Being Human 2019

Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities

From October 11 through December 19, 2019, the Princeton University Humanities Council—in partnership with the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES)⁠—will host the U.S. hub of Being Human, the international festival of the humanities.

Join people of all ages and backgrounds at creative events across New Jersey to explore the humanities scholarship of faculty, students, and staff from Princeton University.

Presenters will collaborate with local organizations including museums, businesses, restaurants, arts centers, historical societies, community theaters, and more. Themed “Discoveries and Secrets,” around 20 activities will reveal untold stories, hidden histories, and mysteries of our towns or cities. The largely off-campus celebration will bring incredible research to a variety of audiences.

Programs are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted. Dates, times and locations for projects in progress will be updated regularly. More details and events will be added as the festival proceeds.

Participating Events

Friday, Oct. 11, 7:00 – 8:30 pm, McCosh 50

The Spirit of Truth-Seeking

Art Project and Exhibit

Being Human invites local artists using any medium to capture “The Spirit of Truth-Seeking,” based on their experience of the Friday, October 11 conversation among:

  • Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University
  • Cornel West *80, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard University; Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies, Emeritus, Princeton University
  • Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83, Princeton University President, who will provide a welcome and introduction

Later this year, the Arts Council of Princeton will host an exhibit of the commissioned pieces. Inspired by the dialogue, the artwork will delve into the truth-seeking mission of colleges and universities. Each creation will consider the virtues needed if frontiers of knowledge are to be pushed back, understanding of complex matters is to be deepened, and wisdom is to be found.

For more information, including instructions for artists, visit the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Friday, Oct. 11, 4:30 – 7:30 pm, East Pyne 010

Belonging(s) in Movement


This performance of readings, spoken word, and traditional storytelling will launch three days of celebrating indigenous and immigrant tales from the Americas. Residents of settled Lenni-Lenape land—now called Princeton, New Jersey—will describe their relations to the place with the help of visiting artists and activists, who identify as First Nation, Métis, and Chilean, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Festivities will begin on the day recognized as the anniversary of when Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, as this history and its legacies unfold through art, narrative, and praxis. After the first day’s performance, on the second day, a workshop will equip participants to communicate through the physical medium of zines, a longstanding companion to social justice and rebellions against oppression. The final day’s workshop will explore the zines from the second day and combine them into a collaborative zine. All the zines will later circulate around Saskatoon and Princeton. The performance is open to the public. Participation in the workshops is by application only.

For more information, including the application for the workshops, visit the event page of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Friday, Oct. 18, 8:30 am – 5:00 pm, Aaron Burr 219

The Powers of African Spirituality in Global Consciousness: Light, Vision, & Truth


Featuring priestesses and priests from the Akan sacred path of African spirituality, alongside related healers, practitioners, and scholars, this interdisciplinary gathering will explore the recent revitalizations of African spirituality—especially, Akan practices—in the U.S. Through discussion of spiritual paths, it will examine how these systems of healing and knowing help to expand understandings of truth, culture, health, knowledge, justice, and empowerment for self, families, and communities.

Co-organized by Lauren Coyle Rosen, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Princeton, whose current research focuses on cultures of law, politics, and spirituality in Africa and the diaspora. Generously supported by the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Grant, the Department of Anthropology, the University Center for Human Values, the Program in African Studies, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

For more information, see the poster.

Friday, Nov. 1, time TBD, place TBD

Words and Places: A Literary Tour and Walking Workshop

How do the environment and literature of Princeton connect with each other? This guided tour will intersperse historic sites with on-the-spot creative writing exercises for up to 25 participants. Leaders will represent Princeton Writes, an initiative that celebrates and promotes non-academic writing among faculty and students at Princeton University, as well as the Historical Society of Princeton. Participants will begin by reading and discussing a 1983 article by The New York Times, “Princeton’s Small World for Big Writers.” Next, the group will walk around campus, stopping for ten minutes each at five different places linked with historic literature or writers who have lived and worked at the University. For example, at Blair Arch, the tour’s facilitators will read scenes from Princeton alumnus F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and participants will pen artistic responses in notebooks while rooted in place. Other potential sites may focus on writers affiliated with the University, such as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Carlos Fuentes, and John McPhee. After the tour, participants will receive the opportunity to share their work with the rest of the group. They can also send their pieces to Princeton Writes, which will feature selections on its website.

