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Former director of the Humanities Center Caroline Winterer embarks on new chapter of research


Professor Caroline Winterer is a star of Stanford’s humanities scene, having headed the Stanford Humanities Center from 2013 until Sept. 1, 2019. She completed her Ph.D. in history at the University of Michigan and has taught history at Stanford since 2004. Her research focuses on the history of ideas, political theory and the history of science. She is the author of five books, including “The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910” and “American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason.” A sixth book is on the way. 

The Daily spoke with Winterer about her experience in the humanities in the past, present and future. 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): On Sept. 1, you stepped down from your six-year term directing the Humanities Center, expanding its research connections and undergraduate presence. How does it feel to step back from something you had been so involved in?

Caroline Winterer (CW): The most tangible change has probably been to my inbox — I get a lot less email. Stepping down now, I can say that I am proud of how the Humanities Center has grown. It is a unique humanities center because it houses such a diverse variety of scholars, from professors and graduate students to undergraduates doing humanities research for the first time. Our driving question was always how to engage humanities scholars across the university and to create the kinds of synergies that generate new research insights and discoveries. This specific sort of diversity — diversity of roles and scholarly backgrounds — is very powerful in a research university. 

TSD: Looking back on your six years, what do you think was the hardest challenge you faced?

CW: The toughest thing for me was not being able to offer more fellowships to deserving scholars. Every year, we’d receive hundreds of applications from outstanding humanities scholars but only be able to fund a few. In a perfect world we could fund many more scholars at various career stages since a year at the Center is so transformative.

TSD: And a favorite memory?

CW: A few years ago, some of us ran around campus dressed in those big T-rex costumes, wearing extra-extra-extra-large Stanford Humanities Center T-shirts. The message was that the humanities are not extinct. Some students and tourists laughed and took selfies with us. That memory makes me very happy.

TSD: A lot of students may favor STEM fields over the humanities for economic reasons. What would you say to a student who is interested in humanities but reticent about making it their major or area of college focus?

CW: The first thing I say to students is that the labor market and demand for certain specific skill sets is always changing. Skills and knowledge sets that are desirable today become obsolete tomorrow — the labor market is not static. The skills of humanities thinking are less quantifiable, yes, but they are real and employable and always necessary. 

A second thing I say to students is that the sciences are not the only fields with a method; a lot of humanities fields have particular methods and approaches that can be taught and mastered by students. Humanities research is rigorous and often proceeds through a series of identifiable steps that include both empirical data and interpretation. It’s really helpful for students to learn this process of inquiry into many domains of human experience. These are valuable skill sets to bring to any job, either in four years after enrolling at Stanford or 40 years after enrolling.

TSD: In your published work you seem to be trying to shed new light on events and people in American history that we thought we were totally certain about. For example, your mapping of Ben Franklin’s social network, or your recent piece for Los Angeles Review of Books on Clay Risen’s “The Crowded Hour” in which you say the concept of “colonial America” describes not just the pre-1776 period but also all of American history since then.

CW: It’s interesting to me to go back to things we think we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, and then to discover that there’s still much more to be learned. Each generation goes into the past with new questions — because of that the past is always alive. This should inspire our students here at Stanford: There’s always something new, strange, and exciting to explore about the people who lived before us. 

TSD: What are you working on during your sabbatical this year? 

CW: I’m working on a new book called “How the New World Became Old,” which is about how Americans between roughly 1800 and 1900 began to believe that the earth — and the Americas — were not 6,000 years old but in fact billions of years old.  The title derives from the once-popular view among Europeans and Americans that the New World was actually the newest part of the world, the last land to emerge after the biblical floodwaters receded. From this they reasoned that all life forms in the Americas were inferior to those in Europe — since the New World had emerged last from Noah’s flood, it had a cold and humid climate, which made plants, animals and people small and shriveled. Yet over a single century all of that was thrown out the window, and all kinds of people from scientists to artists because to propose a new idea: not just that the earth was over 2 billion years old, but that America was older than Europe. How do so many people change their minds about something so important so quickly? 

TSD: Will you be teaching any classes this year?

CW: In spring 2020 I will be teaching a new course that Professor Elaine Treharne and I taught for the first time over spring break 2019: the Humanities Research Intensive. It’s designed to take first-year students through the whole humanities research process in one short — but intense — week. We start on Monday by going to some Stanford archives [like the] Special Collections and the Hoover [Institution] and getting the students to choose a document or artifact and to formulate an answerable scholarly question about it. They then spend the week figuring out how to design a project proposal that can answer that question. This includes figuring out what other scholars have said about their source and venturing a couple of plausible scenarios. By Friday they have something that looks like a research grant proposal, which they can then revise and maybe submit for a research grant from VPUE (Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education). And we eat cupcakes. It’s a great week, and responds to what many humanities students have told us: that while there are many independent research opportunities from frosh in STEM fields, we could use more research opportunities in humanities fields. 

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’

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Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck.