Tag Archive: English department

  1. Paul Fry: An Ocean of Islands


    Paul Fry isn’t just a famous academic; he’s also “Yale famous.” A scholar of British Romantic poetry and a professor at Yale for over forty years, Fry put aside his original aspirations of becoming a painter to pursue literature. In addition to being one of the few professors whose course is available online, Fry served as beloved master of Ezra Stiles College for almost a decade. In an interview with WKND, Fry recounts memorable Master’s Teas, including a particularly charged one with the founder of the Black Panthers, and describes his work in the upcoming “Critique of Reason” exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery.

    Q: I heard that you were originally interested in pursuing a career in painting, but went to graduate school because your father believed art wasn’t a viable career path. How did this impact your life, and what advice would you give to students who are torn between pursuing their dreams and fulfilling expectations?

    A: Well, in the first place I should give my father the credit of not really being a person who stood in my way. I made my own choice, and my father was a painter and very much honored painting. I went to graduate school because I felt I had a deeper vocation for the study of literature than for painting. Also, you could be drafted if you went to art school — this was during the Vietnam War. However, if you went to graduate school, you were exempt from the draft. Once I was in graduate school I was comfortable and happy with my choice. Today I could only advise students to follow their deepest vocation.

    Q: Do you believe it’s possible for a person to realize their creative aspirations at any point during his or her life?

    A: I certainly think so. The time and intensity of effort that would be required for most of us to do does perhaps mean a career change, and the ease with which one changes careers depends on one’s phase of life. It’s probably unwise to do so and hope to succeed without being fully committed to it. I have to say that literary studies is a discipline that requires a lot of preparation and is not something I would recommend someone do midlife or later.

    Q: In your online lecture “Introduction to Theory of Literature,” you examine various conceptions of the meaning of literature. If you could describe the purpose of literature and why it continues to engage us in a few words, what would you say?

    A: I think literature calls our attention to the measure of the fictive. I think that literature as a form of discourse has a privileged position amongst others because of its openly and exuberantly fictive nature. In some ways I would defend it and its study on formal grounds. However, one could say in a more humanistic vein that literature expresses more eloquently and subtly emotions and feelings that we all try to express one way or another.

    Q: How did you get involved with Romanticism? Was there any particular reason you chose this artistic movement?

    A: When I was a graduate student at Harvard, I thought of myself as a Modernist. I spent a lot of time studying the canonical works of the earlier twentieth century and was fascinated with them. I also had a temporary flirtation with early American colonial literature that was developed under one of my more interesting mentors. However, it was when I came to Yale that my interest in Romanticism took off, under the influence of the great figures in the department in those days, like Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman.

    Q: On the subject of Romanticism, could you describe your work in “The Critique of Reason” exhibit?

    A: It’s quite limited. My role is only to read a half-hour paper in a symposium that I understand is going to take place on April 18th and 19th. My own experience has been mostly with the British Art Center and their collection over the years. It is a great occasion for collaboration, and I hope it works out because it’s an excellent idea.

    Q: Do you have any favorite Romantic poems?

    A: Yes, certainly. I think Keats’ “To Autumn” is the most perfect poem in the language. I very much admire “Tintern Abbey” and a poem called “Michael” by Wordsworth. While these are lyric poems, I also esteem Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem “The Prelude,” and Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”

    Q: To switch gears, college students are so often swamped with course reading that they don’t have time to read for leisure. What would you say to a student looking to read for leisure?

    A: Well, I think it is important simply to deepen one’s sense of a rich field. To read works in isolation is to feel that somehow they are little islands in the vast ocean, whereas, in reality, the entire ocean is islands.

    Q: What is your philosophy of reading, and how does it square with a college student’s practice of skimming?

    A: I am unable to skim. If I skim I have acquired no information, let alone understanding of the text as a text. Sometimes I have to skim just like anyone else and I make the best of it. Now, there is a movement abroad in literary studies called distant reading, which involves digital humanities databases, that really absolves you from reading at all. All you have to do is gather together vast quantities of whatever you are interested in and then develop a search engine that asks the intelligent questions so you can come up with generalizations about a whole genre. It is not an insignificant or uninteresting field, but it is really amazing to me because it absolves you from reading and composes other tasks in its place.

    Q: In your opinion, does distant reading detract from the intended purpose of literature? Does the manner in which we acquire information alter our understanding of it?

    A: I don’t want to be dogmatic or doctrinaire. I think one can learn interesting things by this means. We have always used what are called concordances [an alphabetized list of the important words in a book or text]. As a student of Wordsworth, I have worked all my life with the concordance of words that allows me to see when and how often he uses a certain word, phrase or theme. Concordances are already like databases and search engines, and even traditionally they could search for things other than words — they are just not as vast.

