Hollis Robbins on 19th Century Life and Literature (Ep. 74)

And why aren’t there more operas about tech founders?

As a graduate student, Hollis Robbins helped Henry Louis Gates, Jr. unravel a mystery about the provenance of a mid-19th century book. Robbins helped date the book by discovering allusions to popular literature of that period — her focus at the time. The realization that this perspective would bring valuable insight to other 19th century African American literature prompted her to make that her specialty.

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

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Recorded June 21st, 2019

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: I’m very pleased to be here today with Hollis Robbins, who is one of the leading scholars of African American history and literature. She is also now dean at Sonoma State University. Welcome, Hollis.


COWEN: Opening question: Why were the 1840s the most central and determinative decade in American history?

ROBBINS: Well, the 1840s was a time of change. As I’ve said publicly, the 1850s is actually my decade. I think very deeply about the 1850s widely across the world, what was happening. For me, the 1840s were the decades that opened the door to the decade that I study. But it’s the decade that saw Frederick Douglass. It’s the decade that saw the beginnings of the postal reforms. It’s the decade that you see a beginning of a real political understanding that slavery is going to have to end.

COWEN: It becomes clear America will be a very large nation, right, for the first time?

ROBBINS: Yes, and you see changes in Europe, revolutions in Europe, that will change the makeup of the United States. You see gold being discovered. Gold is discovered in 1848. You see the end of the Mexican-American War. You see the —

COWEN: The Mormon decade, right?

ROBBINS: It’s the Mormon decade.

COWEN: Roads and canals decade.

ROBBINS: Yes, you see bridges being built everywhere. The beginnings of railroads at the end of, again, in the 1850s. Yes, infrastructure begins to be built, and the United States begins to think of itself as a nation. One doesn’t want to talk very much about Manifest Destiny, but in fact, that is characteristic of the way we think about the 1840s.

COWEN: But it seems no one talks about the 1840s, or am I missing out? It’s not a thing to think of that as the seminal decade in American history?

ROBBINS: Well, because the 1850s were so dominant because of the Fugitive Slave Act, because of the writing of Moby-Dick, even though nobody knew it at the time . . . because of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, because of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that the 1850s is the decade that dominates.

COWEN: Why is American literature so blossoming all of a sudden in the 1850s? Where was that coming from?

ROBBINS: Well, with Harriet Beecher Stowe, it’s the Fugitive Slave Act. It’s a good question. Is it Hawthorne and Melville’s relationship with each other, provoking each other to write more?

Is it newspapers? Frederick Douglass, a couple of years after escaping in 1845 or writing his narrative in 1845, founds a newspaper, the North Star, because newspaper culture was thriving in the 1840s and 1850s. You see a real print culture in America, and you see novelists responding to that and being published in magazines and in newspapers.

COWEN: Would there have been a Civil War without a Fugitive Slave Act?

ROBBINS: Absolutely not.

COWEN: Why not?

ROBBINS: Because the deep moral and ethical dilemma provoked by the Fugitive Slave Act was that an individual had to choose between their personal morals and helping a fugitive slave escape and being criminalized for that very act. Stowe and others thought that this was unconscionable. How could the American government require by law that an individual had to turn somebody in when their Christian beliefs and their ethics said, “No, we’re against slavery, and I’m going to help this person escape”?

COWEN: Harriet Beecher Stowe — she’s also objecting to so many slaves having been bought and sold. Is that a practice that is being stepped up as the nation becomes more commercial, as there’s more infrastructure, more transportation?

ROBBINS: I don’t know the data on whether more were bought and sold, but certainly the slave market and the slave economy was such that there was an infrastructure to support buying and selling on a regular basis. The depictions of slave auctions were by the end of the 1840s and the 1850s common in depictions of slave narratives.

COWEN: What did slave traders try to do to make their slaves acquiesce peacefully into being sold?

ROBBINS: This is actually not my area of expertise particularly. My area of expertise is the literature of slavery. But certainly, any kind of psychological torment, any kind of carrots and sticks, blackmail, not feeding slaves well, threats — you name it. Any kind of manipulation of human beings were inflicted upon the enslaved to cause them to acquiesce.

On the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe

COWEN: Why was Uncle Tom’s Cabin so effective in the fight against slavery? It was a best seller. Ostensibly, President Lincoln once said this was responsible for the Civil War. Why this novel?

ROBBINS: Well, have you read it?

COWEN: I have read it.

ROBBINS: How old were you when you first read it?

COWEN: Fifty-seven.

ROBBINS: Oh! How old are you now?

COWEN: Fifty-seven.


