From LA to MLA: Roland Greene’s academic journey

“I never had a truly intellectual experience until I went to college and I suddenly knew what it was,” Roland Greene said. “It was like many other things in life—like you eat food every day, but you never have a truly culinary experience until you eat what is cooked by a true master chef.”

Many years and intellectual experiences later, Greene found himself elected to the presidency of the Modern Language Association (MLA), a position he will assume in 2015.

Greene’s childhood, spent tap dancing in Los Angeles, held few hints of his future career as endowed professor of English and comparative literature here at Stanford, author of four books and editor of more, and founder of three literature workshops.

Greene grew up with his mother near West Hollywood after his father passed away when he was five years old. Living in a city famous for its entertainment industry, Greene spent years learning tap dancing with his mother’s encouragement. Even then, the young Greene knew his passions lay elsewhere.

 “After some time, I lost interest in [tap dancing], and I didn’t want to be a performer,” Greene said. “As a child, I was always kind of reflective and mostly quiet. I think I wanted to somehow be a reader, a writer, a thinker.

 “Growing up in Los Angeles in that era, when there were only five channels on the television, the media culture that I experienced could be recognized from my daily life,” Greene said. “I always I felt that I was the center of something.”

One of his most memorable experiences was his encounter with Robert F. Kennedy the day before his assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. To the then 10-year-old Greene, who admired Kennedy as “a hero,” it was a traumatic experience.

Despite his attachment to Los Angeles, it was not long before Greene had to contemplate leaving his hometown to explore elsewhere for his higher education.

As a first-generation college student, the prospective of going to college was a distant dream. Describing himself as “quiet” and “self-conscious,” Greene was hesitant to ask for advice on his college application. He approached a high school literature teacher, with low expectations.

 “He asked me, what do you want to do after high school, and I said very hesitantly that I would like to go to UCLA,” Greene said, “I thought he would laugh at me and tell me that I could not go there.”

Greene went on to enroll at Brown University in Rhode Island. It was then that he started turning his full attention to an academic pursuit.

 “All things that mattered to me, like being from Los Angeles, that media culture, all didn’t matter there,” Greene said. “That sent me to being more intellectual about things, for I thought what we did have in common there was that intellectual experience.”

In fact, his mind was so occupied by his intellectual interests that he had no time for almost anything else

“I was a tremendous nerd,” Greene said with a grin. “I studied morning, noon and night and I had almost no social life—by choice.”

For Greene though, the sacrifice of social life was not too high a price to pay for inteectual exploration. Comparing his own intellectual dedication to that of his students today, Greene lamented the fact that most students now lack a spirit of intellectual curiosity pivotal to the shaping of a scholar.

 “I think that most students here or anywhere else continue to go along and be good students,” Greene said. “But for the ones that are [intellectually curious], you can connect with them.”

Despite his own scholarly achievements, including his recent recognition within the Modern Language Association, Greene’s dedication to teaching shines through as his legacy. This dedication is most apparent when he talks fondly about his past students.

 “I just got an email from a former student last quarter, who is now a novelist teaching at Yale,” Greene recounted. “He said in the email, ‘You may not remember me, but I was just teaching undergraduates yesterday and I found myself repeating to my students exactly something you taught in this course 23 years ago.’ That was really gratifying.”