On Monday at 12:30 p.m., as the bells of Harkness Tower began to ring, a group of professors and graduate students gradually filed down the length of the Saybrook dining hall with trays in hand, heading toward the fellows’ lounge. They settled into chairs around a long table for a discussion of the Latin poet Catullus.
The biweekly Greco-Roman lunch, one of over 45 lunchtime groups known as “working groups” that meet regularly, alternates every week with the Renaissance studies seminar in the Saybrook fellows’ lounge. Tuesdays bring discussions of Jewish history sponsored by the History Department, and on Wednesdays a “Yale Westerners” lecture on American Western history comes to Yale’s Howard Lamar Center.
“Everything students have at Yale, teachers have too,” English professor Lawrence Manley, who often attends the Renaissance studies lunch that began two years ago, said. “We have a real seminar every week. It’s like being a student forever.”
The Greco-Roman lunch — which was first organized in the mid-1980s — is one of the longest-running of these programs, but the tradition of offering varied seminar and lecture programs for professors and graduate students at Yale has only grown. Attendees have come to rely on the sessions both for a break from an otherwise hectic schedule and as a chance to meet other professors. Many interviewed said the meetings play a welcome social role for professors on campus.
Peter Moore, a Sterling Professor of Chemistry and fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center, attends the more recently launched WHC lunch series that features a different subject every week and said that he has also found value in its interdisciplinary approach. In an email to the News he explained that although scientists are in the minority, they speak in proportion to their numbers.
“The better the faculty knows each other, the better the University will run,” Moore said. “Not only is it interesting and amusing to find out what your colleagues do in a scholarly sense, but the social interactions that take place at lunch help build bridges.”
history professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 said he just turned in a manuscript to the University of Pennsylvania Press, has an upcoming conference in California and needs to start writing a paper for a presentation in March.
But Gitlin, who is the associate director of the Howard Lamar Center, which runs weekly seminars and lectures on the history of the American West, attends the Yale Westerners working group each week. He described Yale as “an incredibly hectic place,” but said he enjoys the respite provided by periodic lunches with colleagues and graduate students.
“The ability to sit down once a week and exchange ideas is invaluable,” Gitlin said. “I always get new ideas from speaking with faculty and grad students.”
The working groups all are department-specific informal seminars and lectures run by graduate students and faculty. David Lummus, assistant professor of Italian and the Italian Department’s director of undergraduate studies, runs the Renaissance studies lunch series but said he tries to attend the Greco-Roman lunch when he has time away from teaching.
At each Renaissance studies meeting, as with most working group gatherings, a professor, graduate student or postdoctoral associate gives a 20- to 30-minute presentation on his or her specialty, encompassing content from multiple faculties such as English, Italian, history and history of art.
Lummus said an “even mix” of graduate students, postdoctoral students and senior and junior faculty usually attend.
“It’s a great opportunity to get to know each other and share what we are working on,” he said. “We rarely talk about interesting things at faculty meetings.”
Graduate student Kyle Skinner GRD ’17, who regularly attends the Renaissance lunch, said he enjoys getting to know professors outside of the classroom, where they are tied to the syllabus.
“Since there are multiple departments represented, you never know where people are coming from, so the question-and-answer sessions after the lectures are really interesting,” he said.
Professor Bentley Layton, who founded the Greco-Roman lunch and still regularly attends, said he enjoys presentations on unconventional topics as they inspire him to think about his field differently. He added that there is a strong social element to the biweekly meetings and that graduate students get to know professors on a first-name basis, learn what others are working on and advise each other on what to study.
urban history, Old English and early modern philosophy — are sponsored by the Whitney Humanities Center. But among the myriad of educational lunchtime options that focus on a single academic area, the WHC also offers an alternative faculty education program with a weekly lecture and discussion every Wednesday for members of the Whitney Humanities Center fellowship. In what might be deemed the liberal arts education of professors, rather than focus on one discipline, every meeting features a presentation by a different fellow and ends with a question-and-answer period.
Last week, the topic was modes and the representation of planets in Renaissance music, as presented by Grant Herreid, artistic director of the Yale Baroque Opera Project. Herreid took a creative approach to his lecture, with lute in hand and Latin verses on the tongue.
“I don’t imagine there are many places where one could hear a lutenist improvising on the Renaissance modes and singing an Orphic hymn in the manner of Marsilio Ficino,” he said.
Herreid, who become a fellow in September, said the presentations have ranged from theatrical scene design to dark matter in deepest space. He said he enjoys gaining insight into the common themes between various disciplines — particularly the changing cultural and political contexts of art and science in different periods.
“These conversations demonstrate that in the study of any topic, attention to detail always fosters understanding of larger issues,” he said.
While the working groups are more accessible and allow graduate students to participate, the WHC is much more selective in its membership. The fellows are selected by the WHC Executive Committee and appointed by University President Richard Levin to posts of one to three years, and in some cases permanently.
Still, Norma Thompson, the associate director of the WHC Fellows, added that former fellows are welcome to attend the lunches, which began 10 years ago. She added that the WHC Executive Committee tries to balance the different fields among the fellows selected.
She said that the eclectic mix of lecture topics throughout the year allows for connections between faculties to be made. The WHC can accommodate 50 to 60 people.
“It’s a great opportunity to form an intellectual community,” Thompson said. “Sometimes professors from different faculty create new courses together based on conversations held here.”
Such “hybrid” courses, Thompson said, include the popular course on the Big Bang Theory, previously offered by the Physics and Religious Studies departments, and the currently offered class, co-taught by Thompson, “Evidence in Humanistic Inquiry.”
Levin, too, praised porgrams such as that run by the WHC for bringing together faculty from across disciplines to share their work.
“This is a real benefit and it helps hold the University together and make people aware of what people in other disciplines are doing,” he said.
Although the majority of the WHC Fellows are in the humanities, fellows are selected from among the administration and the sciences and graduate programs such as the School of Management as well.
Shyam Sunder, an accounting and economics professor at SOM, said he was the first person from SOM to become a WHC fellow when he was appointed to the fellowship last fall.
“Almost all scholarship and instruction in the School of Management is rooted in social, physical and natural science — having been educated as an engineer and in management and economics, I had little formal background in humanities,” Sunder said, adding that he finds the experience to be enriching.
In fact, Gitlin wishes there were more meetings like this at Yale. Though not a Whitney Humanities Center fellow, he said he felt Yale “could use more” cross-disciplinary meetings. After all, he said: “We’re so fortunate to have people here that we can have great conversations with.”