The Taliesin Prize for Distinction in the Art of Learning—named for the early poet famed for enlightenment and inspiration—was established by the Division of Arts & Humanities in 2020. It is awarded to three graduating seniors who best exhibit a spirit of intellectual adventure in their curricular paths as Harvard undergraduates.
While many prizes take as their starting point conventional standards of academic excellence like a student’s GPA or exemplary thesis, the Taliesin Prize takes a holistic look at a student’s curricular choices. The Prize Committee examines the transcripts of nominated students for evidence of a willingness to engage with challenging courses and an indication that the student deliberately charted a path through the curriculum that reflects curiosity, risk, creativity, and exploration.
Nominations for the Taliesin Prize are made by faculty members in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the spring semester. Nominated students have the opportunity to submit a short written response about their curricular pathways before Prize selection, but are considered without an application.
The Spring 2021 competition is now closed. The 2022 competition will launch next spring.
While the Prize is awarded by the Division of Arts & Humanities, the Prize Committee is made up of faculty from all Divisions and will provide no privilege when considering a student with an Arts & Humanities concentration. Nominations are welcome from every undergraduate concentration.
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Winners of the 2021 Taliesin Prize
Winners were selected by the Taliesin Prize Committee: Prof. Melissa Franklin of Physics, Prof. Maya Jasanoff of History, Prof. Gu-Yeon Wei of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Prof. Alexander Zahlten of East Asian Languages & Civilizations.
Taliesin Prize winner Jaspreet Kaur ’21 graduated with a joint concentration in Folklore & Mythology and Theater, Dance & Media. The Prize Committee admired her academic sense of adventure and creativity in the array of courses she chose to take while at Harvard. While overcoming personal challenges, she pursued courses that spoke to her talents as a storyteller and social justice champion. She shared some of her inspirations in her statement:
“As a DACAmented freshman living through the Trump administration, I was drawn to study and find interventions to large scale social issues like immigration, violence against women, and education inequality.
I felt uneasy sitting in classrooms with wealthy peers evaluating low-income communities that resembled my childhood public schools and low-income neighborhood. I found a home in Folklore and Mythology because of its rigorous exploration of ethical hands-on ethnography and fieldwork. Through folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, I learned I did not have to choose between being an academic and belonging in my communities.
Folklore and Mythology introduced the idea that informal culture like rumors, legends, and myths can help illuminate community identity and values. Meanwhile, Theater, Dance, and Media allowed me to explore how power is expressed and challenged in the public sphere through art. Through my two concentrations, I was able to not only understand large scale social issues but reimagine a world where more people have agency.
For example, in “Playwriting: Intersecting Americas” I was introduced to Edwidge Danticat who believes that artists must “create dangerously” because books contain power or they would not performatively be burned to assert power during revolutions. That same semester, for my “Folklore of Emergency: Communal Creativity Amid Crisis” I studied communal folk responses to the Rwandan genocide and the Dakota Access Pipeline. For my final project, I wrote a web series centering two Indian girls who create an anonymous sex podcast provoking conversations in the local Gurdwara community about honor killings, gender roles, and female agency.
My academic interests have been intertwined with the stakes of my personal and politicalized existence as an undocumented Sikh woman. Throughout my time at Harvard, I learned to “create dangerously.”
Taliesin prize winner Audrey Pettner ’21 graduated with a joint concentration in History of Art & Architecture and Folklore & Mythology, with a secondary field in Celtic Languages & Literatures. Her compelling biography and kaleidoscopic interests impressed the Prize Committee, who took note also of her enterprising spirit and commitment to hard work evident in her transcript. She shared her impressions of her academic journey in her statement:
“I’ve always been fascinated by stories. With a few words, a couple evocative descriptions, and an unexpected twist or two you can be fully transported to a world with its own texture, its own rules. In college, I not only wanted to study stories. . . I wanted my four years to become a story. . . for my courses to weave a narrative. I didn’t have many guiding rules in place as a chose my courses freshman year. Sure, I tried to fulfill a few Gen Eds, but I was more concerned with experiencing the full range of what Harvard had to offer. Small seminars, giant lectures, even an advanced anatomy class way above my head—I tried everything. And as the semesters progressed, I watched the unfolding narrative of my coursework spiral in on itself. Above all else, I am interested in humans and their capacity to create. Art, stories, philosophy, governmental institutions: I approached human creativity from every angle. Science classes gave me an evolutionary perspective. Investigations into the medieval Celtic world opened my eyes to rich narrative traditions and the nuances of language. Above all, art history and folklore and mythology lit my path.
“Reading the story of my transcript, I now see moments of foreshadowing, encounters with Genius, and choices made at forks in the road. Harvard gave me the gift of intellectual agency. The narrative is not always clear, and certainly not always logical and linear— but it, and its story, are mine.”
Taliesin Prize winner Andrew Rao ’21 graduated with a joint concentration in Mathematics and Philosophy, with a secondary field in Music. The Prize committee was impressed by Andrew’s deep engagement with the range of challenging courses he took while an undergraduate at Harvard. His fearless exploration of the curriculum across the sciences and humanities led him to a thesis at the intersection of math and moral and political philosophy, titled “A Balancing Axiom for Social Choice Theory with Interpersonal Comparisons.” He shared the following statement with the Prize Committee:
“My primary goal in choosing my courses has always been pursuing and understanding beauty in all its forms. I came into college with a love for art, literature, and especially music. Naturally, therefore, I have taken courses in these subjects, with an eye towards those which would allow me to understand my own aesthetic and emotional responses to works of art. However, I did not choose to concentrate in these areas, because I wanted to gain an appreciation for a form of beauty that I did not understand before. My parents, both trained as theoretical physicists, have always intoned the beauty of mathematics, but, as I entered college, I didn’t understand it. I wanted to leave college at least knowing what mathematicians meant when they called an argument or theorem beautiful, so I signed on to study math. It took me more than three years of college to honestly claim some understanding of the “aesthetic” dimension of math. One can surmise, looking at my transcript, that in my senior year I focused my math coursework on subjects related to geometry and topology. I love these areas because they, as all areas of math in a sense do, strive to make rigorous some aspect of human experience, in this case our visual intuition. Philosophy is no different, really. Ethics, one of the philosophical topics dearest to me, clarifies my own, often muddy positions on what is right. Both mathematics and philosophy, as well as art, are vehicles of self-understanding.”
