Jisha Menon named new director of Stanford Global Studies

Jisha Menon, Sakurako and William Fisher Family Director of the Stanford Global Studies Division; Associate Professor of Theater and Performance Studies and, by courtesy, of Comparative Literature

SGS is pleased to welcome Jisha Menon, associate professor of theater and performance studies and, by courtesy, of comparative literature, as the new Sakurako and William Fisher Family Director of the Stanford Global Studies Division.

Menon, who first joined the Stanford community as a graduate student more than two decades ago, is a scholar of postcolonial theory and performance studies. She previously served as the director of the Center for South Asia and the Denning Faculty Director of the Stanford Arts Institute.

“I am delighted to be taking over as faculty director of SGS, which is the university’s primary hub for research and teaching on global studies. It houses 14 vibrant research centers that provide opportunities for engaging with regions across the world,” she said. “I am excited to build on the work of my brilliant predecessor, Jeremy Weinstein, and to continue to provide rich educational opportunities, while also initiating a range of research programs at SGS.”

“Jisha is already an integral, cherished member of the SGS community, having served as a member of our advisory committee and as director of the Center for South Asia for almost four years,” said Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political science and former director of SGS. “I have great confidence that, under Jisha’s leadership, SGS will continue to flourish and reach new heights.”

To learn more about Professor Menon, read our interview with her below.

What are some of your favorite memories from your time as the director of the Center for South Asia? How did that experience help prepare you for your new role as director of the division?

I first arrived at Stanford 23 years ago as a graduate student. At the time, there were hardly any faculty members with expertise in South Asia, much less a research center with a focus on South Asia. Thanks to the leadership and global vision of Dean Richard Saller, who founded the center, South Asia is now a vibrant intellectual community at Stanford. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to lead the center for four years. This is a part of the world that is beloved to me, not only because I grew up there, but because it is a source of so much resilience, creativity, and wisdom. I’ve really enjoyed foregrounding these aspects of South Asia through our program events. There’s a tendency to see the developing world predominantly through frameworks of poverty, lack, and conflict. But there’s also a tremendous amount of cultural efflorescence, ingenuity, and creativity that’s part of the story that does not get told often enough. I think we were able to showcase some of these more affirmative narratives through the work we did at the center. As SGS director, I would love for us to continue to be able to tell the stories of ordinary people across the globe who get ensnared in challenging circumstances not of their making. Their stories paint a fuller picture than what we get from accounts that are preoccupied with the high politics of state.

What drew you to theater and performance studies? What can you tell us about your current research?

I was an English major in college, but I was dissatisfied that drama was taught as if it were primarily a textual rather than an embodied cultural form. Performance Studies is a capacious interdisciplinary field that allowed me to combine my love of literature and the arts with my commitment to social justice. My forthcoming book, Brutal Beauty: Aesthetics and Aspiration in Urban India, tells the story of the transformation of Bangalore, a once idyllic “garden city” in southern India to a booming metropolis that is one of the fastest growing wealth bases in the Asia Pacific, with a population of over 12 million that has more than doubled in the last 20 years. It looks at urban transformations through a range of artworks that elucidate these aesthetic projects of city and self-making. It explores how discourses of beauty are mobilized by city planners in their aspiration to remake Bangalore into an idealized version of a world-class city and examines the often anti-democratic effects that are unleashed in the wake of such aspirations.  

In your teaching, how do you use performance to draw attention to social justice issues around the world?

Drama is centered around an agon and unfolds around a conflict, making it especially attuned to questions of justice. A classic text like Antigone has been creatively reimagined by women to challenge state authoritarianism in a range of political contexts from Argentina to South Africa, India, and Peru. Or consider transnational cultural flows in the other direction: Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana drew on Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads, which in turn was inspired by an eleventh century Sanskrit text called Kathasaritsagara. The play explores how we are enmeshed in and transformed by one another, and challenges the notion of autonomous and insulated persons. These dramas are enacted in public spaces that offer a sense of shared witnessing and civic philia, making theater a powerful site and practice to explore issues of social justice.

You have been recognized for your leadership in championing women of color and fostering diverse programming that develops a culture of inclusion at Stanford. How will you continue this work as the director of SGS?

When you look across campus, it is clear that our student body is diverse in its racial, ethnic, religious, and national composition. Many students straddle multiple identities and have affiliations and attachments in more than one nation space. Yet this diversity is not always reflected in department curricula with the result that students may feel that their unique perspectives are not recognized or valued. SGS is working with Stanford Introductory Studies to ensure a robust set of curricular opportunities in the global quarter in the new first-year Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) requirement. We offer Course Innovation Awards to individual faculty to help them develop new courses with global content. Moreover, we hope to initiate research programs and workshops that can support research interests of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty to explore topics that are transnational in scope. There is substantial research that shows that diverse organizations are simply more effective, more creative, and more successful. In keeping with the Long-Range Vision and IDEAL, SGS is committed to diversifying the curriculum and research programs at Stanford.

What are you most excited about as you take on the role of director? What is your big-picture goal for SGS?

Global Studies draws together 14 outstanding regional and transnational research centers that are at the forefront of their respective fields. Taken together, Global Studies offers not only a variety of perspectives from different sites across the globe, but also a way of thinking. Whether it is the climate crisis, migration, or infectious disease, many pressing contemporary problems require solutions that rely on global systems, while simultaneously confirming national boundaries. Global thinking requires a way of being nimble across contexts that are national and international, rooted and cosmopolitan, particular and planetary. It may lead to an awareness of how provisional, inadequate, and parochial one’s own frames of analysis are. It requires a great deal of humility to acknowledge how much you don’t know. That generative confusion can potentially lead to new insights, new frameworks, new ways of connecting across difference. My big picture goal is that we foster this kind of cosmopolitanism from below that can prepare students to create a more equal, more ecological, and more humane world.