For over half a century, the Lowell Humanities Series has brought famous writers from myriad backgrounds to Boston College. As one of the most successful lecture series on campus, the events have brought BC international attention.
With such acclaimed authors as Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Maya Angelou on the list of former speakers, attendees hold high expectations for future events.
“The emphasis at the beginning was more heavily on poets and fiction writers; over time the range of speakers has broadened into nonfiction, journalism, and other fields,” said.
Carlo Rotella, director of the Lowell Humanities Series and a professor in the English department in an email.
Rotella, in the first year of his three-year term as director of the series, hopes to continue to further the mission of the professor who created the program: Rev. Francis Sweeney, S.J. “Francis Sweeney knew a lot of prominent writers and wanted to bring them to campus,” Rotella said.
According to the Lowell Humanities Series’ website, Sweeney believed that “There is nothing like an author reading from his or her own works,” sparking the idea for the early installments of the series.
When actually planning an author’s event, there are several factors that determine the structure.
“Poets and fiction writers will often read from their work, but I ask them to make sure to also talk about the work,” Rotella said.
“Some visitors really look forward to the Q and A, and they want to emphasize that. When Governor Patrick came a couple of years ago, he wanted to get to the Q and A as quickly as possible.”
A quick look at the series’ website will reveal the upcoming events for the entire semester.
“We also start planning well in advance to get our visitors’ work onto syllabi for that semester, so that there will be particular classes or other groups on campus who take a special interest in the visit,” he said.
“We’re already thinking about next year’s series, and we’ll lock in our slate of speakers over the summer.”
In terms of choosing authors for the next semester’s events, Rotella and the graduate assistant for the program, Katie Daily, GA&S ’17 are always open to new ideas for speakers.
“We definitely take suggestions and recommendations, and often the way it works is that a colleague or a department will come to us and say, ‘Here’s a famous person you could invite for us, and we’ll make sure her work is on a lot of our syllabi that semester,'” Rotella said. “Those partnerships work very well for everybody, and we rely on them.”
Another main consideration in planning an event is who the intended audience might be. “Our target audience includes students, faculty, staff, and people from off campus,” he said. “One thing I’m very pleased about is that we increasingly have a core of regulars who come from on and off campus no matter who’s speaking.”
Cultivating an engaged and educated audience is key to the experience of the author as well as those in attendance at the lectures.
“When the novelist Chang-rae Lee came … we had students getting up and saying, ‘In your earlier novels you were interested in this theme, but in your more recent work you seem to have turned away from it,’ and so on, and afterward he asked me, ‘Who are these people? Usually I’m lucky if somebody in the audience has read one of my books, and they’ve read them all!'” Rotella said.
Over the years, the events have begun to cater to more specific audiences in the form of “Poetry Days” and “Fiction Days,” events that are put together in conjunction with a certain professor or class.
“We collaborate to bring in that person and schedule multiple events- not just a Lowell lecture, but also a more informal event with students and faculty in the afternoon,” Rotella said. Events are not always coordinated within the English department, though, as the series looks to broaden its scope.
Looking to the future, Rotella hopes to continue building on the acclaimed reputation the series already boasts. In order to continue attracting this quality of authors to the events, it is important that the series remain in good standing with the University and its sponsors, which include the Lowell Institute, Boston College’s Institute for the Liberal Arts, and the Provost’s Office. Without the support of these institutions, it would be impossible for the series to bring such well-known speakers to campus, he said.
“We’ve built up stronger funding support from the University over time, which we appreciate, so we can bring even more prominent speakers to campus,” Rotella said.
“We’ve also built up a strong regular constituency and a pretty reliable model for reaching the right audience for a speaker, so we’re more confident about taking a chance on a speaker-either one who’s new to our audience or one who costs a little more-and being pretty sure that we can give that speaker the turnout he or she deserves,” he said