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Q+A: Caroline Winterer, new Stanford Humanities Center director

Caroline Winterer, professor of history, was recently named the new director of the Stanford Humanities Center, a post she will assume on Sept. 1. The Daily sat down with Winterer to discuss her research interests in early America’s intellectual and cultural history, her vision for the Humanities Center and the state of the humanities on campus.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): What drew you to Stanford’s History Department? How has Stanford been supportive of your research interests?

Caroline Winterer (CW): This is my ninth year in the History Department, and what drew me to it is, of course, [that] it’s one of the top five or so history departments in the country. It’s got overall excellence in all fields of history, but in American history it’s extremely strong, and also in early modern European and global history, it’s got some of the best scholars out there, so given my own research interests– which I think of as American early modern history– it seemed like a perfect fit, and it has been.

It’s been a really fruitful place to think about the history of ideas, of art and material culture, of political thought– all of these fields have wonderful specialists in my department, but also institutionally. I’ve had a chance to do the American Enlightenment exhibit at Green Library in 2011. I also did a printed catalog of the exhibit that was supported by the university, among other projects, so everything fits together.


TSD: What drew you to directing the Stanford Humanities Center?

CW: In some ways, I’ve been thinking about this since I started my career as a graduate student. I’m really interested in how people think about the world today and how they have thought abut the world in the past, and that interest in graduate school drove me to write my dissertation on the transformation of approaches to classical antiquity. How people between 1500 and 1900 transformed the way they think about ancient Greece and Rome is interesting, because we think they’re done, they’re over– what could be new to learn from them?– but what I learned is that we re-invent the past all the time.

In 1500, we thought one thing about the ancient world, and, in 1900, we thought something different about it. Those thoughts made people completely transform higher education in America. At the end of the 19th century, they decided the classics were pointless, unlike the sciences, which were more immediately useful. I just thought that was interesting, how somehow this subject we call the humanities was formed during that transformation of the university, so that suddenly, you went from just having classics to having all of these new subjects in the university under this banner of humanities. History, English literature, art history, philosophy– all of these subjects were moved to the university, and they were being called something called the humanities. I thought that [the changing interpretations of the ancient world] was an interesting transformation in human history, and now I’m directing a humanities center and I get to think about these things some more.


TSD: What does this job actually entail? Will you continue to teach, research and advise as much as you do now?

CW: From what I can see right now, my actual undergraduate teaching is going to go away for a while– it’s a big administrative job, and so I’ll be taken out of the undergraduate classroom, but it doesn’t mean I’ll entirely stop talking to undergraduates, who are a huge constituency to the university, especially in their capacity as research assistants to the scholars in humanities departments and at the center. My role to the undergraduates will change but not go away.

My job as director is to steer this ship forward. One of the primary initiatives of the center is its wonderful fellowship program for visiting and internal scholars. These fellowships allow scholars to spend a full academic year, in many cases, thinking very deeply about their research. That research is internally important for those questions it raises in specific disciplines, but it’s also important to scholars so they can stay active and fresh as teachers. It’s both about monastic solitude and cooperation among the fellows to let these ideas see the light of day, so I see my role as director as helping to maintain the Humanities Center’s excellence in the fellowship program and the workshop program for faculty and students to explore specific topics of interests and bring in outside scholars.


TSD: What role, if any, do you see the Stanford Humanities Center playing in undergraduate humanities education and research?

CW: The role that the humanities play in undergraduate education is extremely important, but it’s not one that undergraduates necessarily see very clearly. They come to the humanities through the disciplines– if I’m fascinated by the Middle Ages, or some philosophical question, I major in history or philosophy or French literature. The role of the Humanities Center in the lives of undergraduates is indirect. It ensures the excellence and vigor of the faculty who are teaching these undergraduate courses at the most sophisticated level, but there’s also a direct role that the Humanities Center plays in the research projects of the scholars in residence at the center, so undergraduates can come and participate with scholars who are doing cutting-edge research.


TSD: How important do you think humanities education and research is to the university community?

CW: Obviously, I think humanities education is very important to the university community, and the university has been promoting initiatives to increase the profile of the humanities. We’ve expanded [the Summer Humanities Institute] this summer and added a whole new module in philosophy and literature. This is an effort to address what we call the pipeline problem– to get high school students interested in coming to Stanford to get them to major in the humanities at Stanford. It’s exciting to see the seriousness with which the university is supporting humanities endeavors.


TSD: Given flagging enrollment in humanities majors, what is the state of the humanities on campus? What can the Center do?

CW: I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t have an exact answer, but what you say is true. Humanities enrollment is declining at Stanford, but it’s been declining all around the country. One of the things the Humanities Center can do is remind us that the humanities and sciences are approaching the major questions of human existence. We all want to know what makes us better people, what our obligations are to ourselves and society.

We’re all worried [about] the problems of being human beings in the world, but the sciences and the humanities aren’t necessarily engaged in opposing projects. They’re engaged, in some cases, in really similar projects, but they just approach them in different ways. Opening up conversations between humanists and other parts of the university like medicine, law, education and art to find the points of contacts is a role that the Humanities Center can play.


TSD: How does the Humanities Center compare to other schools? Do other schools have similar institutions?

CW: This has been one of the great things in the past 20 or 30 years– universities have established humanities centers on campus with similar roles like Stanford’s as enablers and sort of clearinghouses for humanistic scholarship. What makes Stanford’s unique is that it’s the largest campus-based humanities center in the country. The only larger institute is the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, in North Carolina, but it’s not actually on a campus, so we are the largest of a growing species. Because of its size, the Center is very well equipped to enter a national conversation about the role of the humanities.


This interview has been condensed and edited.

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