Frankenstein@200 panel brings interdisciplinary approach to classic text

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/

On Thursday night, a panel of Carnegie Mellon professors and alumni gathered before an audience of 30 people in Baker Hall’s Adamson wing to speak about the number one most widely-read book in English-speaking educational institutions: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The event, titled Frankenstein@200, is a celebration of the book’s bicentennial anniversary, and this year’s installment of the Carol Brown Lecture Series.

The Carol Brown Series is a series of annual lectures endowed by its namesake, the former CEO of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and a Life Emeritus member of Carnegie Mellon's Board of Trustees. “The focus of these lectures,” said associate professor of English Richard Purcell, who organized the panel, “is on getting undergraduate students excited about studying English.”

Undergraduate English is a small world at Carnegie Mellon, comprising just five percent of all the students in Dietrich college. At a school well-known for its technical opportunities, it can be hard to attract students to literary programs. Of the 30 audience members, only 12 were undergrads. The panel was selected to touch a broad range of topics, extending beyond the traditional realm of English.

“The novel ties into so many fields and interests beyond literature,” Dr. Purcell said. “I thought it would be a good idea to bring people from diverse disciplines and fields here.”
Of the four panelists, two were English professors. Dr. Marian Aguiar, whose research is focused on culture and globalization, presented a recent modern adaption of the story, in which she spoke about themes of waste, recycling, and material byproducts of globalization, and how the body of Frankenstein’s monster is a metaphor for these themes. Dr. Jon Klancher, also from the English department, spoke about the original Frankenstein texts – there were four editions of the book during Shelley’s lifetime, each slightly different from the next. He then focused on the engravings and images that accompanied each edition, drawing connections to the political climate of 19th-century Europe.

The other two panelists gave very different reads. Carnegie Mellon alumna Tami Dixon, co-founder and principal creative at Bricolage Production company, spoke about her experience adapting the story for a November radio performance: Midnight Radio’s Frankenstein. She spoke about upended expectations, having never read the original book until starting the project, and how flawed the characters are: “Actors dream of sinking their teeth into a role like this,” she said, speaking about Dr. Frankenstein himself. Also presenting was robotics professor Dr. Illah Nourbakhsh, whose work most closely mimics that of the novel’s wayward protagonist. In his talk he brought up ethical issues within robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and uncertainty.

The subject of uncertainty (and its opposite – predictability) was brought up again during questions. Mediator Wendy Arons, a professor at the School of Drama, pointed out that there is always an element of uncertainty in the effect a creative work can have on the world.

Uncertainty is a hot topic at Carnegie Mellon – there are numerous courses across campus devoted to understanding it. For many technologists, Dr. Nourbakhsh pointed out, uncertainty is a bad thing: “What if one day, your toaster decides it doesn’t want to toast your bread this morning?” For artists such as Ms. Dixon, however, it’s what gives her work: “The search for predictability is terrifying to me,” she said.

The dialogue, and the different points of view, all contributed to a broader understanding of the old book. These panelists, had they all gone to undergrad at Carnegie Mellon, may never have crossed paths. By bringing them together, the event was supposed to have appealed to a larger group of students. With a sparse undergraduate showing, however, the panel fell short of this goal.