ROBBINS: You hadn’t read it before that?

COWEN: Correct. I’d looked at some of it, I think, in high school, but not really.

ROBBINS: That’s so interesting. Actually, when John Updike reviewed our version in the New Yorker magazine, he confessed that he had never read it before either. He also confessed to having put down our version because our annotations, he said, were too distracting, which I thought was fun. But, again, why do you think you didn’t read it?

COWEN: No one told me to. It is, in fact, one of the best American novels and one of the three or four best of the 19th century. Yet it’s become a schoolkid’s thing that you’re supposed to read, but nobody ever does. It’s gripping. It’s manipulative and interesting in informative ways.

ROBBINS: You’ve answered the question, then. It’s manipulative, interesting. What Stowe’s comparative expertise is, is creating these characters that live and jump out of the page. I wouldn’t call Uncle Tom a character that jumps out of the page, but his stalwart forthrightness, his devotion, his clarity of thought about what is right and what is wrong guide and ground the novel.

But we have Little Eva, who’s patterned a little bit on Dickens’s Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop. We have Topsy, who was just a sprite, an imp, sui generis, really extraordinary character. We have Simon Legree, who everybody knows as the avatar of a cruel overseer.

COWEN: Did the book convince more women or more men to oppose slavery?

ROBBINS: Well, the point of the book was to appeal to white women, frankly, to white Christian mothers in the North who could imagine their own child being taken from them.

In the first chapter of the book, Eliza, who is a light-skinned enslaved woman in Kentucky, learns that her son is going to be taken away from her, is going to be sold. She flees in the middle of the night and, in that famous scene, crosses the Ohio River on ice floes, which is a signal moment in American literary history.

In all of the illustrations and the paintings of this book, she is very, very light-skinned. If you take a look at any of these illustrations, white women readers would take a look and imagine themselves in that position.

COWEN: Harriet Beecher Stowe was Calvinist. Is this book actually a Calvinist book in terms of its implicit theology?

ROBBINS: No. This has to do a lot with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s relationship with her father, Lyman Beecher, who was a Calvinist preacher and whose doctrinal beliefs were so strong that he basically told his elder daughter, Catharine, that she was not going to be reunited with her fiancé in heaven because he hadn’t been saved, which is a cruel thing to say after your daughter loses a fiancé. Then saying, “Sorry, you’re not even going to be reunited in heaven.”

Harriet thought that that was a little bit too cruel, and so you see her Calvinism in her novel tempered a little bit by emotion. She thought —

COWEN: There’s free will in the novel, it seems.

ROBBINS: And there’s free will.

COWEN: Are there still Calvinists in American politics today?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s a good question. Do you think most of the candidates running for president today would even be able to say what Calvinism is? I tweeted this the other day.

COWEN: Mayor Pete perhaps, right?

ROBBINS: Perhaps, but can most Americans tell the difference between doctrines of Calvinism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Episcopalian? I doubt it.

COWEN: Is the portrayal of Uncle Tom in the novel in fact racist, as is sometimes alleged?

ROBBINS: Well, Uncle Tom is the racial epithet and has been almost from the beginning of the novel. I don’t think he’s racist. I think he is a character who works within his belief system as a character and does not fight back. He’s an avatar of nonviolence. Certainly, if you’re going to say that nonviolence and those who espouse it are racist, then you’re going to have a little bit of trouble thinking about where to put Martin Luther King.

COWEN: Why does she have this one novel that’s so wonderful and so famous and so full of life just falling off of the page, and then none of her other novels are read at all anymore?

ROBBINS: Well, Dred is pretty good. Or Dred has some good parts and a lot of fat. But the good parts of Dred are great.

COWEN: There’s another way of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that’s to read it through the illustrations, and your edition has a lot of those illustrations. If you read the novel through the illustrations, how it is a different story than just reading it through the text?

ROBBINS: Well, the biggest message, I would say, of most of the illustrations is to age Tom. He spends the whole middle part of the novel with Little Eva. Skip and I talk about this quite a bit in our introduction to our edition — how this is the central relationship of the book, is Uncle Tom, who has found himself on a plantation, the St. Clare plantation in Louisiana, and sits and talks with this young girl about God, about Jesus, about heaven.

Most of the illustrations show the two of them together, show him very old, frankly, to ensure that nobody looking at these two has any sexual feelings one way or the other. She’s always sitting on his knee. She’s always bouncing in his lap, and she’s putting things in his hair. The two of them are always together, so the illustrations must show him as old.

On depictions of slavery in the movies

COWEN: Now I’d like to turn to modern culture and go through a number of portraits of slavery. You tell me how accurate or appropriate you think they are. The movie 12 Years a Slave.

