Nearly 30 years ago, English Director of Graduate Studies Paul Fry gave a student some helpful advice. This week, that conversation earned Fry $10,000.
Fry is one of ten recipients of the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Award, a series of annual grants that celebrate the important role of teachers in society. David Pogue ’85, a former student and current New York Times technology columnist, nominated Fry by providing a short narrative about Fry’s influence on his writing.
In his roughly 400-word nomination, Pogue, who could not be reached for comment for this article, explained that Fry “just would not give me the damn A.” When Pogue went to his office to complain, Fry said Pogue’s writing lacked a “persuasive element.”
“Next time you write for this class,” he told Pogue, “BELIEVE something, and CONVINCE me of it.”
For Pogue’s next assignment, he “almost sarcastically” chose to argue that James Joyce’s three uses of the word “bat” in “Ulysses” represented the Holy Trinity, an assertion Pogue said he became convinced was correct as he made the argument. Pogue finally earned his A, and he said Fry’s concept of persuasion has never left him.
“That simple idea was so profound,” he said in his nomination. “It’s affected everything I’ve ever written since: 50 how-to books, two novels, and of course thousands of newspaper and magazine columns.”
Fry, an expert in British Romanticism and the history of literary criticism who has taught at Yale since 1971, said the award has prompted him to reconsider the effect he has on his students. When Fry first read Pogue’s nomination, he said he assumed he had influenced only Pogue in this particular way. Upon reflection, he said he realized that he emphasizes “the art of persuasion” often in his classes, and that this element of his teaching style may have impacted others more than he knew.
The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim winners are selected on the basis of student nominations. Fry said he is honored to receive an award alongside public school teachers — eight of this year’s recipients teach in elementary and secondary schools. Fry is an instructor in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, through which Yale professors and New Haven public school teachers collaborate to learn from one another.
James Jiang ’10, who took several classes with Fry during his career at Yale, said Fry helped improve his writing, telling him that his “insincere” and “performative” style burdened his prose. Though the criticism was harsh, Jiang said it had the spirit of a genial wink.
“It speaks to Professor Fry’s uncanny ability to tell students exactly what they need to hear without making them feel exposed,” he said. “He gave me the confidence to stop hiding behind my words.”
Fry said he takes pride in providing insightful and instructive comments, but does not grade stringently, adding with a laugh that Pogue was probably receiving A-minuses.
Other former students interviewed commented on Fry’s enthusiasm as a lecturer.
“I remember him banging on the table when we were discussing why Milton’s Eve still falls despite arguably knowing what she’s getting herself into,” said Laura Maris ’10, who chose Fry as her senior essay advisor.
For his part, Fry said he feels chosen by the “wheel of fortune,” adding that he plans to use the $10,000 prize to help pay for a new car.
“My wife and I have an eye on a used Jeep Grand Cherokee,” he said.
College or university instructors and K-12 teachers are eligible for the Award, and nominators must be at least 18 years old and former students of the nominee. The Kennedy Center will begin accepting nominations for next year’s cycle Sept. 6.