Newsletter, March 2018


Arts and Humanities Civic Engagement


Cultural Agents is an interface between academic learning and civic engagement. The Initiative promotes arts and humanities as social resources.


When: Friday, March 9, 2018 from 12pm – 2pm.
Where: CGIS South, S153, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
What: Arts at SAI Seminar

Doris Sommer, Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University

The Humanities have important work to do in developing societies because they foster creative and critical thinking. For its own intrinsic value, the aesthetic judgment that the Humanities hone affords pleasure of freedom and sociability. And related to those pleasures is the general faculty of judgment that free societies depend on. With the activities of Pre-Texts we gather lessons of philosophy, pedagogy, and art — including vernacular arts — to offer high order learning in low-resourced communities. In collaboration with partners in the Indian education and public health sectors, Cultural Agents hopes to contribute to development in India with Pre-Texts by engaging local strengths to promote: Literacy, Innovation, and Citizenship.

Lunch will be provided during the seminar and will be followed by a demonstration of Pre-Texts with audience participation.

More info:

Pre-Texts News:

A group of doctors, artists, and musicians, who belong to an NGO called Reacción Acapulco, gathered in the penultimate week of February to play Pre-Texts in Acapulco, Mexico. A unique session, this workshop featured two text excerpts rather than one. They used text 1 for the first two sessions and text 2 for the latter three sessions. That said, the final session primarily focused on how to bring Pre-Texts into their work. This strategy allowed them to witness Pre-Texts’ flexibility and to enjoy variety. One activity called on participants “to taste the text,” so they all brought food to describe certain scenes of Prometheus Bound.

Boston University Art Administration Masters students have been enjoying Pre-Texts throughout the month of February. Students in Professor Lanfranco Aceti’s “Arts in Barcelona” course, they have been reading Derrida’s “The Politics of Friendship” with Pre-Texts in preparation for a March trip to Barcelona. Many students at the first session were shy and nervous to share. However, by the end of the second session, they were all gregarious and eager to contribute thoughtful perspectives. Convening at M/Lab in the Harvard Art Museums, the class has had the chance to experiment with Pre-Texts and created wonderful new activities, such as:

  • Modern & Contemporary Art gallery tour
    • This activity encouraged shy students to speak up and share their unique perspectives.
  • Circle poem
    • Participants selected one powerful phrase from the text and organized themselves in order of where their respective phrase appeared in the text. They then formed a seated circle on the ground, and one after the other stated their sentence to a beat to form one long poem, which was recorded. Afterwards, the group turned down the lights and listened to the recording. It was an effective way to boil the text down to its most fundamental phrases and worked well for auditory learners.
  • Movie/show review
    • Participants used one line from the text as a thesis for a review of their favorite series or film. Everyone took about 10 minutes to write a review using ideas from the text and then shared with the group. Participants said they enjoyed linking this difficult piece of philosophy to something modern and accessible that they understand well. It was also a beautiful way to share different cultures and see commonalities.
  • Dictionary and Paraphrasing
    • This activity broke participants into four groups. Each group chose the phrase they understood the least and then passed it on to their neighboring group. The groups then had to look up all unfamiliar words/concepts and make dictionary entries for them, and they ultimately had to rephrase the original sentence. This was a very useful way to promote close-reading, and it exposed the many possible interpretations of the text. One group still ultimately was not sure what their assigned sentence fully meant, which reminded everyone that it’s acceptable to continue struggling and indicated that maybe more time/adjustments would be useful for this activity.
  • Drawing the negative:
    • Working independently, everyone had to find the line they thought was the excerpt’s thesis. Rather than just draw the image, they had to depict it by using negative space, coloring in what is normally left blank. One participant noted that she had previously been trying to make the abstract concrete, but this activity allowed her to maintain the abstract as abstract, to digest and abstract it even more. Hearts appeared again and again in different ways, and all agreed that this was a neat way to see universal symbols and communicate across cultures.
  • Sing:
    • Groups of two composed a two-measure tune based on the text. In a circle, each group then sang their melodies: some were just humming, others used lines from the text as lyrics. From classical to country to rock to created-on-the-spot, the activity restored emotion to the text and highlighted all the wonderful musicians in the room.
  • Gallery Exploration:
    • In groups of three, participants identified a conflict in the text. Traveling up to the galleries, they chose two objects in any collection that reflected this conflict. Reconvening in M/Lab, we then projected the images side by side and gave short presentations on the conflicts we identified and the significance of the objects. Participants commented that: “We bridged Eastern and Western thought as a group and in the art,” “We sought ambiguity rather than clarity,” “We reevaluated the logic of the text,” and “We felt free to analyze really difficult art.”

Learn more here:

In early February, Harvard undergraduate tour guides of the Harvard Art Museums enjoyed a two-hour mini session of Pre-Texts at M/Lab. Reading an excerpt from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity, the group caught onto the methodology immediately and particularly enjoyed the democratic aspect of “What did we do?”. They enjoyed the opportunity to do a gallery tour of the European religious art gallery. As guides who introduce museum visitors to Harvard’s art collections, they appreciated dedicating time to one specific gallery space. One student emphasized that this was a useful way to articulate both support and criticism of the text, as some students intentionally chose pieces that ran counter to de Beauvoir’s arguments. As the session wrapped up, one commented this was one of the most engaging and interesting academic activities he has done at Harvard.

Featured Story

Harvard Square Homeless Shelter: Winter Donations Needed! Especially blankets, gloves, hats, scarves, deodorant, and fresh fruit and vegetables.

Learn more:

Check out “Deposito,” which promotes good rubbish disposal practices in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands.

Read illuminating perspectives on AI and the law from the executive director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.“Law and regulation may constrain behavior yet also act as enablers and levelers — and are powerful tools as we aim for the development of AI for social good.”


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Caminos de Paz Cases for Culture Cultural Agents Opportunities Partners Pre-Texts Rennaisance Now
March 2, 2018
by Rodriguez