On a rainy Monday, we arrived at Farkas Hall from all over the US and world to begin 2017’s Mellon School, focusing on a theme that seems more pressing, and prescient, by the day: “Research, Pedagogy, Activism.” So in the spirit of teaching and learning, I asked many participants to tell me one thing that they learned, or discovered, in their first day. Perhaps most practically, “Bike rentals in Harvard Square are super expensive!” and “Parking is really expensive” too. But I quickly learned my own lesson. As one participant gently recounted, Doris Sommer began her seminar “The Arts of Agency” by talking about the problematic implications of asking students what they learned at the end of something, which implies that knowledge is a transaction. Instead, one can “ask people what they did.” Good point! I quickly broadened my own line of questioning to reflect this important insight, realizing that even in collecting thoughts for a blog I could still reproduce limiting pedagogical frameworks. Yet as we discovered in Carrie Preston’s seminar “Race, Gender, Participatory Theater: What Do Audiences Learn?,” even though you don’t always know what effect your lessons will have, there is sometimes “potential within failure.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the first few hours was just showing up, because lo and behold, “Facebook is not the same as being in the same place and sharing ideas.” Some participants were happy to find “old connections and friends,” while others felt they were with their “primary audience” who will eventually read their book. This was particularly apparent in the writing seminars. Many were pleased by the “collegiality and generosity that people show in feedback” in Martin Puchner’s faculty writing workshop. In Larry Switzky’s graduate writing workshop, we learned the applicable life lesson that “dissertations work as tweets too!” But we also thought big by creating “orbitals of proximity” to our projects, imagining “what it would mean to reach someone who is the ‘second moon’ to your orbit.”
Beyond the encounters and insights of the day, some participants felt the presence of history in the Farkas Hall building. One was struck by the plaque commemorating the famous Hasty Pudding theater group (and the many US presidents who were members), which made her think about “higher ed and the story we perform about it.” History was also front and center in Martin Puchner’s opening remarks, which guided us through the meeting between Marx and Engels that produced a new genre via the Communist Manifesto, and the “wires” of artistic and political manifestos that together sparked revolutions. Is the manifesto now historical, Puchner asked, and if so, what is the genre, or form, of the political and artistic activism of today? What an idea to mull over as we embark on the next two weeks of seminars and lectures.