A novel idea

Brandeisians looking for a chance to discuss a book with students and faculty from multiple institutions this summer need look no further than the upcoming Brandeis Novel Symposium (BNS). Faculty from the likes of Brandeis, Brown, University of Colorado-Denver and Wesleyan amongst others will descend upon the Mandel Center for the Humanities this April. The premise is simple—host a day on campus discussing one book in particular linked to a wider theme and invite students and faculty alike to discuss said book and theme. In other words, this year will bring “another fascinating set of debates about why novels matter, and how they make you see a problem or a question differently,” according to an email from Professor John Plotz (ENG).

Plotz, the driving force of the event, was asked to come up with a way of uniting faculty and graduate students of the Humanities in an “unusual way,” and in the process, Plotz identified an issue. “The idea of BNS is to get participants in a room together with more in common than just a set of scholarly questions,” wrote Plotz.

Plotz explained in an email to The Brandeis Hoot that oftentimes at conferences, the “moments of argument” require evidence that is just given to those in attendance “rather than shared.” 

“But here, we all have the evidence in our laps; it is like those scientific publications that actually make the data-set available. That means space for more productive disagreements—but also for more substantial progress in unexpected directions, as single moments one reader had ignored come alive, when raised by another reader,” Plotz continued.

This year’s chosen title is “The Professor’s House,” which Plotz explains was published in 1925, “in the height of modernism,” and appears to tell the story of a lonely old professor looking back upon his life, reminiscing about writing a book about the Spanish explorers of the Southwest. In reality, the novel is exploring how much of his thoughts revolve around a former student of his, Tom Outland, who turns out to be a secret love object and who encountered the Native American story of the Southwest “in a profound, but also shameful way.”

Plotz told The Hoot, “the committee selected it because Willa Cather is absolutely brilliant on what it means for America to be a settler nation—one that stole property, upended the lives of the indigenous dwellers on the land, and redefined the Great Plains into a space that seems ‘simply’ American. But, she always tells the stories of that takeover with a sense that it could be otherwise—that every tradition and custom gets invented, and that people get

changed by where they live, who they interact with. This is a story that seems so simple and

so welcoming—and yet it’s a dark river, miles deep and flowing with dangerous force.”

Plotz is hopeful about this year’s event and the potential for debates. He believes that the Symposium is important not just because it brings together Brandeis students and faculty alike who care about the issues being raised by the novels, but also “because it does so in a way that relies on the capacity of aesthetic judgment and aesthetic thought that all of us have within us, even if we do not use it all the time. Reading the novel of the year is meant to trigger the kind of thinking generated when you encounter a text that is deep, thought-provoking and beautiful in more ways than can easily be described or paraphrased.” 

He’s even hopeful that Brandeis will inspire other institutions to follow suit; pointing to Boston University’s “Big Fat Book Symposium” as an example. Plotz explained his hopes for this event to “inspire other universities to make ‘copycat’ events that are structured the same way, but raise different sorts of questions.”

All are welcome, including those who have never studied literature previously, to attend the Symposium, including undergraduates, who were notable at a prior Symposium discussing Cixin Liu’s science fiction novel “Three Body Problem.” Morning meetings are designed for interested students, both graduate and undergraduate, and they come with a free lunch. Those interested can find details for this year’s Symposium, including how to register, at brandeisnovelsymposium2020.wordpress.com.

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