Four years ago, Leslie Perlera Gonzalez ’16 had never met an author. Yet by her junior year at Boston College, Gonzalez had attended readings by best-selling novelists Dennis Lehane and Emma Donoghue; a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder; and a Q&A roundtable with acclaimed Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu—all on campus. Last fall, she discussed the books of Edwidge Danticat with the author and activist, when Danticat, who had given a reading the night before at Gasson Hall, visited a class on American immigrant literature Gonzalez was taking.
Such campus encounters with significant contemporary writers have “added a whole new dimension” to her understanding of the authors’ works and her ability “to make narrative choices in my own writing,” says Gonzalez, an English major with a medical humanities minor.
The authors all appeared as part of the Lowell Humanities Series, a high-profile cultural program that brings distinguished writers, scholars, and artists to Boston College for lectures or readings that are open to the public, free of charge. In addition to Danticat, the fall 2015 line-up featured journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, Irish literature scholar Declan Kiberd, and Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, whose lecture “Why Liberal Education Matters” complemented a December presentation on the importance of a liberal arts education by Debra Humphreys of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
This spring’s lecturers include Colm Tóibín (March 16), author of eight novels including Brooklyn (the basis for the current film starring Saoirse Ronan) and Nora Webster, and historian Linda Colley (March 30), who specializes in Britain, empire, and nationalism.
Launched in 1957, the Lowell series has long attracted “the best and the brightest,” says its new director James Smith, associate professor of English. A roster of past speakers reads like a who’s who of influential twentieth-century writers, artists, and thinkers. Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Ogden Nash, W.H. Auden, and Maya Angelou are among notable presenters. Susan Sontag came to campus eight times between 1957 and 1988. The poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney was a regular guest as well.
Yet what started as one or two lectures per semester has evolved into a lineup of 12 speakers a year with appeal to a range of majors, says Smith. Taken together, he adds, the slate is a prominent example of how Boston College integrates the humanities into daily academic and community life. “The Lowell plays a crucial role in the intellectual climate on campus,” he explains. “It challenges students to ask questions and to think new and differently.”
Francis W. Sweeney, S.J., then an assistant professor of English and faculty advisor to the Stylus, Boston College’s literary journal, launched what became known as the Humanities Series 59 years ago, when he invited Robert Frost to campus to inaugurate a visiting poet series. The scope of the program broadened to include writers in other disciplines as well as theologians, historians, dramatists, classical scholars, and actors, with lecturers often visiting a class as well.
In 1987, Boston College partnered with the Lowell Institute, a Boston-based educational foundation that supports free public lectures, to partially underwrite the series, which is now cosponsored by the Office of the Provost and Dean of Faculties and the Institute for the Liberal Arts.
Smith says he and his colleagues choose speakers based not only on their achievements but also on their ability to “contribute to the conversations going on in our classrooms” on topics including race. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 2015 MacArthur Fellow whose powerful depiction of race in America, Between the World and Me, won the National Book Award shortly after his appearance at Boston College, drew an “unprecedented” crowd of 700 people, reports Smith. Sociologist Alice Goffman also addressed issues of race in discussing her book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, an ethnographic study of a black neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Increasingly, says Smith, faculty from different academic departments, incorporating history, English, sociology, theology, and African and African diaspora studies, are including Lowell speakers’ work with their syllabi. Many professors then encourage or require students to attend the authors’ lectures.
Professor of English Elizabeth Graver assigned three of Danticat’s books in Second Voices: 21st Century American Immigrant Writing (the class Gonzalez took), and included Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying in the syllabus for her advanced writing workshop Writing Across Cultures. Students in both courses were required to attend either Danticat’s evening reading or a “public conversation” with the author led by Associate Professor of Romance Languages Régine Michelle Jean-Charles. This approach, Graver says, “makes for a really dynamic intellectual experience. Students come to the events incredibly well informed, with smart, probing questions.”
Lowell series organizers are also seeking more opportunities for students to meet speakers in informal settings. Danticat was the latest in a series of writers including Junot Diaz, Gish Jen, and Zadie Smith who have spent one, two, or three days in residence at Boston College. The Haitian-born author met students at a reception hosted by Fiction Days and the African and African Diaspora Studies program, and consulted individually with students in an advanced fiction writing workshop. “She put so much thought into our work,” says Blair Bellis ’16, an English major. “I took everything she said into account when I revised my draft.”
Smith hopes to pursue additional “interdisciplinary initiatives” that offer students in a variety of academic programs opportunities to connect with Lowell speakers.
Gonzalez, who is now interested in a career in immigration law after studying the works of Danticat and other writers in the Second Voices course, sums up the series’ lasting effects: “We’ll always remember that we saw these people speak in person,” she says. “It’s a real gift.”
By Alicia Potter