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Lanier Anderson stewards VPUE during leadership transition

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R. Lanier Anderson, J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy and, by courtesy, of German Studies. Interim Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

The J. E. Wallace Sterling Professor in the Humanities began his role as interim vice provost for undergraduate education in January.

Teacher. Scholar. Thinker. Leader. Mentor. Ask anyone at Stanford who knows Lanier Anderson—the newly appointed interim vice provost for undergraduate education and longtime philosophy professor—and these descriptors most often come to mind. 

After stints teaching at Harvard, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Penn, Anderson joined the Department of Philosophy at Stanford in 1996 and has been guiding students in journeys of self-discovery ever since. Indeed, his faculty office is adorned wall-to-wall with deep thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, and Michel de Montaigne. Along the way, Anderson has been leading and inspiring colleagues to find innovative ways to improve the undergraduate experience. He served as a core member of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford from 2010–2012 and more recently, he co-chaired the Future of the Majors strategic planning team, new initiatives stemming from both efforts have left a monumental imprint on undergraduate education at Stanford.

These days, while he’s not chairing the Department of Philosophy, running the North American Nietzsche Society, or authoring on his latest book about the essays of Montaigne, he has temporarily stepped in to guide and steward the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the undergraduate experience nexus for both students and faculty for the past nearly 30 years. 

Anderson, the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor in Humanities, recently shared insights into his love of teaching, its connection to his scholarly work, and the state of undergraduate education at Stanford and beyond.

Q & A with Lanier Anderson

Given your many other campus commitments, what prompted you to step into the interim vice provost role within VPUE and what have you discovered in the early weeks? 
I believe deeply in the importance of [former Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education} Sarah Church’s initiatives as VPUE—particularly the implementation of the COLLEGE curriculum, the reintegration of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) into VPUE, and the many initiatives to support students who enter Stanford with widely different kinds and levels of high school preparation, which are organized under her Leveling the Learning Landscape (L3) project.  When she needed to step back, it was important for someone in the Stanford community with a commitment to those initiatives to step up and carry them forward until the provost names a successor to lead the next era for VPUE. Since I endorsed these projects so strongly, I felt it was important for me to help out.

It has been a fascinating time in my first month on the job, learning about the many different projects under way across VPUE.  One thing that stands out is that VPUE’s personnel are unified by their deep investment in pedagogy and engaging with students. That’s one of the reasons Sarah was so right to bring CTL back into VPUE; their work bringing evidence to bear on how learning works and how we can improve our teaching is highly relevant to all of us, and their focus on those issues help professionals across VPUE see more clearly what we all have in common. Whether we are engaged in the delivery of crucial early career courses to students, or supporting high impact educational experiences like undergraduate research, study away, or service learning, or working to guide students through the opportunities Stanford makes available, all of us are intensely focused on student development.

What within your own undergraduate journey inspired you to want to teach? 
I was a student in the “Directed Studies” program at Yale, where we pursued an integrated exploration of philosophical ideas, political ideas, and great literary works, from ancient times up to the present. It was exhilarating to study such great texts together with such brilliant and surprising fellow students. I loved it from the first, and I was drawn into teaching because I didn’t want to stop taking part in that conversation.

What has been your favorite course to teach to undergrads?
Oh, there are so many! I used to teach an Existentialism course that I particularly loved, but it has been almost ten years since I got to teach it. I have exhilarating teaching experiences every time I team-teach Philosophy and Literature with one of my colleagues like Joshua Landy, Blakey Vermeule, Ato Quayson, or Mark Greif. I will never learn enough from them! And of course, it is enormously special to work with the first-quarter Stanford students in “Why College?”  It is impossible to choose just one!

What was it like teaching in COLLEGE last fall?
I had a splendid group of students in COLLEGE, who challenged me and each other and brought admirable curiosity and intelligence into the class week in and week out. I have loved teaching the “Why College?” curriculum ever since I was part of the year 1 pilot with Dan, Kathryn Gin Lum, and Sara Mrsny back in 2020. Some of the texts have changed since then—as is only right for a living curriculum—and I missed one or two of the old favorites, but the new materials were exciting and challenging. I also really loved my weekly meetings with a subset of the instructors (my “teaching pod”) to discuss the materials and our approach to it. That kind of intellectual engagement with colleagues over ideas makes the course a special treat, and of course, that is also the kind of experience we are hoping the students will get in their dorms and around campus.

What books come to mind that every undergraduate should read to help them consider and understand their journey after Stanford? And is this a book that shaped you or that you have used in a course?
There are so many books to read that picking just a few seems really arbitrary! But one book I think could benefit students’ post-Stanford journey is Zadie Smith’s book of essays, Feel Free. She engages so many different topics, writers, and artists in the book that there will be something to grab most readers, and that very variety is an excellent model for how a person can remain intellectually alive and curiously engaged with the world in a lifelong way. That is something I really hope for our students to maintain as they go out into the world.

I am currently writing a book about Montaigne’s Essays, and that is another great choice—full of thoughtful wisdom and sometimes strange explorations, but never taking itself too seriously. I tried for about 25 years to get my father to spend a bit of time each day, or even just each week, with the Essays, because I thought he would love it and it would make his life so much better.  Finally, I gave up on trying to persuade him, and started the book project on my own, so that I would have a structure to make me do the same thing myself. Once I stopped trying, my dad did start reading the Essays, and now we have a great subject for probing conversations! Conversations rather like the ones Montaigne himself values so highly in his chapter “Of the art of discussion”.

What do you see as the two or three biggest challenges facing undergraduate education?
First, the pandemic exacerbated a trust gap that was already developing, which troubles relations between faculty and students and among students. Without trust, we can’t create the kind of educational atmosphere that promotes learning. VPUE will be working to help faculty and students coordinate around a more transparent set of shared commitments that clarify what students can expect from faculty and what instructors can expect from students in turn.  

Second, the American high school system is increasingly unequal, and that, together with the fact that we admit more and more international students who were prepared by altogether different systems, means that the differences in the preparation our students bring to Stanford are growing rapidly. This poses ever greater challenges in the classroom. When students do not all know the same things in advance, it is hard to organize the class effectively to meet all their needs together. We need to develop creative strategies both to overcome these differences, and to promote learning for all the students when they are present. This is a big part of the mission of the L3 project.

Third, the Faculty Senate has decided, with the approval of the COLLEGE program, that all Stanford students should have some common educational experiences that unify them in the first year and build intellectual community. Required first-year education is very challenging, however.  We are fortunate to have energetic leadership from Dan Edelstein (Dir. of SIS) in guiding COLLEGE, but it will take careful effort from all of us to implement the new vision successfully.  

Turmoil across the globe, particularly in the Middle East, has invariably had an impact on campus conversations, including within the classroom. Are there resources to help faculty and students navigate these conversations?
The tragic events in the current Gaza conflict are heartbreaking, and it is no surprise that our students have been strongly affected, or that they are deeply concerned. It is also obvious that the wider conflict over Israel/Palestine is one that has divided our community deeply over decades, so the difficult disagreements on campus that we have seen since October 7 were also predictable. I myself have found CTL’s guidance about establishing classroom commitments that help students navigate difficult conversations while maintaining a productive educational atmosphere to be enormously helpful, and I recommend that instructors consider implementing that strategy. For students, as for all of us, it is crucial to begin from an assumption of basic honesty and good will in our interlocutors, just as we ask them to grant such a hearing to us. Only if we strive for that kind of openness can we learn from those we disagree with—not only about their positions, but about ourselves. And only in that kind of culture will we preserve the spirit of freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression so critical to the University’s core mission.

How do you take care of your physical and mental well-being with so many demands on your time?
I make time to exercise on the weekends, and I do my best to eat right and get enough sleep every night. I need to get a little better at saying no to some of the commitments, though, so that the rest will be manageable! Probably the most important thing I do is to make sure to sit down for a nice meal with my wife, Katherine Preston, almost every night. Adding candles and a bottle of wine on the weekends doesn’t hurt either.