You know the names: Gaddis, Amar, Chun, Bloom, Kagan and Kagan.
These are names synonymous with classes, synonymous with Yale. Their personalities are infused into their lectures. Students refer to these classes not with a number, not merely with a subject, but with the recognition of an artist. Michelangelo’s “David”? How about Gaddis’ “The Cold War”?
We laugh wryly as they assign their own books as reading. We forsake seats for the aisle floor in shopping period. How can we ignore these heavyweights of Yale — professors with reputations built on more than fame, more than even their own teaching? Indeed, these lectures thrive on momentum, tumbling forward with the mouth-to-mouth recommendations of one generation of students to the next. The question, “What class should I take?” is often followed by the inquiry, “Is Kagan teaching ‘Ethics’ this semester?”
These lectures attract students from every discipline, every major. Some students rely upon the renowned classes as their final semester credit. Others construct their schedules with the courses as the centerpiece. And to speak only of these campus-wide renowned super-lectures excludes the legends of individual departments. What computer science major will forget 323 with Eisenstat? What English major will forget Shakespeare with Kastan?
Yale’s celebrity classes are valuable not just for the academic experience they offer to students, but also for the ways in which they tighten our community, shaping campus narratives and identity.
In thirty years, when we meet a 2025 graduate of Yale, what will we want to talk about? A killer Spring Fling performer? An electrifying sports victory? Such events are transient, chiefly meaningful to people who witnessed them first-hand. The residential college connections may fizzle quickly, save for memories of a shared master or dean. The most reliable shared experiences, across generations of students, might just be these famous lectures and the professors who make them. For these titans of Yale personify what we came here to pursue — vigorous intellectual experiences, new lenses through which we can understand history, language, our world at large.
And it’s not just about the connections we form years down the line. Professors’ performances in these popular lectures provide even current Yale students with unique commonalities. Some teachers tell jokes, sometimes funny and sometimes not (Akhil Amar: “So the Supreme Court started with an even number of justices … isn’t that odd?”) Others end lecture with a bombshell quote or line, a fitting fermata to the material. They are, in effect, our campus television series: their stories and special effects provide endless fodder for discussion. They are our Sherlock, our Breaking Bad, our Game of Thrones, though exclusive to only 300 viewers and airing live on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Variations on the proverbial, “Remember that one time, Professor X did Y” are ubiquitous conversation-starters. Caught in the dining hall with that one guy you sort of know from your floor? Talk about how Kagan’s last lecture blew your mind. Walking to class in awkward silence? Surprise your friend with a frighteningly accurate impersonation of Amar.
Students don’t just harp on the mystique and aura of these eminent teachers. For even the most well versed, experienced professor, the most sterling of Sterling, cannot conduct two hour-long lectures weekly without a humanizing mishap. In fact, these professors’ quirks, not their expertise, are often what most endear them to us.
In the dining hall, on the walk up Science Hill, on the bus ride to the field house, we might try to predict the favorite buzzword our professor will use, or reminisce about a few puns he or she made last class. We might laugh about Professor Chun’s excessive self-deprecation, or the fact that we have begun to read Professor Amar’s books in his bubbly, excited voice. We might even good-heartedly rue Professor Shiller’s Nobel talk.
Yet these teachers give us more than mementos, souvenir facts or clever phrases. While their material and quirks may be intriguing and amusing, supplying us with happy post-class diversions, we will best remember their passion, and how they challenged us to think.
We can only hope our favorites stick around — to teach us well, to mess up like real people, to excite us and to give us all something to remember.
Jack Mahoney is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .