After 41 Years, a Changing of the Guard at the Humanities Series

(4-15-98) -- As new director of the Humanities/Lowell Lectures at Boston College, Assoc. Prof. Paul C. Doherty (English) hopes to keep the venerable series at the heart of campus intellectual discourse, attracting speakers who will spark the imagination of both students and the community at large.

Doherty acknowledges he has a tough act to follow in succeeding founding Humanities/Lowell Lectures Director Francis Sweeney, SJ, who attracted some of the greatest names in letters to Boston College in his 41 years at the helm of the lecture series, and who will hand the series' reins over to Doherty in the fall.

"I'd like to attract people who are engaged - and engaging," said Doherty, who plans to broadly interpret the humanities scope of the series, inviting poets and screenwriters, historians and architects, perhaps even scientists. "I'm really a pluralist," he said. "I like to hear people who are glad to be doing what they're doing."

Since Robert Frost made the inaugural reading in the series in April 1957, guests who have accepted Fr. Sweeney's invitations to speak at Boston College have included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Alec Guinness, e.e. cummings, Robert Penn Warren, John Dos Passos, Joyce Carol Oates, Seamus Heaney, and scores of other acclaimed writers, artists and thinkers.

"It has been a lustrous run," said Doherty. "Fr. Sweeney has brought to the Boston College campus virtually all of the major literary figures of the United States and the British Isles of the second half of this century. To continue the series at the high standard that he has set is a daunting challenge."

A scholar of James Joyce who has taught freshman writing seminars and a gamut of courses ranging in subject from English composition to Shakespeare, Doherty twice chaired the English Department in the 1970s and '80s, and directed the department's graduate program from 1983-90.

He remains an inveterate lecture-goer, a habit formed in his student days: Thirty-five years afterward, he recalls his excitement at hearing novelist James Michener, poet John Ciardi and Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann during his days as a doctoral student at the University of Missouri. "I went to all of them," he said. "It was the only show in town."

Doherty said his favorites in the Humanities/Lowell Lecture Series in recent years have included presentations by playwright Tom Stoppard, Pulitzer-winning novelist and poet Annie Dillard, "Nobody's Fool" screenwriter Richard Russo and classicist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

"A speaker like Martha Nussbaum has such energy," he said. "The Stoic philosophers are her specialty, but now she writes about contemporary education. She positively lives out what she's saying. Annie Dillard was another one like that. She was a performer. Her reading had such a sense of timing."

For now, Doherty says he will be reading widely and listening to speakers in search of candidates for the BC series. He hopes to be able to sponsor as many as five lectures per semester.

"I'm loathe to assert too much at the beginning," he said. "Rather than make grandiose claims, I'd rather let things happen, guided by tradition, for a short while."

His criteria for the lectures are that they appeal to listeners both inside and outside the University community, while remaining in keeping with the traditional values of Boston College.

"We'll try to have the community in, while providing students an opportunity to complement their classwork," said Doherty. "We hope to feature speakers who are different, who are inspiring, and who are consistent with the beliefs and causes the University has traditionally espoused."

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