ROBBINS: Some of it was pretty accurate. I would say the biggest inaccuracy is how close the depiction of the slave quarters was to the main house. Usually, it was set at such a distance that nobody in the main house would be able to know or think about the fact of slave quarters nearby.

COWEN: The Quentin Tarantino movie Django.

ROBBINS: Django Unchained.


ROBBINS: Well, I don’t think it was designed to be accurate. It was designed to be a fantasy. It was —

COWEN: But the emotional valence — what in it is objectionable or proper?

ROBBINS: That’s a crazy question.


ROBBINS: I don’t think I can answer that. Again, it was a response to some movies that you’re probably not going to ask me about from the 1970s — a couple of Italian movies whose names I’m forgetting right now — that tried to depict slavery after Roots in ways that were realistic and suggested that the slave owners . . . that there are people as cruel today as were in the 1850s.

He’s responding to a kind of film depiction of slavery. In his film depiction of slavery, he wants to give more autonomy and more agency to Django. So in that case, I would say there’s a lot of accuracy, then.

COWEN: But if there’s a kind of pornography of violence, which, yes, is used to show slavery as horrible but is nonetheless a kind of pornography of violence which cannot help but stimulate some parts of us which may in some ways enjoy violent movies. Is that itself objectionable?

ROBBINS: Well, this was a question that came up in the 1850s, in fact, or perhaps, going back to your question about what was important about the 1840s, after Frederick Douglass’s narrative and after William Wells Brown’s narrative, there was a circulation of a certain kind of pamphlet depicting slavery.

There was a concern among abolitionists that some of the depictions of undress and whipping were a kind of pious pornography. They circulated, and you could read tales of bondage and punishment, S&M in a way that there was concern that many people were buying and circulating these slave narratives not for abolitionism but for titillation.

COWEN: Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, good or bad movie?

ROBBINS: It’s a good movie.

COWEN: There’s a “but” in your voice. What’s the “but”?

ROBBINS: Well, the “but” is that it’s romanticizing that, as typical of films about slavery — and I think Django could be criticized for this, too — only one heroic enslaved person is given agency when everybody else sort of falls away. Cinqué becomes the spokesman for everybody because he’s descended from kings.

COWEN: Herman Melville’s short story “Benito Cereno.”

ROBBINS: Fantastic and a good depiction.

COWEN: Why is it better than all these other options we’ve been discussing?

ROBBINS: Because of agency and because of the idea that individuals under enslavement can be heroic, oppressed, manipulative, sneaky humans just like everybody else.

COWEN: Do Chinese readers have Straussian insights into African American literature?

ROBBINS: It’s a good question. I was asked to give a keynote speech at an ethnic literature conference a couple of years ago in China. Or, actually, about a year and a half ago. I think they had reached out to me as a white scholar of African American literature with the interest of how to think about ethnic literature in a way that doesn’t necessarily become separatist or doesn’t necessarily require that the individual studying the literature identify with that literature.

The questions and thoughts I would get from graduate students and other faculty had a distance about how African American literature, how ethnic literature, should be read. I’m not sure it was necessarily Straussian, but it was different and more interesting than —

COWEN: What do they see that we don’t? Do they see it as more conservative or more radical?

ROBBINS: Well, different texts in different ways. I think they see the narrowness of what gets studied and why. I had a really interesting conversation with one scholar about Neil Simon.

COWEN: The playwright?

ROBBINS: The playwright. Why don’t we study Neil Simon in graduate school? The questions are just outside the box.

The questions about African American literature — it was in conversation with a Chinese scholar that I finally saw in all its clarity the ways that Melanie Wilkes and Ashley Wilkes are implicated in the Ku Klux Klan. This doesn’t get reported or emphasized in posters of Gone with the Wind. The Ku Klux Klan — the only person that really stands up [to] the Klan or has nothing to do with the Klan in Gone with the Wind is Scarlett O’Hara. She thinks it’s a ridiculous organization.

Again, I looked through all the scholarship on Gone with the Wind, which is not a book that I’ve written about until recently, and it’s not emphasized.

Part of the reason it’s not emphasized is that Gone with the Wind isn’t taught in African American literature classes, where African American literary scholars would take a look at it and say, “Well, of course, this is about the Klan.” Or at least the second half of the book is about the Klan. Most of the scholars who were scholars of the South just push it to the side.

COWEN: I’ve tried reading Margaret Mitchell, but to me it was unreadable. I’m not sure why. How can you sell me on Gone with the Wind as a novel I should go back to?

