The predictable chatter about coursework and weekend plans pervaded student conversations in Saybrook College dining hall Thursday evening. But at a long table at the back of the room, popular law professor Akhil Amar mused to seven freshmen over pizza, salad and green beans about possible improvements to his 166-year-old farmhouse property.
“I think I’m having fantasies of having my own cider press, maybe a vineyard,” Amar said.
Amar’s exclusive dinner with freshmen was part of the “Take Your Professor to Dinner” program, a two-week-long initiative this spring begun by the Freshman Class Council. After soliciting nominations from freshmen, 12 of Yale’s highest ranked faculty members were selected to dine with small groups of seven to 12 freshmen, who were chosen in individual lotteries. In addition to Amar, the program also featured professors Paul Bloom, Ray Fair, Charles Hill, Jolyon Howorth, Paul Kennedy, Jane Levin, Michael Della Rocca, Ramamurti Shankar, Ian Shapiro and Kathryn Slanski.
Zach Marks, the chairman of the FCC activities committee and the organizer of the dinners, said he started the program because he was concerned with what he perceived as the lack of contact between freshmen and professors.
“One of the greatest charges leveled at large universities like Yale is that it can be difficult for students to develop relationships with big-name faculty,” Marks said.
Marks is a contributing reporter and columnist for the News.
The dinners immediately proved to be popular, with the FCC receiving upwards of 50 requests from freshmen for the most popular professors, Marks said.
“We’ve had way more requests then we’ve been able to accommodate,” FCC chair Carrie Nguyen ’09 said.
Participating students praised the relaxed atmosphere created by the dinners.
“It takes away the formality of classrooms,” Noah Lawrence ’09 said. “It’s just spending time with someone you enjoy, with a friend, who just happens to be a professor.”
Others noted the scholarly insights they gained by dining with Yale’s top faculty, especially those who were enrolled in the professor’s class. Justin Kosslyn ’09, who is enrolled in Amar’s lecture “Constitutional Law,” attended the dinner with Amar. Kosslyn said he appreciated the “incredibly passionate” discussion concerning religion and state that his group had with Amar, as well as the the ability to casually pose questions to the professor.
Participating professors said they valued the informal interaction with freshmen. Economics professor Ray Fair, who dined with students on March 22, said he hopes “Take Your Professor for Dinner Nights” will help weaken the barrier between students and their professors.
“The dinners are certainly a nice way of helping the issue,” Fair said. “I had a couple students I talked to at the dinner who came to see me at office hours to talk about their plans at Yale.”
Marks said he thinks such events convey one of Yale’s greatest strengths.
“What makes Yale special is that professors are generally willing to meet with students,” Marks said. “This program seeks to take advantage of this willingness. While professors at Yale are paid to do research, they’re also here to be mentors and role models for undergraduates.”