February 24, 2023

Professor Doris Sommer is the Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is Director of the Cultural Agents, an Initiative at the university and an NGO dedicated to reviving the civic mission of the Humanities.

An advocate and firm believer in a strong public school education, Professor Sommer is often noted for her curation and creation of Pre-Texts, an arts-based training program for teachers of literacy, critical thinking, and citizenship. She is also the co-founder of Renaissance Now, a movement organized by a group of advisors collaborating to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN. 

Her academic research centers around 19th-Century Narrative in Latin American Women’s Literature, Ethnic Literature, and Bilingual Aesthetics. Sommer earned a B.A. from New Jersey’s Douglass College for Women and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University.

Sommer engaged with the young adults in the Aspire Leaders Program in 2022 and looks forward to delivering seminars during the 2023 program. The Aspire Institute team asked Professor Sommer more about her shared passion for education and the commitment to equipping youth with critical thinking skills and a hunger to learn from each other.

Tell me about your research, work, and what your journey was like as you discovered your passions and began working at Harvard University.

Practically all my neighbors during my childhood [in my] neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, including my own family, were immigrants, refugees, survivors of pain, and energized to live differently from what we had left behind. 

Those were my formative years. 

I didn’t discover my passion for social justice at Harvard, rather it was my fascination with everyday multicultural life — the ways that languages and literatures can democratize social interactions — which kept me on a humanist track that led to Harvard. For me, as is for a long tradition of humanists, literature and other arts are formative. Arts change hearts and minds; reason is important but it’s not enough.

Why do you choose to volunteer your time with Aspire Institute? What did you find meaningful about interacting with the Aspire Leaders Program participants during the last Aspire seminar? 

Aspire students are like my neighbors in Brooklyn — first-generation, eager to learn, and from so many places with so many languages that I cannot possibly identify them, much less understand them. This is the sublime, literally overwhelming and exhilarating, experience of real democracy. 

What advice would you give to young adults today as they discover their own passions and path?

Sona Jobarteh, the Gambian kora musician taught me – and everyone else in her audience – that there’s a difference between passion and purpose. This is a great conceptual relief. We are used to counseling students to pursue their passions. Sometimes this will feel irresponsible, especially to first-gen students who are dedicated to making social contributions. If they can harness a passion to advance a purpose, they don’t have to choose and lose. 

“If they can harness a passion to advance a purpose, they don’t have to choose and lose.”

Sona makes music and uses her earnings to grow the Gambia Academy, a school she founded to teach contemporary studies through traditional arts. 

I pursue literary studies and use literature to promote literacy in underprivileged areas throughout Latin America, and now in Africa, India, and Europe. To give up a passion is to extinguish a love of life; but to lose a purpose is a moral crisis that we can all avoid. One goal can fuel the other.

Doris Sommer will be leading two Faculty Seminars for the 2023 Aspire Leaders Program — one per cycle. To learn more about Professor Sommers, click here.


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