Friday, Nov. 1 – Friday, Nov. 22; time TBD; Lawrence Community Center

Conversations on Identity and Difference

Discussion Group

Every week for four weeks, students will reflect upon service and civic engagement, exploring how narratives can ultimately increase self-awareness among diverse backgrounds, communities, and environments. The initiative will form part of a Princeton University Service Focus cohort on “Identity and Difference,” led by Spanish and Portuguese Professor Christina Lee alongside Kira O’Brien of the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, with support from Junior Fellow Toyosi Oluwole ’21. Attendees will engage with representatives of the organization People & Stories, which seeks to “invite under-served participants to find fresh understanding of themselves, of others, and the world.” Students can choose from either of two themes. “Crossing Borders” will investigate biases across urban and suburban lines. “Identities, Awakening, Journeys and Communities” will spotlight identity as central to the most compelling works and characters of literature, with lessons for the lives of readers. Through readings and conversations, participants will not only discover previously unexamined parts of themselves, but also critically engage with the people around them.

Saturday, Nov. 2, 4:30 – 6:00 pm, Nassau Hall

Princeton’s Civil War

Guided Tour

Princeton University did not go to war when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, but a substantial number of its alumni and students did—as many as 600, of whom 86 died during the conflict. This figure will surprise those familiar with only the 62 Civil War alumni names appearing in the Memorial Atrium in Nassau Hall. (Even there, eight of those listed actually have no traceable involvement.) Still more surprising is the level of commitment in non-military ways, through service in politics. But most surprising of all is the unusual number of Princetonians whose connection to the Civil War ran through the Confederacy, rather than the Union. Presenting the Civil War as experienced by Princeton University, Professor Allen C. Guelzo, the foremost expert on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, will lead a tour through three sites: the Memorial Atrium in Nassau Hall; Clio Hall, which honored Jefferson Davis as well as Lincoln’s diplomatic representative to France; and the Special Collections Room in Firestone Library, which houses artifacts like the David Claypoole Johnston anti-Confederate lithograph series. Topics will include Princeton University’s place in the politics of Civil War America, the institution’s embarrassingly favorable connections to the slaveholding South and the Confederacy, incidents among students that finally established a Union identity for the school, the unusual history of the creation of the Memorial Atrium, and stories about individuals from Princeton University on and off the battlefield.

Thursday, Nov. 7 – Thursday, Dec. 19; 8:30 – 11:00 am; Garden State Youth Correctional Facility

Discovering Gandhi in Prison

Study Group

Discovering the profound way in which prison was the secret to the ethics and actions of Mohandas K. Gandhi, this study group will meet weekly for six weeks, reading and discussing Gandhi’s Autobiography alongside other essential writings. Princeton University Lecturer Dr. Mark Edwards will convene the sessions with twenty residents inside Garden State Youth Correctional Facility (GSYCF). In the past, Dr. Edwards has held study groups inside GSYCF on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Malcolm X’s Autobiography, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Autobiography. After a “Malcolm and Martin” study group this past spring and summer, members requested a chance to learn about Gandhi. Participants will contribute writings and reflections for Dr. Edwards’s spring 2020 course “Imprisoned Minds: Religion and Philosophy from Jail” for the Freshman Seminar Program and the Department of Religion at Princeton University. Pending approval from the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the class may visit the study group at GSYCF to discuss Gandhi’s life and thought together.

Wednesday, Nov. 13, 7:00 – 9:00 pm, Murray Theater

Socrates NOW

Interactive Performance and Talkback

Think. Question. Change. Plato’s timeless classic The Apology of Socrates will unfold in a solo performance-discourse by Emmy Award winner Yannis Simonides. Take a seat in the court of ancient Athens as Socrates goes on trial for his life. Hear the philosopher face his accusers with his trademark wit, cutting logic, and the courage of his ideals. Consider his arguments on virtue, justice, politics, corruption, civic duty, love of life and hope in death, and draw your own judgment. Enjoy the post-performance opportunity to discuss with the actor the ramifications of your verdict. This accessible and interactive rendition of Socratic ethics has received great acclaim at the United Nations, the Athens Agora, the NBC TODAY Show, and in close to 500 venues internationally. Leading world universities have combined Socrates NOW with interactive seminars on how Socrates’s ideas apply to society today. All ages are welcome.

