After all the hoopla and hype over former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s arrival on campus, seeing him standing, in person, three feet away is a little like meeting the Queen of England: Behind the fame and the British charm, they are human. At least that’s what the 25 students selected for his “Faith and Globalization” seminar saw this past Friday afternoon — a humorous, articulate man of average stature, wearing a purple tie.
Although they might have been starstruck at first, the lucky students in Blair’s class — six from both the Divinity School and the School of Management, seven from other Yale graduate and professional schools and six from Yale College, selected from an applicant pool of 350 — were definitely not dumbstruck. While it was their first class with first-time teacher Blair, the students confidently held forth on the topic “Stakes in Faith and Globalization,” much as students in any other Yale seminar. The passionate two-hour exchange, co-lead by Blair and Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf, set the stage for a semester of intense and star-studded discussion.
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Nerves All Around
Fifteen minutes before the class’s 1:30 p.m. start time, the main hallway of the Yale Law School was empty aside from the University officials and press members clustered around room 121, where the seminar was to be held. The room — a small space with four descending wooden rows circling a podium — was clearly chosen to afford the intimacy of small seminars.
The 25 students in the class trickled into the Sterling Law Building, Yale IDs in hand, past police and outside security personnel.
Some entered in business suits and others in casual wear, as a guard crossed their names off a list. Across the hallway, in a slightly bigger room — the “simulcast classroom” — live footage played across a pull-down white screen while University officials supervised members of the media, who were pacing and refilling their water glasses while they waited for the class to start. The excited buzz overflowed into the hallway.
Stepping onto the scene right on time, Blair and his entourage could be sensed entering the Law School before they were even seen down the hallway.
As Blair entered the classroom, he shook hands with the students, cracked a few jokes and settled into a seat to the right of the podium.
“It was very exciting to see the former prime minister literally 10 inches from me,” Robert Li ’10, a student in the seminar, said.
Volf said he noticed Blair “shooting the breeze” with the students before the class started, which put everyone at ease.
“I think that contributed to the freedom they had to express themselves,” Volf said.
Opening the seminar with his own statement, Volf, too, seemed a little jittery.
Volf asked the class a question — “What is at stake when we talk about faith in relationship to globalization processes?” — and then expanded on the features and definitions of globalization and faith. Growing more comfortable as he continued, he spoke for another 15 minutes, suggesting faiths must “seek to shape globalization processes in accordance with a vision of human flourishing, formulated within the over-arching vision of reality.”
At this point, Volf ceded his podium to Blair.
“I think all of us were a little bit nervous,” Volf said after the class. “I certainly was. And Tony Blair said publicly that he was nervous as well. This was a new experience for all of us.”
Blair, the Politician
Blair, despite being a graduate of the University of Oxford, seemed to have some butterflies in his stomach about teaching under an ivy-covered archway. “Listening to Miroslav there reminded me that I was never clever enough to be a professor,” Blair said to the class. “That’s why they put me into politics.”
“I want you to do a lot more for me than I’m going to do for you,” he added, pointing both fingers at his amused audience.
There was no doubt that Blair is a politician. As he leaned over the podium, his oratory ease and well-timed gestures ensured a fully attentive audience.
As the initial laughter subsided, Blair immediately took on a more serious tone. He argued that religious belief and global-change concerns are “the single most important and determining issue of the 21st century,” adding that this was “a big claim to make.”
As he continued, he raised more questions and delivered some explanations throughout the speech. “If globalization pushes people together, is religion part of that, or pulling people apart?” he mused. Furthermore, “Why do people still have such strong religious faith?”
But Blair stressed that mere talk is not action.
“It would be nice to get some product at the end,” he said. After all, he said, the goal of the class is in part “a very practical thing.” He said he wanted to engage students in debate and to learn from their input to identify today’s most pressing issues.
The Elis in the class seemed ready to hold up their end of the mission.
In the ensuing question-and-answer portion of the seminar, the students pushed Blair with concrete, challenging questions, leaving him nodding his head in agreement or, at times, speechless. “Can that be answered?” he replied to one student’s query and, simply, “Yes, I agree” to another student’s lengthy prompt.
