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Q&A: Incoming Stanford Humanities Center Director, literature professor Roland Greene

The Daily spoke with Greene about the role of the humanities and SHC at Stanford, as well as his goals as SHC director. (Photo: L.A. CICERO/Stanford News)

Roland Greene, the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of English and comparative literature, was named the next director of the Stanford Humanities Center (SHC) in July. He will begin serving in the role on Sept. 1.

SHC supports humanities research by awarding fellowships and hosting more than 100 research workshops and 50 public events each year. 

Greene, who was a fellow at the SHC early in his career, studies literature from the Renaissance to the present in England, Latin Europe and the transatlantic world. He is editor-in-chief of the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

The Daily spoke with Greene about the role of the humanities and SHC at Stanford, as well as his own goals as SHC director. 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Can you talk about SHC’s mission and role?

Roland Greene (RG): The Humanities Center is a place where Stanford’s humanities community members come to hear the most cutting-edge work in their fields. It is one of the few places on campus where a historian, a philosopher and an art historian would come together to hear a talk that would speak to all of us at the same time. It is our job to think about what would bring us together.

The goal of the Humanities Center is to put people together. It’s a real mix of people. They critique each other and watch their work evolve. They respect each other. They have formal and informal conversations to help them understand each other. 

TSD: Why did you decide to take the role SHC director?

RG: When I was changing jobs, I spent a year as an external fellow at SHC. It was one of the best years of my career intellectually because of the company around me, the chance to interact with people I was interested in and the resources. It was a crucial year for me. Working as a director allows me to ensure that it does for others what it did for me.

TSD: What skills and insights will make you a good director?

RG: I have had experience with what the Humanities Center does. I’ve organized workshops, advised many graduate students and served on the [SHC] selection committee. I think I have seen firsthand most of what the Humanities Center does. I have also been on the receiving end [of SHC’s work], so I have a pretty good sense of how to take it to the next level. 

TSD: What would you like to accomplish as director?

RG: I want to reinvest in the types of events that happen. I have to talk to colleagues to see what they would like to see and then put it together. My job is to have the Humanities Center serve as the central place for all humanities research. It continues to expand its footprint on campus.

TSD: What are some challenges you face? 

RG: There is a poor level of understanding about the nature of humanities research. Faculty in other disciplines don’t have experience talking to a humanities scholar about what they do. There are many undergraduates who imagine humanities research is subjective. It’s important for the Humanities Center to expand its footprint so we promote understanding and have an impact on the people early on. We want to provide exposure generously. 

TSD: What is humanities research?

RG: Humanities research is not about solving problems but about identifying problems. For the most part, we are talking about problems that have to be readdressed by each generation. When every generation applies itself, each generation addresses the questions in its own way and produces a culture distinct to them. 

TSD: How does the Humanities Center connect with other areas of Stanford?

RG: What we have in common across Stanford is that we study different ways of coming to terms with the world — what it is, has been, will be. The role of the humanities is to tell us how the world is constituted historically, philosophically. That complements how the world is constituted scientifically, chemically, etc. 

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed. 

Contact Manat Kaur at manat ‘at’ object.live.

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