The secret life of the Yale professor

T.P. Ma, professor of electrical engineering, exhibits grace on ice.

Like Yale students, Yale professors share a diverse set of extracurricular interests. Yet students rarely get the chance to see this side of their professors. Outside of the classroom, our professors are athletes, yogis, musicians, farmers, conservation advocates and rap enthusiasts.

Although most professors separate their extracurricular activities from their academic pursuits, some instructors’ hobbies are less than secret — hobbies that they incorporate into their class schedules. For example, Silliman College Dean Hugh Flick, a scholar of Sanskrit, regularly practices different types of yoga, such as Bhakti yoga as it is described in the Bhagavad Gita. He will be teaching a class on the Bhagavad Gita in the Yale Summer School Session.

Additionally, Ray Fair GRD ’79, John M. Musser Professor of Economics, holds office hours on his morning runs. “If anyone wants to run, we meet at 6:45 a.m. in front of my office,” Fair wrote in an email. “I do get some students each year!”

Another runner, Paul Tipton, director of graduate studies of physics, enjoys participating in the New Haven Road Race 20K. Tipton asked, “Who can live in [the] East Rock [area] without going to the top of East Rock Park once a week?”

Many other professors expressed an interest in the outdoors and nature. Christopher Wildeman, assistant professor of sociology, maintains a 40-by-50 foot square garden at his home in North Madison, Conn.

“I walk back and forth from our rain barrels to the garden with our daughter Greta, and Cilla waters the plants, weeds and decides what looks good for dinner,” Wildeman detailed. “Down the road, we hope to be able to grow almost all of our own vegetables, as well as having chickens, goats and maybe a cow.”

Timothy Dwight College Master Jeffrey Brenzel ’75 also likes to be outdoors. Besides his occasional folk or country guitar performances, Brenzel’s other secret hobby is “getting off the grid.”

“Every summer for the last decade or two, I’ve taken a backpacking, biking or kayaking trip into a wilderness area with an old friend of mine … I have come to see these expeditions as soul-restoring necessities,” Brenzel wrote in an email. “My bucket list includes hiking the Appalachian Trail from end to end, and after that doing the Continental Divide trail out west. Also cycling the Swiss and Italian Alps.”

Likewise, Tim Robinson GRD ’94, a lecturer in the Classics Department, is an avid hiker. He is also a member of the Advocacy Committee of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, which oversees hundreds of miles of New England trails.

Last summer, Robison worked to amend the loopholes in liability laws that hindered the incentives for municipalities to maintain parks and trails.

“I felt honored that I was able to play a small part in keeping our trails open. It was inspiring for me to learn that the system works and that everyone’s opinion can be heard by government,” he said.

“I feel the same way about our precious natural resources that I do about preserving the Greek and Latin treasures in the Yale libraries,” Robinson continued. “People who easily dismiss topographical features as ‘just rocks’ or plays of Sophocles as a ‘dead language’ really don’t get the point. These are both exquisite gifts for us to savor and to hand over to posterity. They exist NOW and provide beauty and perspective for our lives.”

James Berger, senior lecturer in American studies and English, also sees a connection between his extracurricular activities — he is a member of three different jazz bands — and his scholarly studies.

Berger believes that “thinking about and playing music does intersect with my literary work in helping me think about form, the relationship of parts and rhythm.”

In addition to a more traditional jazz band and a ska-jazz band, Berger is a member of “a little group that plays music for silent movies at the Lyric Hall Theater in Westville — which is a terrific place, a restored old vaudeville theater that puts on a lot of good shows and that Yale people should check out.”

“It’s social, as scholarly work often is not. And performing music, you receive an immediate response, which is certainly not the case with scholarly publication,” Berger explained. “It’s enormously refreshing to do something that uses a different symbolic system, a different set of cognitive — and physical — muscles.”

Risa Sodi GRD ’95, senior lector and Italian language program director, enjoys playing tennis for similar reasons. She even manages to include her area of study into her game. “A tennis secret that even my tennis friends don’t know?” Sodi admitted, “I psych myself up in Italian during matches.”

In the summer, Sodi plays on a United States Tennis Association tennis team based out of Yale’s Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center. “I’ve been playing on a USTA team for the past seven years, ever since I picked up a racquet after a 25-year hiatus,” Sodi wrote in an email. “It was love at first backhand slice!”

