Professor Doris Sommer is the Director of Culture Agents and Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies. Her academic and outreach work promotes development through arts and humanities, specifically through “Pre-Texts” in Boston Public Schools, throughout Latin America and beyond. Sommer’s latest publication is The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities.
In an interview with The Mittal Institute, Professor Doris Sommer (FAS) describes the protocol and philosophy behind Pre-Texts, an arts-based training program for teachers of literacy, critical thinking, and citizenship.
Can you describe Pre-Texts?
Pre-Texts is a pedagogy. We train trainers in a simple proposal to use difficult texts as raw materials to make new art projects. So Pre-Texts achieves high order learning through the pleasures of art-making.
The process is simple, and anyone can do it. First, read a text aloud. Get everyone to ask a question about the text. Once you hear 10, 15, or 25 questions, even an opaque text starts to become interesting. Then, we make something based on the text. We can paint, we can dance, we can draw, we can act, or we can make a fashion show, but it is always manipulating the text in some kind of practical way.
Training is 15 hours long and is broken up into five three-hour sessions. In the first, we lay out the protocol using democratic principles. The workshop participants design and facilitate during the next four sessions. They choose activities and decide if they want everyone to draw the text, embroider the text, etc. We ground Pre-Texts in local practices. We do not decide ahead of time what activities we are going to do because it depends on what the participants want to do.
One example of Pre-Texts is when we did spoken-pantomime with the Krebs cycle in Mexico; a doctor friend of mine told me it is the most difficult text in their medical education. At first, I did not understand anything! We took the text and divided it into six groups of three or four people. Each group acted out and danced a paragraph. It was brilliant. The doctors were impressed that they could teach the Krebs cycle in an hour and a half instead of two weeks!
How do you frame the experience so that the students begin to feel like artists?
Pre-Texts takes the pedagogical theory of Paulo Freire, John Dewey, and many other wonderful theorists and grounds it in an artistic practice. You read aloud, you ask questions of the text, you make something and after you make something everyone in the room understands themselves as artists because we all made a different dress, a different dance, and a different song. Afterward, we sit in a circle and ask, “What did we do?” It’s the time for reflecting on a practice of interpretation; that is for theorizing. It is in the transformation of a text into another art form that readers become users, masters, of challenging material.
Do you see yourself as an artist?
The proposal of cultural agents, in general, is that we are all artists, which comes from the aesthetic pedagogy of Friedrich Schiller in 1794. It was a response to the French Revolution when it became a reign of terror. Understanding ourselves as creative agents, as artists, is a way to avoid violence and multiply our options.
Do you see a difference between creative agents and artists?
No, and that is why Tarun Khanna understands himself as an artist because he is an entrepreneur. He did a memorable talk in the Cultural Agents course a couple of years ago. He said something along the lines of: I accepted this invitation because I like art. I go to shows, I collect art – I am a lover of art. Thinking about what I wanted to say for this course, it became clear to me that entrepreneurs are also artists, otherwise they would not be able to change anything.
What is the rationale behind choosing challenging texts?
If it were not challenging – there would be no reason to study it closely. If it were not challenging – it would not be interesting. One of the observations that Russian formalists make about art is that it is difficult. If it were not difficult – it would not be interesting, it would be decorative. Art surprises you, disconcerts you and makes you want to talk to people. Think a little more. That is why art is important for education.
Can you describe the process of Pre-Texts and some of the activities?
At first, you feel as if you are not being serious, but if you have to make a fashion show out of a scene from Aeschylus, you have to read the scene very well. Somebody is going to ask you why you used green instead of orange. You have to bring it back to the text. The “correct” reading opens up to multiple readings; you have to see what you can do with it in a clever way.
An activity that we often do is called ‘off on a tangent’. Most cultures tell students not to go off on a tangent. In this activity, we take the opposite approach, we tell people to go off on tangents because that means doing research. For example, if you read a scene by Milton and do not know why there are apples in the Middle East and you think there should be dates, you can research apples in the Middle East. Maybe you want to find out why apples grow there, or maybe there are different words for apple in different languages. Alternatively, maybe you want to know what kind of trees grew there, or what kind of venomous serpents lived there.
Can you describe a Pre-Texts session you have led?
We have used the scene of Prometheus and Hermes for several workshops. Sometimes the debate between Prometheus and Hermes turns into a rap war with almost no change because that is what they are doing, they are killing each other with poetry. In the story, everything ends badly. It is a tragedy.
We have also used Forum Theater with the story of Prometheus and Hermes. For the exercise, we identified four problems. Group members clustered around whichever problem spoke most to them, and each group made one-act tragedies. One of the tragedies explored the abuse of power. That group ended up staging the Iguala mass kidnapping, when 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were forcibly taken, and disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. When you read the text as material for your art project, it becomes immediately relevant because you are the artist, and you know what abuse of power means.
How do you see Pre-Texts being used in South Asia?
It seems natural to use Pre-Texts in South Asia because people recycle and make art as a part of everyday life. To use academic material as a recyclable material means that we can achieve very high levels of academic excellence by taking advantage of and restoring local art practices.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On Friday, March 9, 2018, Doris Sommer will give a seminar about Pre-Texts, which will be followed by a brief demonstration with audience participation. The event will take place from 12-2 PM in CGIS S153, 1730 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA.