Soon after Bloomsday 2019, a spoken word poet in sparkling brown boots performed for an academic gathering in Dublin. Her lush Irish speech accented what she knows as a working-class woman in Ireland. Enthusiastic applause followed from the conventionally dressed, mostly middle-aged directors of humanities centers and institutes. They were joined by community-based facilitators who have been teaching literature in prisons among other daunting environments and who would be featured speakers for the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University.

We were hosted by the soon to open Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI). The Newman house, where MoLI resides, faces bright St. Stephen's Green and combines Georgian with Victorian style in a construction that dates from the 18th century. The rooms are ornate from floor to ceiling. An otherwise unremarkable chimney in one room is recognized as a feature of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. It is a house of elegance, history, charm, and tranquility, well-poised for the ambitious goal of representing Irish literature.

MoLI's intimate environment was the site of a Public Humanities Network meeting on June 19th, a prequel to the regular annual meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI). Since 2017, Public Humanities has constituted one of several working groups in the Consortium. Its participants meet to explore good practices, develop research, and share professional opportunities at the interface between established academia and public humanities, a recently recognized field of inquiry that questions the role of the humanities inside and outside the academy, as displayed by this cluster of essays.

Participants at the Public Humanities Network represent universities throughout the world. We pursue responses to the perceived institutional inertia regarding the role of the humanities in underserved communities, where young humanists often find themselves (again) upon graduation. If these graduates hail from these communities, they have the potential to become the cultural agents whom Antonio Gramsci called "organic intellectuals." A renewed social consciousness among humanists (a term that once referred to scholars who left the cloister during the Renaissance to engage in the world) makes our public work an important corollary to studying art, literature, philosophy and history.

The MoLI meeting was a propitious occasion to share the public facing work of Pre-Texts in Ireland. Pre-Texts is a training program to develop facilitators to promote high-order literacy in spaces that bridge academic and underserved groups. The program's simple protocol developed inside Harvard University, where it forms part of the Certificate Program of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning; but the origins come from lessons learned outside. Based on Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1969) and Augusto Boal's interpretation for theater, Pre-Texts gathers popular practices from working and underemployed people who use challenging texts as raw material for making new pieces of art, in any medium. The protocol takes reader-response theory at its word, appreciating a reading as the creative collaboration between a found written document and a particular new interpretation.

This year, recently certified Irish facilitators of Pre-Texts joined the academic humanists of the CHCI to illustrate what literary studies can contribute to public life. Founded in 2007 by Doris Sommer and introduced to Ireland in 2017, the program has by now trained local educators in Dublin to charm almost anyone into engaging with challenging texts. The collaboration between CHCI and Cultural Agents, the parent NGO for Pre-Texts, is a worthy example of how to bridge academic work with civic engagement.

At the conference, Alyssa Erspamer represented Cultural Agents, which has been implemented in far flung sites that concentrate in Latin America. By multiplying facilitators in a train-the-trainers approach, Pre-Texts expands through democratizing lateral shoots. Coming from backgrounds as different as elementary education, higher education, social work, theater, and soul-searching in Rome (in Alyssa's case), among others, facilitators become the experts who share what they have learned. Pre-Texts landed in Europe three years ago, at the invitation of artist Jenny Houghton to promote Dublin's Grangegorman Development program. Jenny convened potential facilitators from various sectors, both within and outside the newly established Technological University of Dublin, to attend a five-day intensive training course as part of the neighborhood development project. They would later return to their respective workplaces to implement the techniques of Pre-Texts.

Emma O'Brien of the Technological University of Dublin coordinated the session about Pre-Texts at the Public Humanities Network meeting. She has led trainings in community settings, specifically with young women who are recovering from addiction. Emma spoke of the practical difficulties she encountered as she implemented Pre-Texts; they included finding a place to meet when the plumbing failed in the designated building. This kind of eventuality is typical of efforts to work in under-resourced settings, and the response is a measure of the dedication among facilitators and participants.

An article in this cluster, by Sushil Sivaram, speaks of the public humanities as a "possible institution of practice." The open-ended formulation is consciously rooted in concrete manifestations ("practice"). This captures the spirit of Pre-Texts: a pedagogy that is articulated within and partly inspired by institutional processes, but whose exact form depends on the context. When a facilitator proposes a text and local participants propose the arts activities to interpret that text, the collaboration amounts to a flexible set of guidelines for an agile architecture.

During the CHCI meeting, someone asked how it was possible to "freeze" (in a museum) something "unfreezable" (literature). The question is generally relevant for practitioners of the public humanities. After all, we seek both institutional support and participation from constantly shifting external publics. Director of the MoLI, Simon O'Connor, answered that the museum would prioritize continuing connections with sites of literary production and activity, at times by promoting such production. In fact, he was joined at his panel by two Irish artists: spoken word poet Roxanna Mac Liam (with the sparkling boots) and film-maker Dave Tynan. Tynan's short film featured a recitation of a poem by Sarah Maria Griffin, while Mac Liam performed two of her poems.

Pre-Texts similarly embraces institutional affiliations while appreciating the "unfreezable" nature of texts. Its approach to any piece of writing, whether a classic drama or a current article in astrophysics, is irreverent. It is an invitation to interpret, to appropriate, and generally to use texts in creative ways. Gerard Holmes, in another piece here, suggests that the academic humanities should behave more like nonprofits. To do so, they should, for example, "begin with a problem-solving orientation." This is the spirit of Pre-Texts, which operates through an NGO and sets practical goals, primarily to activate reading in ways that stimulate innovation and civic behavior. Among its strategies for achieving these goals is exercising the patience required for everyone to reflect on their creative manipulation of the text. Hearing all participants and expecting to be heard not only trains participants in civic values; it also deepens collective reflections of the text and of interpretations. An example may suffice to illustrate the dynamic.

Wheatfield Prison is an all-male facility located just outside Dublin. Programs of various kinds are offered there, including StoryDads, where inmates learn performance techniques to read storybooks to their children on visiting days. Facilitators Anthony Goulding, a writer, and Bernie Masterson, a visual artist, brought Pre-Texts to StoryDads for a group of six men. The particular aims were to increase literacy levels, encourage creativity, build confidence in the men's relationship with their children, and encourage the men to write their own stories for the children.

Throughout the three-day workshop (over two weekends), participants creatively engaged with the children's story The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Activities included:

  • Crafting original book covers from paper or cardboard while listening to the story read out loud (a standard first moment for Pre-Texts
  • "On-line" publishing (hanging finished works on a clothing line, inspired by "literatura de cordel," from Brazil's Northeast)
  • Asking a question of the text
  • Reflecting on "what did we do?"
  • Drawing one another's textual responses to the story
  • Going off on a tangent as one of the story's characters
  • "Staging" the text through animations, drawings, and soundtracks
  • Introducing three other children's stories
  • Evaluating the workshop by all

One participant said that he now would like to write a story book for his children, so that "when they're older they will have their books and realize that I was there for them without actually being there." Another said that since the workshop, "I find myself when I have free time just writing." Sharing reflections led to mutual admiration among the group and helped to articulate a sense of citizenship. This prison workshop, alongside various other Pre-Text sessions conducted across Ireland by a group of creative educators, is featured in a publication, Pre-Texts in Ireland, edited by Emma O'Brian.

To achieve the prison work, Pre-Texts facilitators created partnerships with prison authorities and with the StoryDads project. These negotiations are part of our work; they are practically written into the implied distance between the two words "public humanities." In this workshop, as in many other applications of Pre-Texts across the world, texts are an entry point to wider social inclusivity. And watching the video of the Wheatfield inmates as they imitated the sounds of forest ambience and drew images of imaginary Gruffalos was an instance of negotiating the distance between public responsibility and the prestigious MoLI attendees. The CHCI meeting was a model of what we can do in that negotiated space, and an incentive to do more in the field of public humanities.

Broad-based literacy is fundamental to the public mission of the humanities. As trained readers and interpreters, we can all pursue the goal of high-order literacy by expanding programs such as Pre-Texts, no matter what our area of specialty. Studies in a range of fields (economics, public health, politics, socioemotional wellbeing, gender rights) overlap regarding literacy as a measure of personal and collective progress. This is a cue for public humanists to promote reading skills among otherwise reluctant readers. It is, to use Horace's formula, both a pleasant and a useful practice. The pleasure is built into the practically infinite interpretations that one text can inspire, a range made most evident when heterogeneous groups form in workshops outside the academy. Participants enjoy one another's differences in point of view and in cultural references, rather than simply tolerate them. In this way, interpretation becomes a vehicle for learning to admire and value each contributor. Reading, interpretation, creative manipulation of a text, these core humanist practices are foundations for a broad and flexible civic culture.

Alyssa Erspamer is an MA student in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. She has a B.A. from University College London in Social Anthropology and German.

Doris Sommer is Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies. She also founded "Cultural Agents," currently an NGO dedicated to reviving the civic mission of the Humanities.