When time was running out near the end of the first hour of class and hands were still raised, Blair said he would continue to answer questions during the break. For the next 10 minutes, students gathered around him and continued to pepper the new professor with questions.
“We formed a circle and engaged him one-on-one,” Li said. “He’s a really chill person, really laid back.”
Drew Collins ’07 DIV ’10 said he found the seminar conversational in style and similar to a normal Yale seminar, and despite the presence of an “extraordinary guest,” students were not too intimidated to speak their minds to the instructors as well as each other.
Surprisingly, Collins said, he did not sense his classmates were interested in showing off. He said he was initially worried the class was going to be a “contingent of ambitious people,” who were simply enrolled so they could spend time with a former head of government. But that was not the case, he said.
“People are sensitive and more concerned with what we’re talking about than talking,” he said. Collins said this is not necessarily true of all classrooms at Yale. “This is refreshing.”
Students said Volf’s aptitude at mediating discussion contributed greatly to the success of the seminar. Collins said he is used to sitting in a classroom with Volf, whose class “Practice and Grace” he attended three years ago as an undergraduate. Collins is also currently in Volf’s “Systematic Theology” class.
Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a professor of theology, has written or edited 15 books and more than 70 scholarly articles — an academic history that made him an attractive candidate to teach alongside Blair.
“I’m Mr. Blair’s academic sidekick,” Volf joked.
Working off of Blair’s rough outline for the course, Volf organized the details and oversaw the selection of reading materials and guest lecturers, including Georgetown University sociology professor Jose Casanova, financier Timothy Collins and Amartya Sen, winner of Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.
Since February, when Blair first proposed the idea of the course, Volf said he has spent significant time planning for the class, devoting an estimated average of three to four hours a day over the past six months in preparation. Many others, especially his assistant Neil Arner, worked long hours on the class.
“When I was talking to President Levin the other day, he said jokingly that probably no other single class in the history of Yale took as much time to prepare” Volf said.
Levent Tuzun ’11 said Volf appeared to care deeply about the students’ comfort in class. But, she said, the structure of the class did not lend the professor enough chances to fully express himself.
“[Volf] has a lot to say and not enough time to say it,” Tuzun said.
Some students were not called on during the question-and-answer period and had to write their questions on paper and submit them to Blair to read at a later time.
Room 121 and beyond
Students in the class are also required to attend two sections during the week, in addition to the two-hour seminar on Thursday. Blair will attend about half of the seminars.
Along with these sections and lectures, Garentina Kraja ’11 said the conversations “with the amazing people in the class” have already allowed her to hear a variety of different perspectives on the topics covered by the class. Collins agreed that, demographically speaking, the seminar represented a wide range of nationalities, cultures and opinions.
“Part of what is wonderful about the course, and rare at Yale, is that students in the class are from diverse areas of the university,” he said.
Indeed, Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said the students in the class were chosen for their diversity, in education as well as background. The class includes students from Turkey, Kosovo, Australia and China. Students range from college sophomores to graduate students pursuing their master’s degrees.
Kraja said her family and friends in Kosovo feel indebted to Blair’s assistance during the Kosovo Conflict in 1999.
“A lot of us in Kosovo credit him for saving our lives and giving us a future,” she said.
Tuzun, one of the youngest students in the class, said he was comfortable with the course material, despite its demanding nature. Volf said the class meets Monday and Wednesday in addition to the weekly seminar in order to be well-prepared to take full advantage of the opportunity for discussion.
Starting this week, the class will meet regularly on Thursday afternoons. Blair is not usually on campus for the rest of the week.
The newly minted professor also has gigs as an advisor to investment bank JPMorgan Chase, and is both the United Nations special envoy on Middle East peace and a campaigner on African poverty and climate change.
After all, in Collins’ words: “Blair is not really on campus. He’s got a lot of other important responsibilities.”
“Faith and Globalization” will be offered again in the fall semesters of the next two academic years.