychologists generated various theories based on their research, several of which claimed that the psychological impact of women’s abusive sexual experiences with men in childhood caused them to turn to lesbianism. Gutterman also documents the successful efforts of lesbian survivors of incestuous sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s to shed light on the prevalence and traumatic effects of childhood sexual abuse, offer support to other survivors, and “refute simplistic understandings of incest [and childhood sexual abuse] as a cause of lesbianism.”

Aspects of the lesbian feminist movement against sexual abuse influenced and were co-opted by the Christian conversion therapy movement of the 1980s and 1990s that perpetuated the belief that childhood sexual abuse causes lesbianism, according to Gutterman. Like the lesbian feminists speaking out against childhood sexual abuse, Christian conversion therapists insisted that survivors were in no way responsible for the abuse done to them and that sharing personal stories of abuse publicly could both draw attention to the issue and be “healing and therapeutic.” However, Gutterman points out, whereas lesbian feminists understood lesbianism as a potential source of healing, communal support, and political agency, Christian conversion therapists portrayed it as “emotionally harmful and morally wrong.”

Gutterman told Faculty Fellows that she pursued this project to continue her work in documenting and analyzing the experiences of queer women, a group that she believes is underrepresented in academic publications. She explained that while interviewing queer women previously married to men about their experiences of marriage, sexual desire, and coming out for her forthcoming book, Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage, her interviewees disclosed unsolicited histories of childhood sexual abuse. These disclosures drew her attention to how relevant the perceived connection between childhood sexual abuse and lesbianism had been to these women’s lives and inspired her to explore the history of that connection and its impact on queer women. Ultimately, historicizing the linkage between childhood sexual abuse and lesbianism caused Gutterman to conclude that “[n]arratives of surviving sexual abuse can and have served more than one political purpose” and that we should “remain attuned to” the variety of ways different groups may shape and employ those narratives to achieve their political goals.

Gutterman invited the Faculty Fellows to workshop her essay and Fellows responded with collegial advice and questions. Fellows also asked Gutterman to discuss contemporary perspectives on the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and lesbianism. She explained that one contemporary point of view holds that a disproportionate number of queer women have experienced childhood sexual abuse because queer children are more likely to be socially isolated and therefore more likely to be victimized. Fellows were particularly interested in how Christian conversion therapists came to adopt aspects of feminist understandings of sexual abuse. Gutterman suggested that some feminist ideas about sexual abuse became mainstream and were disassociated enough from feminist ideology by the early ‘90s to be accessible and appealing to non-feminist (or even anti-feminist) movements that saw themselves as offering support to survivors of sexual abuse. Fellows also discussed how Gutterman’s account of American culture’s initial underestimation of the prevalence and long-term psychological impact of childhood sexual abuse caused them to reflect on other under-examined histories of sexuality and sexual abuse, for example, in ancient Greece and colonial Spain.

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

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