Scholar’s radio show brings intellectual life to airwaves
Professor Robert Harrison is the host of Entitled Opinions, an hour-long talk show airing Tuesdays from 5 to 6 p.m. on KZSU 90.1 FM. “At Stanford we are dwelling in a garden of ideas,” Harrison said. “I know how much desire there is outside academia to have an ‘in’ on the kinds of conversations we have.”
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 memetic desire, as Rene Girard has done. 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 thing—but 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 exchange—no 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:
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.