ROBBINS: I’m not going to sell you on it. Again, like Stowe . . . Well, Stowe wrote several other very good books. Mitchell only wrote that one. It’s melodramatic and it’s a love story.

The last time I taught the film — in a black cinema class several years ago at Johns Hopkins — we began with Gone with the Wind, and we began with Gone with the Wind because all black cinema, at some level, engages with that film. It is the foundational film for depictions of slavery against which later films — like 12 Years a Slave, like Django Unchained — have to contend.

On bringing an outsider perspective

COWEN: Now, you’re a white woman studying African American literature. You have a kind of outsider perspective of your own. What does that help you see that maybe is obscured by other parts of people working in your field?

ROBBINS: I got into the field accidentally because I had read excerpts of a slave narrative that Skip Gates had found in 2001 called The Bondwoman’s Narrative and had excerpted it. He found it at an auction, or he bought it at an auction. It was a manuscript called The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts.

We didn’t know anything about the author. We didn’t know anything about its date. We didn’t know anything about its provenance. He went to work, trying to find it through things like what was the ink it was written in? What were the allusions? Were there allusions to Uncle Tom? Did it fit in with a slave narrative genre launched by Frederick Douglass?

Anyway, he had excerpted it in the New Yorker magazine, and I immediately recognized some of the borrowings or some of the excerpts as borrowings from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I had been trained as a Dickens scholar at Princeton, or 19th-century American and British literature. Most of the scholars that he had shown this book to hadn’t recognized those echoes.

From the very beginning, Skip thought what I brought to the field when I started working with him, and when I began to transition from an American literature scholar to an African American literature scholar, was that I was trained in the very books that most African American writers in the 19th century were themselves reading.

In fact, if you are really going to take 19th-century African American literature seriously, you need to read the books that they were reading. They were reading Dickens, and they were reading Tennyson, and they were reading Carlyle and Wordsworth.

In fact, if you are really going to take 19th-century African American literature seriously, you need to read the books that they were reading. They were reading Dickens, and they were reading Tennyson, and they were reading Carlyle and Wordsworth.

COWEN: And sonnets also, right?

ROBBINS: And sonnets, and sonnets. Though the first good African American sonnet writer was Paul Dunbar, and that was much later in the century.

COWEN: Very often black history is brought into American politics rather directly. But bringing indigenous Native American history — that has very different effects on political discourse. How does that contrast work?

ROBBINS: It’s going to be difficult, I think. Native American studies is the fastest-growing ethnic studies field in the United States right now — and about time. After Canada’s Truth in Reconciliation work, I think the Canadian universities’ Native American studies programs are growing. We have one of the best programs here in California at UC Davis.

I was recently at a conference with a number of humanities deans from around the country. We were racking our brains about how we were going to get enough Native American studies scholars to be launching the classes that students are beginning to demand. There’s a real question of why Native American studies isn’t a program and department at most universities.

I came from Johns Hopkins. I don’t think there was a Native American studies scholar in the history or literature department there.

COWEN: Politically, there’s no upside, right? There’s not much of a chance of redemption. There are hardly any good guys, and I mean that word guys literally. There’s not any president you can, in a major way, praise for how Native Americans were treated on net. So it makes everyone look bad, and then you’re not sure what to do about that next, right?

ROBBINS: That’s part of the issue. The other issue is why is there black studies programs at universities is because there were protests that led to them in the 1960s. There were student demands saying, “We need to study this as a discipline, as a scholarly discipline. We demand a canon. We demand professors. We demand funding.”

We haven’t seen that with Native American studies. The scholarly infrastructure hasn’t been there to support scholars working on the subject. You have a variety of reasons that it hasn’t happened yet and will happen.

I think the question is, how does the framework of examining the Native American history — how is that going to conflict with the paradigms for studying black history? I think you’re right. There’s going to be conflict.

COWEN: What needs to be achieved so that a protected class no longer needs to be protected? How do we know when we’re there?

ROBBINS: Well, that’s too big a question. I don’t know the answer to that.

COWEN: What’s the best argument in favor of reparations based on the history of slavery?

ROBBINS: The best argument, I think — Coates’s argument a couple of years ago in the Atlantic was the best argument, which is that systematically property and value was taken away from the descendants from slave families and from the descendants of the enslaved around the country. I think righting the wrongs of redlining, righting the wrongs of incarceration errors, righting the wrongs of family separations. His argument still, as far as I’m concerned, is the most convincing.

On the postal service

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.

COWEN: When was the post office truly bureaucratized?

ROBBINS: Truly bureaucratized? What do you mean by that?

