MCHENRY: Notes on Notes from Woodbridge Hall

Midway through the summer, our college underwent a revolution. It was a bloodless one, thankfully. No one died on a barricade, or broke into a fistfight in the legislature. But now, somehow, we find ourselves with a new leader in Woodbridge Hall. More importantly, we have a new set of emails to read.

I haven’t seen Salovey since he came into power, and I don’t know how he carries himself in person, or whether he’s a joker or a recluse. I do know that he plays the double bass, but I’ve never heard a performance. Still, even without face-to-face interaction, I think we can learn something from the way he writes his emails, especially the “Notes from Woodbridge Hall” series that, over the summer, we started to receive. Let’s attempt a literary analysis.

Salovey’s emails are long. Compare the brief, business like style of e-mails from Richard Levin (see “Second Reminder: Halloween at the President’s House,” Oct. 31, 2012) with the languid linguistic wandering found in an email from Peter Salovey (see “Notes from Woodbridge Hall,” July 29, 2013). In the first email, Levin writes about a fun social event without a hint of fun in his tone. In the latter, Salovey discusses the latest edition of the “Yale Review,” one of the most academic publications on campus, and turns it into a domestic parable involving the mealtime rituals of him and his wife.

Our new President’s emails exhibit a refreshing breeziness. In the July email, notice Salovey’s laissez-faire employment of a semicolon in the second paragraph: “I brought the issue of The Yale Review home; Marta swiped it from my briefcase … ” Or, consider his email on Aug. 22, in which he transitions from a discussion of the world of West Campus to a brief meditation on “the ravages of time.” Surely our new President wants us to sit down with him, and to share in the thrill and spontaneity of storytelling itself.

And even in his brief correspondence with us students, Salovey has shown an unerring responsiveness. On Aug. 5, he abandoned the lighthearted template of “Notes from Woodbridge Hall” to speak directly about sexual assault on campus. Our president seems to have read those letters you wrote about the holes in on-campus reporting. Maybe he saw that Jezebel post shaming us, or the petitions you signed. Either way, he responded.

Even then, some people I have talked to doubted whether Salovey was sincere in his response. And in the Aug. 5 email, he does occasionally dodge the question, mentioning that we should be angered by sexual assault “at Yale and elsewhere,” as if that tempers the situation. This kind of position isn’t that different from the administration’s actions on the same subject. Two steps forward, one step back — make of it what you will.

But let’s move on to what I consider the most thrilling part of the emails we receive from Salovey — the breadth of his references. In the course of fewer than 10 emails, our president has quoted poetry from Rabindranath Tagore, name-checked Will Eaves and pulled out a handy little reference to the 1980s computer game “Carmen Sandiego.” (I assume he’s holding on the “Oregon Trail” quotes until we have a dysentery outbreak).

I’m not going to deny that these kinds of references are probably attempts to get into our good graces. They’re sly winks and smiles to make us see that, even though he’s the president, he’s not taking this whole business too seriously.

And that’s dangerous. By focusing on style, we can let our guard down and ignore the facts. I don’t know how much has changed, or will change, with the appointment of a new president. Maybe the difference feels more tangible than it is.

But it is nice to get a little style, to find my inbox letters peppered with verve and panache. If this appealing-to-youth trend continues, let me say that I cannot wait for the presidential live-tweet of the Harvard-Yale game.

Jackson McHenry is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at jackson.mchenry@yale.edu.

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