    Q: You have taught at Yale for more than forty years. Is there any particular moment in your teaching career that has been the most gratifying or interesting?

    A: Well, I’ll have to say that the response to the online literary theory lecture course has been incredibly gratifying. For years, I got emails from people in every corner of the world telling me that it had changed their lives. Furthermore, I was able to turn it into a book! My most recent book is based on a transcript of the lectures: I turned the transcript into decent prose, fixing the grammar and eliminating all the “umms” and “ahhs.”

    Q: What was something you most enjoyed as Master of Stiles? I think a lot of students are curious about this because from our point of view, college masters seem to have a lot of fun!

    A: It was certainly an interesting position — we were laughing all the time. I enjoyed all kinds of things about it! I participated in some sports; I got to know lots of students and enjoyed knowing them. What I particularly liked doing was developing ideas for Master’s Teas. We had Martha Stewart, film directors, actors such as Edward Norton, conceptual artists and other intellectuals and celebrities. It was a lot of fun putting those events together over the years.

    Q: Is there one particular Master’s Tea that you recall which received the best reception?

    A: I think the most exciting Master’s Tea was with Bobby Seale, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers who had opened a barbeque restaurant in Philadelphia and had published a book titled “Barbequing with Bobby.” He came to the Master’s Tea accompanied by the New Haven head of the Black Panthers chapter, a guy named James Edwards who was on the hustings at a time when the city was full of tanks, and when Brewster [the Yale president at the time] made his stand on behalf of the Black Panthers, saying they couldn’t get a fair trial in New Haven. It was a tremendously controversial period. James Edwards was one of the most fierce and dedicated people I have ever encountered. He was so much more serious in his politics and his understanding of racial relations than Bobby Seale was, or at least is now. I think the Martha Stewart event was also special. It all went great until toward the end of the Q&A someone asked her if she had any advice about decorating his dorm room and she thought he was being condescending and got mad at him. She had come from a local Kmart where she was introducing a new line of towels. I can’t even begin to remember all the people we had from an enormous variety of fields. Sometimes we would have people who weren’t very well known and we would have to scour the courtyards to find an audience. But we had them hanging from the chandeliers for a lot of them.

    Contact SAATCHI KALSI at

    saatchi.kalsi@yale.edu .

  2. “The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne”

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    Caveat: I am not an English major. I am not an English major for many reasons, including a fear of large departments, a freaky obsession with Russia, and “The Victorian Novel,” a course I took last semester. English 265: “The Victorian Novel” was lovely and informative. But I spent every lecture in hiding, at the back of the room, by an elderly gentleman auditing the class. I sat in the lecture hall’s shadowy recesses, and I was incapable of sitting anywhere else. 

    This was the problem — class felt like an alternate reality. The professor made perfect points; we took perfect notes. And even when she said, “this passage is tricky and complex,” I only ever drew a bullet point and wrote “tricky and complex.” My recollection is flawed of course, a memory warped by confirmation bias and personal mythology, but still — I don’t remember grappling with the texts. I never unpacked the words “tricky” or “complex.” 

    As Margaret Shultz ’16 says,“In English classes, there are just these standardized reactions to texts. And I think there should be an antagonistic approach.” 

    I wanted one of us to nod or gasp or faint or even blink when our professor said something controversial. And we never did. 

    That was my caveat.

    * * *

    The English department casts a long shadow, looming large over the humanities at Yale. The faculty is star-studded and prize-winning. “Daily Themes” is a class every alumnus tells you to take. And the undergraduate major is undeniably popular — about 75 students graduate with a bachelor’s in English each year. 

    In other words, everyone has an opinion about the department, from the English majors themselves (some of whom call their peers a “flock of sheep”) to my parents (who like to ask “Why can’t you just major in English, Jane? It’s just a lot *realer* than Literature.”)

    My parents might be right. The English Department has strict, no-nonsense requirements — majors complete three courses in literature written before the nineteenth century, one in literature written before the twentieth century, and one in American literature. 

    And, of course, students must take the notorious English 125 and 126. Titled “Major English Poets,” the two prerequisites cover eight authors, from Chaucer to Eliot, and should be completed by the end of sophomore year. 

    Ruthie Prillaman ’16, an English major, has found that these courses weed out less committed students. Many take 125 and conclude they’re not cut out to keep going. 

    And Shultz, also an English major, said “125 and 126 do a terrible job of recognizing alternative narratives, especially regarding the total absence of women and people of color.” In other words, all eight of the major English poets are dead white men. 

    This, of course, can trouble or alienate students interested in more contemporary literature, literature that doesn’t quite fit into the American or British cannon.

