Pre-Texts: Creative Literacy and Civic Admiration (2012 Keynote))

SALALM 57 Keynote Address
Presenter:   Professor Doris Sommer (Harvard University)
Moderator:     Lynn Shirey, Harvard University
Rapporteur:   Sarah A. Buck Kachaluba, Florida State University
June 18, 2012 9:00am-9:45 am (this started later than was originally scheduled)

Dr. Sommer’s keynote address served to introduce and contextualize the three-hour “Pre-texts” workshop that she facilitated.  Pre-texts (, she explained, introduces literature to students of all ages as “recycled material,” and encourages all workshop participants to own pre-existing literature and ideas and author new ones, thereby fostering literacy and civic engagement by promoting the role of Arts and Humanities education – including the study of literature – in cultural and social organization and development.

Sommer began by explaining that she came to her “Pre-texts” workshop as an academic, through her disappointment at watching her best graduate students leave literary studies in the Humanities to go into more “useful” fields such as law, public health, and government.  After reminding the audience about the classical relationship between civic responsibility, arts, and education, she also credited two undergraduates with shaming and charming her into working to revive this relationship through academic and civic work.  These students had created an NGO to organize after-school arts-workshops for girls in India, keeping girls in school by requiring them to attend school in order to stay in the workshops.  Pre-texts, she argued, similarly engages children, their parents, and their grandparents with the Arts and literature, “recycling” literature into new works of art (literary, visual or performance) in order to examine and find new solutions to social problems.  One example of how such workshops have translated into civic action is when children participating in Pre-text workshops acted out the stages of AIDS in preparation to talk to officials about public health needs.  Sommers also pointed to cartonera projects as an example of how literature can be literally recycled into new forms of art and used as a springboard for civic engagement.

Literacy, Sommers argued, is critical to civic engagement, as literacy levels serve as an indicator of wealth, violence and crime, and health throughout the world.  Pre-texts teaches this in theory and practice.  It similarly illustrates practical applications of other theoretical concepts.  As Sommer articulated, participants have “learned more literary theory than she ever thought possible by doing arts and crafts.”  One reason for this is the core concept that literature is recycled material.

In the question and answer session, David Block (University of Texas Austin) thanked Lynn Shirey for bringing Dr. Sommers to SALALM.

Adán Griego (Stanford University) asked what Dr. Sommers would say to the criticism that cartonera projects, which began with noble beginnings, have become rather chic.  Sommers responded that as an academic, she would say this is a problem as something loses its edginess and productiveness as it becomes popularized.  However, as a cultural agent, she would ask: what we can do to refresh the cartoneras project?

Peter Johnson (Princeton University) asked how Sommers mixes generations in a workshop and how we can use the workshop process to cut across social and class lines.  Sommers answered that she could not model this at SALALM but that everyone can cut and paste and everyone can be human statues to model a literary figure.  She explained that workshops host parent and grandparent nights and authorize children to facilitate them.  She also described a workshop project done with Boston public school teachers, called “grandmother tells a story” in which the teachers have students in ELL families go to their grandparents with stories, have the grandparents help them to translate the stories and then ask the grandparents for new stories to bring back to school (which validates diverse languages and traditions).

Suzanne Schadl (University of New Mexico) asked Sommers to talk more about ownership; how students become authors and owners of something they had not realized they were invested in.  Sommers replied that the first thing to do is read the text and ask questions of it, which authorizes/makes the reader an expert.  This departs from the conventional classroom in which the teacher asks a reading comprehension question, putting the student on the defensive and discouraging creative thinking.