COWEN: Well, it’s nominally a bureaucracy quite early on, but it seems very often it was an informal place in a small town. People would go in there, do their social business, spit their tobacco on the ground, whatever, and get on with things. Then at some point, you have a very formal set of civil service requirements, and a post office is more or less a known, predictable thing. Or no?

ROBBINS: Well, you still have it as a social place. I don’t remember that big study some years ago that if two people were supposed to meet someplace in a town with no other information, where would they end up meeting? Always the answer was at the post office. So it’s still a social place. The real bureaucratization came with unionization in the 20th century and with zip codes in the ’60s.

COWEN: When was the postal service racially integrated?

ROBBINS: It had been racially integrated. It was unintegrated under Woodrow Wilson, and then after that reintegrated, so that you see Richard Wright writes about working at the post office in Lawd Today, I think, is the book. But there were, famously, black postal delivery men through the 20th century.

COWEN: Even in the South?

ROBBINS: I don’t know as much about the South.

COWEN: Why is the post office so productive of tales of suspense?

ROBBINS: Well, if you send a letter, it’s going to get delivered. It’s going to happen one way or the other.

There’s this great scene in Lolita when the mom finally figures out what Humbert Humbert is up to. She writes these letters outing him. She’s about to cross the street to put them in the mailbox, and she gets hit by a car. The dramatic scene — if those letters had gotten into the mailbox, his schemes would be over. But he reaches down, or some kid says, “Oh, here are some letters.” And he’s saved for better or worse.

On teaching and Silicon Valley

COWEN: You now live in northern California. What would you say that people in Silicon Valley do not understand about teaching?

ROBBINS: That’s a real jump.[laughs] I’m going to have to sit and process that for a second. I’ve been a professor for a long time. I think about how to scale things up. I think about how to teach to thousands or tens of thousands rather than to the 20 people in the classroom.

I’m not sure that it’s possible that the process of education, which is the process of learning information mediated by a trained, educated individual to students, which is the way teaching has been taught since Socrates’s time. Certainly, there are things that we do now differently than were done in Socrates’s time, but the delivery and cogitation and discussion and synthesis of ideas and learning has to happen, or I don’t see it scaling up.

COWEN: What do you think it is exactly that makes in-person, face-to-face teaching more effective than, say, teaching over Skype?

ROBBINS: It’s not just the in-person. I think it’s the dynamic of the individual professor, or multiple professors in team teaching, and the dynamic of the students sitting together. When I teach poetry, we might spend the entire class period on one sonnet. Everybody around the room sees something different and convinces laterally the others in the room to see something. Students choose something overt with each other. They affect each other. It’s a dynamic process.

COWEN: What’s your view of bundling teaching with income-sharing agreements? I invest in the student. I get a share of the student’s income as a company. I then have an incentive to teach and place that student. Is that going to work? Is that going to solve our teaching problem? Is it fundamentally an issue of incentives?

ROBBINS: It might. I don’t see anything more wrong with it than any other kind of loans. I think it has a burden on the graduate. The graduate certainly can’t take a gap year after graduation and go to France and fish or something like that. But the burden is the same in an ISA as it is with a student loan, so I don’t see it as fundamentally different.

COWEN: Another Silicon Valley question. Which are the good artworks about founders?

ROBBINS: There aren’t any.

COWEN: Why not?

ROBBINS: It’s a good question. I don’t understand why founders don’t have more operas about them, why we don’t see operas and movies about Steve Jobs, about Peter Thiel, about Jeff Bezos. There’s the David Fincher film of the founding of Facebook, but that’s pretty much it. The founders, entrepreneurs today are titans.

COWEN: Does Moby-Dick count? That’s a whaling venture. It’s backed by something like venture capital.

ROBBINS: Yeah, that’s a good example. But we don’t actually see the founders after the Pequod sets sail.

COWEN: What’s it like having been the child of a founder?

ROBBINS: Well, that’s a complicated question. My dad was an entrepreneur before it became cool, I guess, and so we were always . . . He founded electronics firms in New Hampshire.

I have three siblings, and we worked at the company. I spent summers soldering microchips and being yelled at to stay out of the clean room and making catalogs and understanding the industry a little bit. The 1970s were a hard time for high-tech companies. He would do well, and then they would fail. Then he’d start another one and maybe do well for a while, and then would do something else. It was a hard life, but it was fun. It was exhilarating.

COWEN: If you study the history of dams — dams that hold back water — what will you know that maybe the tech people don’t?

ROBBINS: I’m interested in dams. I’m interested in the history of California’s water. I worked for a while with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, so I got to know a little bit about the water, about the importance of the dams and how California wouldn’t be California without the system of dams and water. But I’m not sure I’m an expert that could tell anybody more than the current experts.