For more information, visit the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.

Thursday, Nov. 21, 4:30 pm – end time TBD, Princeton University Art Museum

States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing

Workshop, Concert, and Guided Tour

The new exhibition “States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing” features over 80 globe-spanning works of art, from antiquity to the present—including paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, and works in mixed media—that collectively illuminate the role that art plays in shaping our perceptions and experiences of illness and healing. Within the project, three components will share in Being Human. First, a gallery workshop at 4:30 pm will feature Dr. Kevin Liou, who is completing a fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Memorial Sloan Cancer Center and initiated the Integrated Clinical Arts Program at Brown University to further his longstanding interest in using museums and art to teach medicine. The target audience for this program, limited to 20 people, includes pre-med students, lab workers, and MD/PhD candidates. Secondly, at 5:30 pm, the Princeton Chamber Music Society (PCMS) will explore the multifaceted intersection of music and medicine in “Being Sound: Music, Madness, and Medicine.” The performance, which spans six centuries of chamber music, will range from a musical parody of an 18th century surgery to contemporary works that have been integrated into clinical music therapy. Up to 80 guests of any demographic may attend the concert and the subsequent reception. Finally, at a time TBD, Princeton University molecular biology graduate student Robert LeDesma will give an intimate tour of “States of Health” for up to 20 medical professionals from the Princeton Medical Center. As a scientist, as well as a student guide for the Museum and the research assistant for this exhibition, Robbie will afford a unique perspective into the parallels between visualizing disease in the sciences and the arts, along with the role that the arts can play in increasing empathy.

Wednesday, Nov. 30, time TBD, location TBD

Redesign Your Workplace: Space and Creativity

Workshop and Interactive Exhibit

The spaces where we work, play, rest, and socialize might affect our thinking more than we realize. Which ideas strike children in fenced, concrete yards, as opposed to expansive, grassy playgrounds? What about employees in gray cubicles versus colorful clusters? Incorporating groundbreaking psychology and neuroscience, this interactive exhibit will encourage participants to arrange three scenes—an office, a classroom, and a domestic room—with a view to creativity. Moving the furniture, they will experience the relationship between their physical surroundings and mental states, while discovering potential ways to improve their own offices, classrooms, and homes.

Tuesday, Dec. 3; 4:30 – 6:30 pm; Princeton Public Library, Community Room

Queer Letters: Writing Stories About Identities, Families, Gender, Cultures, and Communities

Workshop and Interactive Exhibit

Centering on queer and trans experiences, this workshop will invite participants to explore questions of identity through guided free-writes, such as How does your family accept or respond to your gender expression or sexual identity? and What does it feel like to live in your body? Afterward, attendees will share their writings with one another. From their writings, they will select quotes to be printed on postcards, which will each bear the Being Human logo as well as a prompt from the workshop. The postcards will circulate through public art displays at the Princeton Public Library, Labyrinth Books, and various spaces at Princeton University. At each location, free pens and postcard stamps will encourage members of the community to interact with the project by writing on and mailing the displayed postcards, creating ripple effects of affirmation, reflection, self-expression, and connection. Every workshop participant will also receive copies of all the postcards created in the class.

Thursday, Dec. 5, time TBD, Princeton Public Library

Illuminating Incarceration in Antiquity through Digital Humanities

Lecture and Workshop

Historians, archaeologists, and other scholars have traditionally thought that no prisons existed in antiquity, and that prisons began with modernity in Europe and the United States. However, a closer look at the material and textual data indicates otherwise. Professors Matthew Larsen in Religion and Caroline Cheung in Classics will guide audiences into the history of incarceration in conjunction with the use of digital humanities. The instructors will start by canvassing global developments including those of the ancient Mediterranean. Next, the professors will teach participants about insights afforded by 3D modeling, virtual reality, and 3D printing technologies. Upon learning to handle such tools, attendees will use them to see layouts of entire ancient prisons, as well as experience one ancient prison through a virtual reality walkthrough of a 3D model. Lastly, the group will discuss its findings.

