Professors Robert Greenberg GRD ’91 and Leon Plantinga GRD ’64 recently received this year’s DeVane Medals, awarded by the Phi Beta Kappa honors society to recognize distinction in scholarship and undergraduate teaching.
Greenberg, adjunct professor of Slavic languages, was praised for his kindness and his work on linguistics and politics in the former Yugoslavia, while Plantinga, professor emeritus of music, was described as passionate about his subject and interested in engaging students.
Each year, two DeVane medalists are named: a retired member of the Yale faculty named by the Phi Beta Kappa graduate officers, advisers and members of the executive committee; and another active faculty member who has taught at Yale for at least five years, selected by Phi Beta Kappa seniors.
Greenberg, who speaks eight languages fluently, including most Slavic languages, said he was thrilled and honored to receive the award.
“I was pretty stunned,” Greenberg said. “You go about your job, you teach for many years, and the recognition comes out of the sky and just hits you. It’s amazing.”
Greenberg said he became interested in Slavic languages during the Cold War while he was a student in college. The United States was boycotting the Moscow Olympics and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, he said. Originally an English major, Greenberg switched to Russian to gain a better understanding of what he called “one of the biggest geopolitical conflicts of the time.”
Aside from studying Slavic languages, Greenberg said he enjoys connecting the languages with the culture, history, politics and sociological trends of the region. For Greenberg, teaching is also an exhilarating and satisfying aspect of his job, he said.
Five students interviewed said they were not surprised that Greenberg won a DeVane medal, describing him as passionate about his subject and eager to share his enthusiasm with his students.
Emily Rabiner ’10, who has taken two courses with Greenberg, said she enjoyed interacting with him both inside and outside the classroom.
“He’s delightful as a professor, and he’s such a conversationalist outside the classroom setting,” she said. “He will discuss breaking political news with you as well as contemporary Macedonian pop music, which adds to his charm.”
Ria Harracksingh ’10 said Greenberg was the best professor she has had at Yale. She said she especially appreciated his attempts to keep his class engaged and interested, including starting a blog and showing movies at the end of the semester.
Plantinga, who retired in 2005 but still teaches, said he was grateful to Phi Beta Kappa for the award.
“I’ve spent more than 40 years on the Yale faculty, and I have enjoyed teaching very much,” he said. “Getting to know and teach students is the most satisfying thing in my life.”
Plantinga, who specializes in European music from the second half of the 18th century to the 19th century, said he became interested in music through playing the piano as a child. He moved on to major in English and philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan, then received a master’s degree in music from Michigan State University and a doctorate in the history of music from Yale.
Now, aside from studying music itself, he said he is interested in how music fits into intellectual life, and how changes in musical style reflect changes in society.
In his spare time, Plantinga still plays the piano (sometimes performing at Yale), and he is an avid tennis player and fan.
David Leigh ’10 said he decided to take Plantinga’s class after reading the textbook the professor had written, having encountered it in another course.
“When I was thinking about applying to graduate school, he probably spent ten or fifteen hours talking to me about different people in the field and different paths he had taken along the way, while I was just a random student in his class,” Leigh said.
Leigh added that Plantinga constantly engages his students outside of the classroom and had also invited him to turn pages at one of his piano performances in Jonathan Edwards College.
Justin Quam ’10 said Plantinga always seems genuinely interested in his students.
“He’s willing to talk to you about your life or about Beethoven’s political thoughts,” Quam said. “He told me once that it is his practice to buy each student a cup of coffee at some point in our lives. He’s just generally awesome.”
Greenberg and Plantinga were awarded the DeVane medal — in the form of a tray — on Feb. 8 in the President’s Room above Commons.