COWEN: The problem of daycare and taking care of children — why is that so hard to solve? And is there a tech solution?

ROBBINS: That’s a good question. I was on this commission. This was in Colorado in the 1990s. The governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, asked these questions. I think I was on two commissions, now that I remember it. Again, is this something that could be scaled? Is there something that government should do to ensure quality childcare?

Look, anybody could have a child. The conditions under which most children are raised — we think about even the ideal of two-income parents, one staying home, being with the children. Somebody’s got to take care of the kid before kindergarten.

The variety of conditions for these children around the world, I don’t think most people think about. I worked for a while for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. The woman that ran Planned Parenthood got into it, I guess, devoted her life to Planned Parenthood, to contraception, after seeing so many children with malnutrition that were just left alone to die or were not taken care of well and realizing that education was required.

COWEN: In a tech-obsessed world, do scent and perfume matter more or less?

ROBBINS: Well, I think scent is the underrated. I wondered if you were going to ask me this in underrated/overrated. Scent is underrated in the tech world. Scent is underrated in entertainment. I think there’s only been one film by John Waters which attempted to bring scent into the theaters, and that was, what, 30, 40 years ago?

COWEN: There’s that film Perfume from the Patrick Suskind book, but that’s still mainly a novel.

ROBBINS: Right, and does it come with a scratch-and-sniff?

COWEN: Not that I know of. I think it was a Franco-German film. I’m not sure.

ROBBINS: Ah, okay.

COWEN: We now get to underrated versus overrated. Are you game?


On things under- and overrated

COWEN: Okay. First one out: tap dancing — underrated or overrated?

ROBBINS: Underrated. Tap dancing is excellent.

COWEN: What makes it interesting?

ROBBINS: I was just actually having a conversation with the dance faculty at Sonoma State, which does not offer tap dancing there. It’s a very avant-garde program. It’s a very edgy program. The example given of being edgy was, “Oh, we don’t do tap dancing.” I thought, “Why? I like tap dancing. It’s fun. It’s uplifting.” I just find it fun.

COWEN: The Thomas Mann novel Doctor Faustus.

ROBBINS: Totally underrated. More people should read it. There’s this great scene . . . When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Oh, 20 years ago.

ROBBINS: There’s a wonderful scene where Mephistopheles brings grapes to Doctor Faustus out of season. He’s like, “Wow. How could there be grapes out of season?” In these days when we have Whole Foods right around the corner, I can’t imagine most people in America imagining that you would sell your soul to the devil to get grapes out of season.

There’s a wonderful scene where Mephistopheles brings grapes to Doctor Faustus out of season. He’s like, “Wow. How could there be grapes out of season?” In these days when we have Whole Foods right around the corner, I can’t imagine most people in America imagining that you would sell your soul to the devil to get grapes out of season.

COWEN: Worrying about rabies — overrated or underrated?

ROBBINS: Underrated.

COWEN: It’s all underrated today.

ROBBINS: It’s all underrated. There should be more discussion of rabies, where most people don’t know that, in fact, public policy has eradicated something that had been a real concern for most Americans. There’s a great scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch is called home because there’s a rabid dog walking down the street. It’s the scene where he takes his gun and, with one shot, puts the dog down and is the one man in town that can do it.

COWEN: Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones. Overrated? Underrated?

ROBBINS: I think he’s underrated. It is unsettling to me that so many students don’t know him. I try to teach him and teach his poems when I can. He’s featured in one chapter in my book on sonnets because he has two extraordinary sonnets. He didn’t call them sonnets, but they are sonnets. He was a really good poet.

COWEN: Tiger Woods.

ROBBINS: I don’t know too much about . . . Well, I know that he’s a golfer, and I golf. But I don’t watch him, so overrated.

COWEN: Comparison from the Bible: Genesis or Exodus?

ROBBINS: Genesis.


ROBBINS: Well, “In the beginning.” It’s the beginning.

COWEN: Does it have the better stories?

ROBBINS: It’s got the better stories. Exodus has too much of the list about it. We don’t have to deal with the lists in Genesis.

COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.

COWEN: What’s Herman Melville’s second-best book?

ROBBINS: Billy Budd.

COWEN: Why Billy Budd?

ROBBINS: Well, like Antigone, like the Caine Mutiny court martial, it’s the trial scenes spark extraordinary conversation in the classroom.

COWEN: If you’re going to read one book by Chester Himes, what should it be?

ROBBINS: I don’t remember all the names of them. He’s worth reading.

