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Lowell Humanities Series Shows Steady Increase in Attendance

Since its founding in 1957, the Lowell Humanities Series has cultivated a tradition of public intellectual engagement at Boston College by bringing hundreds of distinguished scholars to campus. These visitors present compelling lectures on an array of topics, from social issues to historical events. 

Each year, the Lowell Humanities Series hosts a total of 13 lectures, with seven in the fall and six in the spring. The speakers, which include highly accomplished writers, artists, and performers, all bring diverse perspectives, experiences, and knowledge that attract a variety of different audiences. Better yet, all Lowell events are free and open to the public—making these engaging lectures easily accessible to BC students and members of the greater Boston community.

Dr. James Smith, Associate Professor of English and Irish Studies, has served as the Director of the Lowell Humanities Series for the past five years. As both the Director of the Lowell Series and a faculty member, he provides a dual perspective on the substantial increase in Lowell Lecture attendance and the organization’s efforts to expand its presence on campus. 

During the 2018-2019 academic year, the average lecture attendance was 241 people––a considerable increase from the average of 198 from 2015-2016. Smith attributes this higher turnout to a continued effort to the, “conscious and deliberate engagement of faculty and students through co-sponsorships and collaborations with departments and programs.” This collaboration has sparked greater interest among students and faculty by encouraging them to become directly invested in the lecture events.

Professor Smith and his colleagues have also been working to, “actively integrate the Lowell Humanities series into the curriculum and academic programs on campus.” In May, the line-up for the upcoming year is announced. This offers faculty members the opportunity to see who will be visiting, and to integrate those speakers into their syllabi or create additional assignments (such as extra credit opportunities) involving attendance at these events. Additionally, the resources page on the Lowell Humanities series website provides short texts, reviews, and interviews for each of the upcoming lecturers which professors can use to frame a discussion for engaging students in the classroom.

For about half of all lectures, the Lowell Series has also hosted small, informal meet-and-greets before the main event. These gatherings allow a small group of students to ask questions and hold discussions with the speaker in a casual setting. 

While these sustained efforts have translated to increased student turnout, Professor Smith points out that physical space is one of the primary constraining pressures on event size. With the exception of Bryan Stevenson's lecture hosted in Conte Forum this past fall (which had an estimated attendance of 2300-2500 people) the vast majority of Lowell Events are held in Gasson 100. This is a much smaller venue, with the capacity to hold only 250 chairs and standing space for 50-70 people. 

While it doesn’t happen often, Smith reports that the coordinators have had to turn away guests due to limited space. The ideal size would be an auditorium like Robsham Theater, with the means to accommodate 500-700 people. Currently, the Lowell Humanities Series is considering the feasibility of possibly hosting a greater number of larger events in the future. 

In addition to the Lowell Lecture Series, other BC events to welcome speakers include the Clough Colloquium, the Chambers Lecture Series, and the Forum on Ethics (all organized by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics), in addition to the Park Street Corporation Speaker Series. Each brings a rich and diverse array of intellectual content to campus. The wide variety of interdisciplinary lectures hosted provides valuable opportunities for students to make connections between academic study and broader public presentation. This relationship models what it means to engage in intellectual learning beyond the classroom.

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