Harvard’s English department has developed a new online forum to discuss emerging issues and trends within the field of literature as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the fall semester and keeps the University’s scholars apart.
Called “LitLab,” the forum — which is open to all Harvard affiliates, including those on leave — meets weekly to discuss emerging issues and trends within the field of literature. The associate directors of undergraduate studies in English, Beth Blum and Leah J. Whittington ’02, spearheaded the effort.
The department first conceived of LitLab as a space to encourage exploration of material in a non-classroom setting, according to Blum.
“I think that the goal for us is to invite students to come and help shape the departmental culture, and to help them have a say in the conversations we have in the department,” Blum said. “I think it’s a breath of fresh air and actually kind of inspiring to get to think through something in a way that doesn’t feel stressful or doesn’t feel like a way to get a grade or fulfill an assignment.”
Over the summer, Blum and Whittington brainstormed the topics for weekly sessions — which range from podcasts to comedy to immigrant literature — in collaboration with a student advisory board of English concentrators, according to Iman G. Lavery ’22, one of the board members.
Lavery will be convening the upcoming session of LitLab, which will focus on accountability, “cancel culture,” and literature.
“I hope to have an organic conversation, where we can discuss how to decide if we cancel an author, or do we cancel a work?” Lavery said. “Or else, if there are sexist, racist, or homophobic portrayals of people in works that are seen as part of the canon or have literary merit, how do we decide what are the ethics of cancelling a work of art?”
The group recommends that attendees read or listen through 20 minutes worth of material, which may include online essays, short podcasts or video clips, and pieces of fiction and poetry, prior to each week’s session.
Sofia W. Tong ’21, another LitLab advisory board member, said LitLab allows students the opportunity to “see the other side of professors” by discussing works published mere months ago, rather than “really incredible texts that might not be as immediately relevant to daily life.”
“As an undergrad, there's not a lot of chances to interact with faculty or with other students in meaningful ways beyond the classroom, and I think LitLab has filled the hole of something that I really have felt has been lacking in my experience in the department,” Tong, an inactive Crimson news editor, said. “It really provides a place that's a nice balance between the sort of formality of office hours and class and the sort of complete unstructuredness of like a department barbecue.”
While the department developed LitLab, in part, as a means of strengthening departmental interactions between students and faculty during the remote fall semester, Blum said she envisions that the initiative will continue to meet in future semesters.
“I think both Professor Whittington and I hope it will become a recurrent part of departmental life,” Blum said. “In my dream, I would imagine us all sitting around with a coffee or a cup of tea and get to talk about these issues and questions together in an informal, in-person setting, which I imagine is how it will eventually manifest itself.”
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at email@example.com.