Branford College Master Elizabeth Bradley MPH ’95 GRD ’96 also practices squash for the simultaneous physical and mental exercise it affords her. “The game played well is fast, aggressive and surprising,” Bradley elaborated. “Never a dull moment.”

Bradley began playing squash in a 10-by-10 rec room her parents furnished in her basement. Using a tennis ball and retired tennis racquets, Bradley’s father taught her to play the ball off the wall. She began to play more seriously during her high school years at Taft, and later received influential coaching from Jack Barnaby on the varsity team at Harvard. “I played a lot after college in tournaments and even went into the nationals when I was 40,” Bradley wrote. “Now, I just play for fun.”

Another athlete, T.P. Ma GRD ’74, Raymond John Wean Professor of Electrical Engineering and member of the Yale Figure Skating Club, practices almost daily at Ingalls Rink. Ma said he began skating 30 years ago as a junior faculty member at Yale, when he enrolled him and his children in the Yale Family Skating Program.

“I came from Taiwan, a semi-tropical island where ice skating was an ‘impossible dream,’” Ma remembered.

“I enjoy the fact that I can continuously advance my skills by overcoming technical challenges, as long as I follow diligently my coach’s instructions,” Ma wrote in an email. “I especially like the fact that figure skating is a lifetime sport for as long as one can walk, and widely practiced by ‘elderly’ people above 70 years old.”

Similarly, the will to improve draws Drew McDermott GRD ’83, professor of computer science, to acting. He believes that “the skill of acting has the feature that it’s almost impossible to explicate. We can tell the difference between mediocre acting and good acting, but it’s hard to put our finger on the exact difference between them.” Two summers ago, McDermott preformed in the chorus of his church’s production of “Annie” and is considering auditioning for this summer’s musical.

David Evans ’92, director of undergraduate studies of geology and geophysics, is interested in another type of performance: hip-hop and rap. Evans grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, a place he described as “not exactly on people’s minds when they think of rap music or hip-hop culture.”

Evans said that his first exposure to rap came during the eighth grade, when someone brought a boom box on the bus, playing Newcleus’ “Jam On It.” “During that summer’s typewriting class an acquaintance from the inner city taught me how to assemble my first rhymes … they are so hilariously old-school!”

Evans described the way that Run DMC brought rap into the mainstream, how Public Enemy turned rap from a mildly amusing club phenomenon into a major political avenue for social protest and the way in which “Chuck D and Flav were saying pretty much all that there needed to be said about social woes and racism (sadly, much of their message is still relevant today).”

Evans recounts his days as a student at Yale, “Our BK suite’s parties ca. 1990 were thumping with De La Soul, Deee-lite, Snap!, Technotronic, C+C Music Factory and a host of other bands with which students today would be well served to acquaint themselves.”

Notorious B.I.G.’s innovative lyrics were a huge inspiration for Evans. “Given how many records he still sells,” Evans speculates, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s alive today on some remote island!”

Since his return to Yale, Evans notes Ludacris’ performance at Spring Fling a few years ago as a particular highlight. Another much enjoyed event is the annual Trinity College International Hip-Hop Festival, which he attends each April. “The artists who come to Trinity from all over the world,” Evans wrote, “bring hip-hop back to its roots: promoting peace, respect and a temporary good-times escape from the pressures of the world outside the venue.”

In terms of his own rap career, Evans wrote, “I can recite a lot of other people’s raps (and have been known to do that on Yale geology field trips), but a tight free-style remains beyond my reach, unfortunately.”

Unfortunately, indeed. One thing certainly within our professors’ reach is their ability to surprise and impress us with their varied interests and talents. Their pursuits are interesting because they can all arguably be seen as activities of creation, whether it be the performance of a song, a cultivation of an appreciation for nature or the art of the game. Our professors’ activities seem to embody Berger’s definition of “the miracles of improvisation and composition: how something new happens from existing, known elements, the event of creation … not out of nothing, in a genre, a history, but still undetermined and never precisely repeatable.” As we move beyond the structured activities available to us as undergraduates, our educators’ continuous pursuit of diverse passions exemplifies the kind of dynamic life students should aspire to lead.

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