Thursday, Dec. 5, time TBD, location in Newark TBD

The Water Down Poetry Slam

Performance and Fundraiser

Newark, New Jersey bears the most lead poisoning in the state, among the greatest amounts recently recorded by any large water system in America. Legal battles involving authorities as high as the Environmental Protection Agency continue to deprive this largely Black population of clean water in their homes or schools. “The Water Down Poetry Slam” will serve as a free show that simultaneously provides clean water to people in Newark. Black student poets from Princeton University’s premier group Ellipses, including Aniya Smith, the youth poet laureate of Washington, D.C., will perform alongside the Newark Youth Poetry Team, which recently placed second at the Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival. Every attendee will receive a 24-pack of bottled water. To surpass this temporary solution, a 50/50 raffle will benefit the Lady H2O campaign, a Newark-based grassroots venture to supply bottled water to families on a more consistent basis. Support will come from community partners in Newark, like The Meal Plan Collective and Source of Knowledge Bookstore. Newark residents will gain an opportunity to hear voices from their city, particularly other Black intellects, while expressing their own experiences.

Saturday, Dec. 7, 2:00 – 5:00 pm, location TBD

Literature and Environment: A Reading and Creative Writing Colloquium

Why read literature to study the environment? How do stories, poems, or essays about nature—and its many ties to humans—illuminate the challenges of global climate change? This colloquium will creatively examine the role of literature in tackling the environmental crisis. Professor William Gleason and PhD candidate Kate Thorpe, both from the Department of English, will lead the event with insights from their undergraduate seminar “Literature and Environment.” Participants will first closely read a poem, analyzing not only how the writer imagines relationships between humans and the natural world, but also the formal strategies used by the poet. Next, participants will learn to craft their own poems at the towpath of the Delaware and Raritan Canal. After writing, participants will reflect on their compositional experiences, discussing how literature can nourish healthier relationships with the natural world.

Thursday, Dec. 12, 2:30 – 9:00 pm, McCormick 101

The Art of Being Human: St. Cecilia through Poetry and Film

Film Screening, Panel, and Guided Tour

Celebrating the aesthetic riches of the Princeton University Art Museum, a series of interdisciplinary events will examine human nature from the perspectives of music, poetry, painting, stained glass, and sculpture. Joe Perez-Benzo ’17, an undergraduate alumnus of Princeton University and a candidate for the Master of Liberal Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, will harness his research about the role of wonder, a capacity shrouded in secrecy and animating all discoveries. The festivities will revolve around one of the Princeton University Art Museum’s greatest treasures, Edward Burne Jones’s luminous stained glass portrait of the pensive Saint Cecilia. At 2:30 pm, the audience will enjoy a screening of Handel’s oratorio Alexander’s Feast. Immediately following, Joe will give a live recitation of the text that Handel set to music, namely John Dryden’s poem, “Alexander’s Feast; Or the Power of Music. An Ode in Honor of Saint Cecilia’s Day.” A subsequent explication of the poem will segue into a public conversation between Joe and Peter Carter, a graduate alumnus of Westminster Choir College and director of the Schola Cantorum of Saint John the Baptist, on the legacy of St. Cecilia as expressed in verse by Dryden, in music by Handel, and in stained glass by Burne Jones. Joe will focus on Dryden’s complex reception of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander as well as Plutarch’s Moralia, the way in which he thinks poetry affects the passions, and Dryden’s claims about the distinction between pagan and Christian understandings of human nature. Peter will emphasize how Handel translates these insights into music. After the conversation, participants will have dinner on the second floor of the Museum. Upon the conclusion of dinner at 7 pm, Joe will lead “Poetry Night at the Museum,” an interactive tour of ancient, medieval, and modern exhibits in which he will pair paintings with poems. He, alongside all the participants, will read aloud each poem in front of the corresponding work of art, so that the mediums illuminate each other. Throughout, Joe’s commentary will guide everyone into ever more wonder.