    While Professor Jessica Brantley, the major’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, acknowledged that these requirements have only “changed slightly in the direction of more student choice,” she also defended them. “The point of coming to Yale is to open your mind to new things, precisely those things that you would never have been reading unless someone asked you to.” 

    Most professors stand by this assertion — they’re quick to shield the requirements from attack. According to English Professor Ruth Yeazell, “students think their interests are more present-oriented than they are.” They’re surprised to find courses in Middle English, for instance, “actually cool.”

    For both Prillaman and fellow English major Ariel Katz ’15, Yeazell’s assertion certainly holds true. The English requirements have been immensely rewarding, some of them blessings in disguise. “Major English Poets,” for instance, traces a particular intellectual and historical narrative that can be eye-opening to students unaccustomed to such survey classes. Katz remembered English 126 as “a class that kind of convinced me [these authors] were worth studying.” 

    But still, many English majors find the department “stuffy” and a little arcane. Indeed, of the 32 full-time professors, over half are white. Many have been teaching the same classes for decades.

    In talking about the department’s rigidity, Shultz was unflinching. “There’s a huge problem with old, stodgy lecturers,” she said. She’d prefer “more seminars, with younger, more enthusiastic professors.” 

    Yeazell, for one, acknowledged that variations in age are unfortunately slight. “Too many of us are older,” she admitted. “A lot of us are in the same generational cohort.” This lack of diversity may be a consequence of the University’s tenure policy. At Yale (unlike some other research universities), faculty members must publish two books before they receive tenure. According to Palmer Rampell GRD ’17, a fourth-year graduate student in the English Department, “it’s harder for [the department] to retain talented young scholars of color” because of these regulations. Such scholars are in high demand at most universities, many of which can offer them tenure sooner than Yale can. 

    But Yeazell maintained that the homogeneity is temporary — many professors will be retiring in the next decade. She hopes this will encourage a new diversity of thought and opinion in the department. 

    To Prillaman too, the major allows for a certain academic laxity. “You could just float by without ever interacting with any professors or any other English majors,” she said with a shrug. “It’s an impersonal major.”

    To a certain extent, this perceived intellectual conformism accounts for the emergence of newer majors, ones like American Studies, Humanities and Literature. These majors are often smaller than English, facilitating relationships between professors and students, and enabling a more personalized course of study.

    Jingnan Peng ’15, for instance, picked Literature for its flexibility. “You can build something for yourself,” he said of his department. 

    And in Rampell’s experience, many students stray from the English Department while looking for a more open-ended academic experience. He has noticed that students sometimes prefer American Studies to English because it has fewer requirements.

    But these majors cover completely different material, Brantley noted, and therefore should not be seen as competitors.  

    * * *

    In my flawed recollections, memories warped by confirmation bias and personal mythology, the students in “The Victorian Novel” were clean, stylish and happy. Most had shiny hair and clear skin. The boys wore boat shoes. The girls wore makeup to look as though they weren’t wearing makeup. They seemed a homogeneous bunch, all either well-adjusted or damn good at looking well-adjusted. They took perfect notes, on Macs or in Moleskines, and I watched in awe as many transcribed the lecture verbatim, even pesky repetitions and quotations. I have no idea how these students felt or how they conceptualized literature. They might have harbored hidden doubts about readings and interpretations. But they operated so smoothly in that lecture hall, they looked so serene and attentive, that I couldn’t sit near them. 

    Still, some professors are unfazed by complaints of rigidity or homogeneity (even those less petty than my initial ones). They’re not bothered by a possible overrepresentation of white males in the reading. According to Professor Brantley, the department’s requirements are already “designed to guide majors towards as full and diverse an experience of Anglophone literature as is possible.”

    While some professors of English 126 do eschew Eliot in favor of non-white or non-male poets, substantive curriculum reforms are not forthcoming. The department does not appear perched to add requirements or tweak the status quo. 

    Rampell, however, favors reform and cites a handful of professors also championing academic amendments within the department. He knows the matter is contentious. No one is quite sure how to define or delimit the English Major, he says. While this ambiguity might confuse and frustrate students, it’s ultimately essential to the major.

    “It’s important to expose students to different ideas of what an English degree is supposed to do,” he said.

    I suddenly felt guilty, hearing that. I thought back to “The Victorian Novel,” the boat shoes and shiny bags, the Moleskines and Macbooks. Didn’t I know that only a self-selected bunch would take a class on “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights”? Why had I extrapolated so wildly?

    I thought — I’m an idiot. Of course a few students aren’t metonyms for a department. Those kids and I just have different ideas. We have different ideas of what an English class should do.

    After all, when I interviewed Ruth Yeazell, she said “one doesn’t go to literature to look in the mirror.” One doesn’t go to class for that either.