Winners of the 2020 Taliesin Prize
Winners were selected by the Taliesin Prize Committee: Prof. Melissa Franklin of Physics, Prof. Rebecca Lemov of History of Science, Prof. Melissa McCormick of East Asian Languages & Civilizations, and Prof. Gu-Yeon Wei of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
Taliesin Prize winner Catherine Kerner ’20 graduated with a joint concentration in Computer Science and Philosophy, with a secondary field in Economics and a thesis on deep fake videos. The Prize Committee was impressed by the diversity of her course selections and the challenges she faced in setting a difficult but rewarding curricular path. In her student statement for the Taliesin Prize, she shared the story behind her transcript:
“January 24th, 2018 was the Wednesday of shopping week, and I was a second-year computer science student with a rare hour to kill. Philosophy 8: Early Modern Philosophy was about to start in Emerson Hall. Why not?
“The potential for academic spontaneity is incredible at Harvard. That split-second choice pulled me into an inevitable joint concentration in CS and philosophy. Similarly, the next semester I dropped a CS systems course two weeks in to take CS136: Economics and Computation, a field I remain obsessed with to this day. Three semesters later, the CS136 trajectory landed me in a graduate economics research seminar, completely over my head but thrilled to sit among PhDs and math concentrators, dissecting the equations behind systems of rational incentives.
“Hegel emphasizes that the educative journey, bildung, is formative because it transcends the concrete and elevates its student to an understanding of abstract relationships, the universal. I see the universal when my classes talk to each other, and this more than anything has guided me through Harvard. It is impossible not to see the systems of logic supporting philosophical argument outlines or the recursive structure of Cartesian skepticism. I interpreted a research course on blockchain cryptocurrencies by considering decentralized, multiagent systems in terms of Rawls’s game-theoretic theory of justice. I get a kick out of the overlap of ostensibly unrelated ideas - their underlying congruity is evidence of some fundamental order, that we deal in consistent truths, whether they are written in python or German.”
Taliesin Prize winner Cecil Williams II ’20 graduated with a concentration in Folklore & Mythology with a unique thesis titled “Dreamscape: A California Sense of Place,” combining ethnography, photo-journalism, screenwriting, and fiction. The Prize Committee was impressed by the bold pathway Cecil forged for himself, persevering through early challenges to gain perspective on the meaning of his undergraduate education. In his student statement for the Taliesin Prize, he shared the story behind his transcript:
“Spring of freshman year I proposed a project that would let me work with an engineering team at MIT to design a suit that uses biosensors to quantify muscle fatigue for competitive motorcycle racers. I had no idea what I was doing. But I did enough leg work to convince the engineering department that I should be allowed to take an independent studies course, as a freshman. That experience was a reckoning. It taught me that I had the freedom to learn whatever I wanted.
“The summer after freshman year, I found myself frustrated by the pressure to choose a career path. It seemed ridiculous. What if I chose engineering to realize semesters later that I really wanted to study government, or theatre, or something not offered at Harvard?
“I kept coming back to the Mark Twain quote, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.” I chose Folklore & Mythology because it would allow me to build a curriculum driven wholly by my curiosities.
“As a result, I’ve been able to spend my undergraduate years exploring my relationship to the place I call home: California. Each semester, I explored a new aspect of California’s essence with an advisor (California travel writing, California landscapes, California pop songs, California through cinema, California history and literatures), and I used the catalogue to experiment with different forms of representation (fiction, journalism, filmmaking, ethnography, photography, and a songwriting workshop I audited) to bring my mythic conception of California to life.”
Taliesin Prize winner Adele Woodmansee ’20 graduated with a joint concentration in Integrative Biology and Anthropology, with a secondary field in Latino Studies. The Prize Committee was impressed by her dedication to a unique field of inquiry through focused independent study and diverse research travel. In her student statement for the Taliesin Prize, she shared the story behind her transcript:
“I grew up in an isolated home in northern Vermont with limited electricity, where my family grew most of our own food. I attended a rural public high school. My current academic focus is interdisciplinary, collaborative research about small-scale agriculture, agrobiodiversity, and rural food security. These interests were shaped by my upbringing and by my thesis research about maize agriculture in Mexico. They developed over the course of my time at Harvard. Although I found few courses addressing these topics at Harvard, I explored them through independent research while taking complementary courses in various fields for my joint concentration.
“I entered college with interests in languages, music (violin/viola performance), and plant science. I took several courses in these topics at Harvard. I also explored new areas through courses not directly related to my primary areas of interest– including a Social Studies tutorial in African American political thought, an engineering class about Systems Thinking, and CS50.
“I took two semesters off during college, which were important in allowing me to maintain focus and excitement about academic opportunities at Harvard. During time off, I hiked the Appalachian trail and conducted research in Mexico.
“I am currently studying abroad in Bhutan for my final semester. I am taking courses in Dzongkha, Restoration Ecology, and Agriculture and Land Management, while interning at the Ministry of Agriculture. I chose to study in Bhutan due to its unique environmental and agricultural policies, and to immerse myself in a completely different geographic and cultural region.”