Lenfest 2015 Winner: Stathis Gourgouris

March 09, 2015

Stathis Gourgouris, a professor of classics, English and comparative literature who directs the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, believes that antiquity has relevance to contemporary life. In the classroom he strives to make connections across centuries and regions.  

“I want people to think on their feet and not be afraid of their ignorance,” he says. “I encourage speculative thinking, but I also demand close reading of details.” 

Gourgouris, who works in a variety of languages (including  ancient and modern Greek, as well as French and  German), is also the award-winning author of four books of poetry. Outside the classroom he has been a correspondent for a daily newspaper in Athens and consulted on a series for Greek television on prominent thinkers.

His own teachers include the late Shuhsi Kao, a professor in UCLA’s Department of French and Francophone Studies, who was his adviser and directed his 1990 doctoral dissertation. “She taught me first and foremost to teach students how to question everyone and everything.” 

According to Gourgouris, a good teacher must be open to the unexpected. “What happens in the classroom can never be fully predicted,” he says. “A predictable teaching day deserves to be questioned.”

What, then, makes a good student? “Students should have confidence and daring, yet be attentive and self-critical.” This is a difficult balance, he notes, one that does not necessarily come easily. He encourages students to open up and take risks in front of their peers – “to test their limits, to imagine, to question and to rethink.”

His undergraduate and graduate courses reflect his knowledge in a wide range of topics such as ancient Greek philosophy, political theory, modern poetics, film, contemporary music and psychoanalysis. “What brings this all together is my desire to come to terms with what it means to live in a world that is simultaneously enchanting and horrifying, beautiful and unjust, inordinately creative and destructive, and to work with others so as to alter it,” he says. 

He remains passionate about his multidisciplinary work outside the classroom. He recently traveled to Mumbai, India, where he lectured about democracy and participated in a reading with an Indian poet. 

Committed to the notion of teaching beyond one’s “comfort zone,” Gourgouris often invites experts in other fields – including history, psychology and philosophy – into his classroom to team teach. Discussions might range over Freud, ethics and modern Greek literature, with even the teachers learning something new. 

“The students love it,” Gourgouris says. “They find it easier to participate from their own position of not quite knowing.”

-- By Gary Shapiro