Thursday, Dec. 12, time TBD, location TBD

Equivocation: A Play Reading and Panel

Equivocation whirls through William Shakespeare, his daughter Judith, the undercover Jesuit priest Fr. Henry Garnett, the Gunpowder Plot, and the history of Catholics in England. With a crackling dialogue and rich characterization, the play delves into the nature of theater and of faith by highlighting a particularly explosive period. Alexi Sargeant, Managing Director of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Life, will direct a performance by local actors, including members of the Playwright’s Guild at Princeton University. Afterward, a talkback will feature Equivocation’s author Bill Cain (confirmation pending) alongside Princeton University or Princeton Theological Seminary professors. The evening will inspire conversations about spiritual and theatrical faith, the use and abuse of history, and truth-telling in a time of political repression.

Friday, Dec. 13, time TBD, Murray-Dodge

Refugee Oral History Convention: A Workshop and Lunch

Launched in October 2018 by the Office of Religious Life at Princeton University, the Religion and Resettlement Project (RRP) is a three-year, national-level, action-oriented project exploring the role of religion in domestic refugee resettlement alongside refugees, faith leaders, and resettlement service providers. Within RRP, one major initiative collects oral histories from resettled refugees in the United States. The resulting open access archive will serve professionals, practitioners, journalists, artists, and scholars; preserve histories amid uncertainty about the future of the resettlement program; and enhance spaces of dialogue, listening, and chaplaincy across the country. To incorporate more diverse voices as interviewers and narrators, the Office of Religious Life will invite around 20 resettled refugees to a day-long oral history convention. The refugees will become RRP oral history fellows by receiving a three-hour training in oral history methods, having lunch with around 20 Princeton University students who have undergone similar training, and spending an afternoon interviewing their fellow refugees. In the process, the refugees will gain professional development, engage in civic life, and educate locals about the lives of refugees. Altogether, the refugees and students, representing different religions and regions, will together sustain an interfaith, intercultural dialogue to explore how newcomers contribute to their communities.

Friday, Dec. 13, time TBD, Massive Dynamics

The Secret Lives of PhDs

Panel, TedTALK, Poster Campaign, and Social Media

Quickly search Google Images for “professor” or “PhD.” What do you see? Perhaps solitary figures in front of chalkboards, or groups of scholars in full medieval regalia. But such outfits appear on only rare occasions, and PhD earners are spending less and less time in front of chalkboards. In fact, the majority of PhDs produced by Princeton University ultimately work beyond academia. So what might these images suggest about the gap between what a PhD is and does, and how PhDs are perceived by the public? How might we bridge this gap? This event couples a meta-focus on PhD research in the humanities—how it has been done in the past, how it is currently done, and how it can be done in the future—with a sharing of research-in-progress by soon-to-be PhDs. A panel of PhDs will speak about their experiences, answering questions from the audience about their training, research, and current use of their degree. Subsequently, four current graduate students in the humanities will share their dissertation research in TEDTalk fashion. A poster campaign will uncover the secret lives of PhDs and highlight the discoveries and connections that PhDs make on a daily basis, within and beyond the academy. All the ideas from these activities will spread through a social media blitz, including a podcast.

Date TBD, time TBD, location TBD

Prescription Vegetable? A Dinner and Lecture

Eating has everything to do with being human. Food is both sustenance—essential for life—and a binding ingredient among people. Strangely, however, the topic receives little discussion at Princeton University. Despite occasional events, nothing resembles the integrated network of food scholars, activists, and scientists that many of our peer institutions have developed. “Prescription Vegetable?” will explore food as an entry point for human connection, and in particular the ways in which “plant-forward” and “place-based” eating can bring health to both individual bodies and systems of community agriculture. To reveal local foodscapes, food insecurities, and food initiatives, Professors Andrew Chignell and Tessa Lowinske Desmond, along with undergraduate Alice Wistar ’20, will partner with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey to host a special dinner at Jammin’ Crepes on Nassau St. By invitation, a select group of students, staff, and faculty, as well as chefs, restauranteurs, and farmers, will enjoy a meal sourced by ingredients from local farmers. The farmers will tell the group more about their farms. After dinner, Dr. Ronald Weiss of Ethos Health, a combined farm and medical facility in New Jersey, will give a presentation on the importance of conscientious eating for the health of humans and land alike.

To learn about last year’s events in the inaugural Princeton edition of Being Human, see stories on the University homepage and Council website.

Please direct any questions about the festival to Humanities Council Project Coordinator Ruby Shao,, (609) 258–9251.

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