January 23, 2008
Stanford professor's radio show spotlights Nobel laureates, writers, scholars giving their 'Entitled Opinions'
A few years ago, Robert Harrison decided that the humanities, and literary studies in particular, were not making the best use of the mass media. So he took matters into his own hands. He trained to become a disc jockey.
The fruit of his labors is Entitled Opinions. The hour-long talk show, now in its third season, airs Tuesdays from 5 to 6 p.m. on Stanford's KZSU 90.1 FM. During that hour, Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the Department of French and Italian, explores literature, ideas, ancient and modern history, and all aspects of human experience. His guests are Stanford faculty and the scholars, writers and thinkers who visit the campus.
All of the programs are available free at Stanford on iTunes U and on the Entitled Opinions website: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/fren-ital/opinions.
"I believe in it," Harrison said. "And the reason I believe in it is that at Stanford we are dwelling in a garden of ideas. I know how much desire there is outside academia to have an 'in' on the kinds of conversations we have."
Harrison said he wants to "show people what exactly it means to devote your life to an author like Proust, or the idea of mimetic desire like René Girard. In other words, I wanted to turn to all the people I know and have come to know for 20 years and get them on the air for an hour. All of them, almost invariably, have been fascinating."
According to Harrison, the success story is simply an academic version of what every good chef knows: 90 percent of great cuisine is the ingredients.
Recent "ingredients" have included award-winning novelists Colm Toibin and Shirley Hazzard; philosophers Michel Serres (Stanford professor of French), René Girard (Stanford's Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature and Civilization, Emeritus) and Richard Rorty (the late Stanford professor of comparative literature); and scientists Andrei Linde (Stanford professor of physics) and Paul Ehrlich (Stanford's Bing Professor of Population Studies). Past topics have included the philosophy of corporations, psychoanalysis, democracy and anti-Americanism in Europe. Fifty-six episodes have aired since the show's debut in September 2005.
Entitled Opinions has found listeners across the globe: Some educators have begun using podcasts of the show in university classrooms in Mexico, Australia and China. "I like the idea that it's kind of a cult thingbut I have an idea that it's larger than that," Harrison said. For one thing, the e-mail response has been substantial, he said.
"Although the primary aim is not pedagogical, no one would listen to it if they didn't think they were learning something," Harrison said. "These are not like Stanford courses online. These are programs where intellectuals speak to each other at a high level of intellectual exchangeno one is excluded per se, but you do have to have intellectual curiosity. We refuse to dumb it down. There's no pressure at KZSU to dumb it down. I'm amazed at how appreciated it is."
The 2008 season was launched Jan. 15 with Stanford history Professor Philippe Buc speaking on the timely topic of religion and violence. Upcoming subjects include the origins of agriculture, the Ottoman Empire, the evolution of psychiatry, love and beauty in Plato's work, the vocation of the humanities and poet A. R. Ammons. The winter schedule comprises the following programs, available either on the radio or through iTunes:
Jan. 15: "A Conversation with Historian Philippe Buc on Religion and Violence"
Jan. 22: "A Conversation with Orhan Pamuk," winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature
Jan. 29: "The Origins of Agriculture," with Stanford classics Professor Michael Shanks
Feb. 5: "Eros and Beauty in Plato," with Stanford classics Professor Andrea Nightingale
Feb. 12: "The Poetry of A. R. Ammons," with Stanford French and Italian Assistant Professor Laura Wittman
Feb. 19: "The Evolution of Psychiatry," with Dr. Stewart Agras, Stanford professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences
"In many cases," Harrison said, "I've had to study up for a show. But I feel this is ideally what a university should be. We should all be able to talk to each other at a high level with a little preparation, as long as we all make an effort to speak a common language."
Harrison has taught at Stanford since 1985. He earned his doctorate in Romance studies from Cornell University in 1984, with a dissertation on Dante's La Vita Nuova. He is the author of The Body of Beatrice (1988), Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992) and The Dominion of the Dead (2003). His new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, will appear in the spring of 2008 from the University of Chicago Press.