Lenfest 2015 Winner: Liza Knapp

Georgette Jasen
March 08, 2015

Liza Knapp (GSAS’85), an associate professor of Slavic languages, focuses her teaching and research on 19th century Russian literature, in particular the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. A native New Yorker, she began studying Russian as a teenager, inspired by her reading of the literature in translation.

“Russian literature is unabashedly concerned with the big questions,” she says. “Freedom and necessity, faith, power, injustice, language, love and death. These are the questions of our distinctly human life.”

When Knapp won a Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2007, the announcement cited “her infectious enthusiasm, empathy and erudition” that “leave an indelible mark” on her students. She joined the Columbia faculty in 2004, after more than a decade at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The study of literature is important—especially now in the era of thinking by pull-down menu—because it is not algorithmic, not always predictable,” she says. “I try to teach students to appreciate the patterned side of literature but, at the same time, to not fear its uniqueness, its spontaneity, and its randomness.”

Knapp has taken her teaching beyond the classroom. In the summer of 2004, when Oprah Winfrey’s book club selection was Anna Karenina, Knapp served as “literary expert” and responded to readers’ questions about the novel online. She has taught classes on Russian literature at the 92nd Street Y in New York. In 2006, she recorded audio lectures for the Modern Scholar series of recorded books.

She considers herself fortunate to have had Robert Belknap (SIPA’57, GSAS’60) as a teacher and thesis adviser when she was a Ph.D. student at Columbia. “He was very sensitive to what was special about Dostoevsky but at the same time he was adamant that Dostoevsky be read in the larger literary and philosophical context,” she says. “I try to follow that model.”

Knapp studies the relationship of Russian literature to other works in the Western canon. She teaches a course on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the English novel; next fall she will teach course on Russian, English, French, and American war narratives from Tolstoy to the present. She has just finished writing a book about Anna Karenina, in which she shows how Tolstoy drew from Pascal and George Eliot, among others, and has begun a study on the impact of Russian writers on Virginia Woolf.

“Literature is the product of a unique mind, though one that is responding to literary precedents and imbued with the cultural spirit of that person’s time,” she says. “I try to teach my students how to appreciate the creative thought of the writers we read, by helping them to see how these writers wrote.”