COWEN: What’s interesting in it?

ROBBINS: The two detectives and the patter between the two detectives and the way these detective novels operate differently and the same as other classic detective novels.

COWEN: Film music — another topic you’ve written on. Why are hit songs in movies not so much a thing anymore? In the 1960s, parts of the ’70s — it’s very common for the songs on the top of the charts to come from movies, like “Mrs. Robinson.” That seems to have vanished. What happened?

ROBBINS: Well, has it? I hear Frozen everywhere, so I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m not as much an expert on change over time. I expect that there will always be songs from movies. There was that song from A Star is Born that was all over.


ROBBINS: So I’m not sure I agree with your question. I think film music has changed, but not that much.

COWEN: Can you think of a potentially good movie ruined by a bad soundtrack?

ROBBINS: I’d have to think about that.

COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.

COWEN: Overall — and I don’t here mean the music, but just the use of sound — is the use of sound in movie soundtracks improving or declining in quality? How much is it making the movie better?

ROBBINS: I read something recently that, in fact, the sound has never been better, but primarily in TV sounds because there are so many channels. People write about this. There are so many amazing shows that what draws — and people are doing many things while the TV is on in the background. If they’re cooking and this . . . what draws people to put down their knife while they’re chopping things and look at the TV — or when they’re changing channels, to stop — is sound, not visuals, so that music theme songs have improved.

COWEN: Movies seem too loud to me these days. Maybe I’m just seeing the wrong movies, but it seems harder to hear subtle sounds, and there’s more blare. The sound quality has never been higher.

ROBBINS: I think that’s true. Apparently, you’re seeing too many Transformers films. Though Hans Zimmer’s scores in many films — he’s very, very loud but also very good.

COWEN: Is Neal Stephenson correct that the Western as a genre doesn’t exist anymore? If so, what happened to it?

ROBBINS: I think about this a lot. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, the Western was what you’d see on TV. I was thinking about the number of Native Americans I would see in a week watching Bonanza or whatever Westerns happened to be on the late show.

These depictions of Native Americans were not accurate and were stereotypical and were deeply problematic, but at least they were present because the Western was a dominant form on television and film. I asked some students today, “What TV do you watch that features cowboys and Indians or Native Americans?” And there aren’t any.

COWEN: Hans Christian Andersen — “Emperor’s Clothes.” What’s the Straussian reading of that story?

ROBBINS: Well, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — everybody knows the story. What most people don’t recognize is that was a happy, flourishing town. The short story says, “Time passed merrily in that town.” While the king was trying on clothes in his wardrobe and while all his ministers were bringing him clothes and he was trying them on — perhaps he was a little vain — the town was doing well. It was economically thriving. There were no problems.

Anderson wrote this during a time of changing to a constitutional monarchy. The question being, things are pretty good when you have a benevolent monarch who’s not paying any attention and you —

COWEN: Is it still a happy town by the end of the story?

ROBBINS: No, because once these weavers swindled the emperor and the little boy cries out, “But he has nothing on,” everybody’s very upset. Everybody’s sad. The ministers and the ruse of having a king who isn’t paying attention is requiring that we’re going to have a king that does pay attention. I find the story very conservative.

COWEN: What if the alternate original ending had been kept?

ROBBINS: That’s a good question, and I think the alternative ending is a benevolent monarchy is the best form of government.

COWEN: Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus — why is that an interesting book? It seems unreadable to so many people. It’s about clothes. Who would read Carlyle on German idealism, romanticism, and clothes? And none of it makes sense. What’s the bottom line on that?

ROBBINS: [laughs] I totally agree with you. It’s overrated, and I’ve never finished it myself.

COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

ROBBINS: Okay. I used to teach it alongside Edward Said’s Orientalism because in this story, Babar the Elephant comes to town, is dressed by the lady. He gets this green suit of clothing, which is not exactly right. It’s not good enough to be with elite of the town, but it’s good enough for him then to go back to the elephants and be king there. He is a kind of subaltern in the dominant colonial hierarchy but then can go and oversee the elephants but still be in sway to the colonialist enterprise.

COWEN: So it’s reactionary, in your reading.


COWEN: Why don’t science fiction writers focus on clothes more?

ROBBINS: I wonder about this. The Star Wars — you either have the sort of toga or the sort of Irish knit stuff with leather jackets that Hans Solo wears.

COWEN: Color is used in such literal ways, right?


COWEN: Red uniform: the guy’s going to die.

