Newhouse Center provides a unique and underutilized resource
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:10
The Distinguished Writers Series, hosted by the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, launched its fourth year last week with a visit from Nathan Englander. The Newhouse talks are a series of conversations unlike any other on campus.
These talks are a creative forum above all else. The English Department hosts an admirable range of poetry readings, alumnae author readings and academic-planning discussions. But the Newhouse program’s focus is unique in its ambiance and level of discussion.
The program creates, for lack of a better word, a more exorbitant atmosphere than most campus events fueled solely on students’ stress-worn enthusiasm.
Last Thursday the Newhouse Center in Green Hall was crowded with students and faculty, but the on-campus attendees were outnumbered by the off campus visitors, a ratio which is par for the course at these events. Many visitors were clutching copies of Englander’s book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”
A level of eagerness and concentration pervades the Newhouse talks. The effect results in part from the attendance of a large group of audience members who, rather than seizing a free hour in a hectic schedule, have planned and prepared to travel to Wellesley and listen in. The atmosphere also results from the, well, distinguished status of the speakers. In fact, Englander recently received the 2012 Frank O’Connor short story award, an announcement that drew admiring applause from the Newhouse audience. Last year, when Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz hosted a conversation with celebrated writer Francisco Goldman ,visitors crowded into Green Hall as much to hear the interviewer as the author.
Student attendance at the Newhouse Center, however, is sadly lacking. Off-campus guests consistently outnumber the Wellesley students themselves. To underutilize this precious resource on campus is to reject a once-in-a-lifetime level of access. The small environment, the focused conversation and the Q&A sessions are not going to be found at a stuffed Barnes & Noble book signing. The Newhouse talks offer an insight into academia, particularly important for students interested in creative writing, media or communication.
Setting aside the status of the speakers, the series has a unit merit beyond what is normally offered at the standard academic lecture or even thoughtful class discussions. This angle on the conversation is more or less abstract and difficult to articulate. The conversations tend to approach the creative process, or rather creative philosophy, more closely than lunch discussions that revolve around the joint topics of expression, publication and MFAs.
This is not to say that the Newhouse Center hosts talks that are in any way less “academic,” per se, than other departments and venues. For the small segment of the Wellesley population pursuing the Creative Writing concentration, these events are dead on in terms of academic focus. Others in the crowd are reviewers from the Wellesley News, students whose classes have a “literary event requirement” and non-majors looking to get their mind off schoolwork and get a book signed. However, there simply are not that many students present, and their absence is striking.
Furthermore, the substance of the talks themselves is quite unique among academic events held at Wellesley. The events bring attendees not to discuss a current problem in the social sciences or the specific area of research conducted by a professional in a lab. Rather, students are taken briefly inside the mindset of a successful writer with a developed and highly personal conception of their own process and the power of writing. Englander discussed reality in fiction; Diaz and Goldman explored the process of growing into a writer, not necessarily through education.
The talks are obviously dependent on the speaker, the mediator and the questions. The versatility of the platform, as well as the consistent interest it introduces from outside of the College, is more or less unprecedented on campus.
More student faces at such anticipated and insightful events would not only demonstrate to the College that students appreciate this program. High attendance would also exhibit to off-campus visitors the high esteem and interest Wellesley students hold for disciplines even outside their own. That is, after all, the definition of the College’s liberal arts education.