Last year during Harvard’s inaugural January Term, Emily B. Hecht ’11, woke up before 9 a.m. six days a week. Most Harvard students—at least those who weren’t interning, traveling abroad, or practicing for the upcoming sports season—were building up sleep stores in preparation for the coming semester. Hecht, a participant in the American Repertory Theater’s (A.R.T.) graduate-level training intensive for undergrads, was giving up sleep to work with performance experts from across the world and hone her acting expertise in preparation for a potential career on stage. “They really treated us like budding professionals. They treated us like real potential artists,” she says.
The three-week theater intensive allowed students to interact regularly with big names like Scott Zigler, Director of the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at the A.R.T.; Jim True-Frost, who was cast in the HBO hit “The Wire”; and David A. Hammond ’70, who has held teaching positions at the Julliard School, the American Conservatory Theater, and the Yale School of Drama.
This J-Term, a larger portion of the student body will have access to experiences like Hecht’s through the introduction of the January Arts Intensives. The college is currently planning seven shorter intensives in comedy, design, creative writing, watercolors, and ceramics, and one three-week performance intensive with a dance track and a theater track. The implementation of such programs is a direct response to President Drew G. Faust’s Arts Initiative, launched in November 2007. Given that they are still in their pilot stage, however, the organizers must work through challenges in balancing varied levels of student ability, ensuring program growth and sustainability, and avoiding the impression that committed artistic production should be relegated to the confines of January.
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The original plans for J-Term suffered a blow when the economic crisis hit Harvard. When the new calendar changes were first proposed in June 2007, the month of January turned into an enticingly blank canvas. The Undergraduate Council (UC) spoke with the chairs of the Gen Ed Committee and the Ad Board Review Committee to organize innovative programming, short intensive classes, and opportunities to explore areas students may not have had time for during the school year. J-Term was never meant to be a month-long recuperation of lost sleep for overworked students, but the loss of over one quarter of the endowment limited opportunities for programming during the last weeks of Winter Break.
This January, the story is changing. “This year is really a big experiment,” says Eric N. Hysen ’11, UC Vice President. “This is the first time that students will be able to be on campus participating in programs without class other than Camp Harvard and Senior Week.” The Undergraduate Council has successfully pushed for Optional Winter Activities Week (OWAW), in which students will be able to return to campus a week early and receive funding for creative programming ideas open to the whole campus.
This effort, along with the college’s decision to open campus early to all students, helped set the stage for the new January Arts Intensives. With the freedom of an open, class-free campus, students who crave artistic opportunities will be able to experience them in a unique way. As advertised, interested undergrads will be able to use technology to explore architectural fictions, examine modes of bodily thinking through dance, break into the world of stand-up comedy, and workshop poetry.
The choice to focus on bringing art to campus during J-Term is a reflection of how seriously college officials are taking the Report of the Task Force on the Arts. Published in December 2008, the report presented a detailed and comprehensive reflection on the arts at Harvard that advocated a complete renewal in the way the university thinks about art.
“I think that report has had a large impact on the arts and how it relates to Harvard campus,” says Elizabeth Lerman, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant and instructor of the dance track of the three-week A.R.T. intensive. “It’s really timely that Harvard is welcoming practicing artists to campus in such a big, or at least such a particular way.”
The report specifically called for greater college recruitment of practicing artists, strengthened links between Harvard University and affiliated arts institutions like the A.R.T., and suggested the creation of undergraduate architecture courses in conjunction with the Graduate School of Design (GSD). The intensives are direct responses to these calls to action: all are conducted by numerous well-respected and award-winning artists, some are provided in conjunction with the A.R.T., and one specifically creates a partnership between the GSD and the college.
“This whole notion of arts intensives grows out of the university’s increased and deepened commitment to promoting arts practice at Harvard University. I think of this as an extension of that bigger commitment to support student art-making,” says Jack Megan, Director of the Office for the Arts (OFA).
A BALANCING ACT
Aspiring arts professionals like Hecht are not the only targets of these January Arts Intensives. Program instructors and administrators make it clear that students of all levels of experience are welcome to join the programs.
For some of the intensives, like “Architectural Fictions,” taught by GSD architecture professor K. Michael Hays and doctoral student Jawn Lim, this will be an easier task to balance than for others. Most students will start out on a level playing field due to the lack of architecture and design classes offered to undergraduates at the college.
“We really want to make it so that we can start without any prior exposure to architecture. That limits what we can do, but I think we can still give people an idea of this way of thinking,” says Hays.