ROBBINS: Exactly. In both Star Trek, Star Wars, I look around with all the technological advancements, and I wonder why people are wearing just throwaway clothes. People buy hundreds of things a year, throw them out. They’re badly made. Workers in bad circumstances are making them. I don’t understand why there hasn’t been real disruption in attire.

COWEN: In your vision, how do you think clothes will differ 50 years from now?

ROBBINS: Well, unless somebody steps in and does something, they’re going to be exactly the same, and they’re going to be horrible. I’d like to see fabrics that you can wash at home, that last over time.

COWEN: But what do you want from, say, smart clothes with embedded sensors? Do you want the clothes to carry memory? Should they do some functions of your smartphone? What can they do that they’re not doing for us right now?

ROBBINS: Well, just having this conversation would be an improvement. Right now, those who are dominating the clothing industry — it’s just about style, about what color. I think there hasn’t been a conversation yet about what happens in Paris and what happens in Silicon Valley.

COWEN: Why isn’t there more good science fiction?

ROBBINS: Well, I think there is. What do you mean, more? I’m enjoying . . . I’m reading Ted Chiang’s short stories right now. I’ve read Neal Stephenson. There’s great stuff.

COWEN: What’s the bias in mainstream media coverage of higher education? What do they get wrong?

ROBBINS: Well, Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle — and I write for both of them — individuals I know there to say, “Stop focusing on the elite schools. Spend some more time on . . .”

I’m in the CSU system at Sonoma State University. There’re 23 Cal State schools. I think it’s the second-largest public university system in the country. Schools like ours should have more coverage. It should not be Harvard, Yale, Swarthmore, Amherst as emblematic of what’s happening in higher ed, or even Oberlin.

COWEN: At schools like yours, the best students typically are very, very good, but they’re not necessarily readily discovered because it’s not Harvard or Stanford. If someone is coming along and they want to try to hire the very best students from, say, a California State system school, how should they find them? What are the empirical correlates of those people who are the very, very best students?

ROBBINS: It’s a good question. It’s something that I’m actually thinking on and working on. One of the reasons I wanted to come to California and work at a state university is students at a place like Johns Hopkins — there’s already a pipeline to go to the best, to go to Google or Facebook.

The challenge at a place like Sonoma State with first-gen students is that the opportunity horizons or the idea that “Oh, I could go work at Facebook or I could go work at Google or I could go create an app” isn’t something that first-gen students often embrace.

So the first thing that we need to do in classrooms is open up opportunities, to say, “Have you thought about this? Is this a possibility?” To bring speakers to campus to say, “This is something you can do.” To have recruiters come to campus and speak to our students. And that’s what we’re doing.

COWEN: To improve the job that you’re trying to do, if you could have better data on something, what would that something be?

ROBBINS: I’ll have to think about that… I’d like to know what makes a really good teacher. In looking at the literature, the quality of teaching is measured primarily on student outcomes, on student test scores. But it’s hard to say that that is the best measure or that’s the best measure of how a teacher teaches.

There’s an Alfred North Whitehead quote that he said: “Sometimes I give a student an A or B instead of a C or a D because they’ll earn it 20 years from now.” A good teacher will lodge education in a student’s mind that may not bear fruit for 10, 15 years.

How do we measure that? Is it possible to be measured? How do we measure the delivery of information — per hour, per comment? How do we figure out who’s good and who isn’t good? Right now, the only way that we can study teachers are studying those who have decided to go into the field of teaching.

COWEN: What are your intuitions? They’ll be some obvious correlates, such as putting time into being a better teacher. But the obvious correlates aside, what do you think are the hidden correlates with people ending up being excellent teachers?

ROBBINS: There’s a way of finding the channel of communication between the teacher and the student to be always open. The teacher has a number of students in front of him or her and is constantly opening that channel and delivering information individually to each student all the time in the manner that the student needs it.

I can’t believe I’m about to gesture to Malcolm Gladwell, but his comparison of elementary school teachers to quarterbacks, I think, is fruitful in a way. Being nimble, being quick on one’s feet, being able to respond, to be able to call an audible. If a student asks a question, and the teacher can pivot and answer that student at that moment — there’s that quality of pivoting quickly that, I think, makes a really good teacher.

COWEN: Having raised two very successful children, what did you learn about teaching from doing that?

ROBBINS: Well, I raised two successful adults, and I think that’s actually the question. I was not going to raise children. I was going to raise adults, and I told them that from the very beginning, “Act in ways that you would like to see the world act, not just do unto others or do not do unto others. But is the way you are being right now the way you would like to see the world run?”

That — speaking to young people as if they’re adults — is something that I’ve brought into the classroom.

COWEN: Hollis Robbins, thank you very much.

ROBBINS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.