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.
A little over 50 years ago, Yale underwent a massive change. Two residential colleges were added to the 10 already in place, two colleges whose unremittingly modern architecture was a testament to their newness, and whose names — Morse and Ezra Stiles — felt woolly and unfamiliar in the mouths of their freshly minted undergraduates. To mark the occasion, a time capsule was created and filled with twenty student essays, local and regional newspapers and several copies of Yale publications. The capsule was enclosed in a stone that became a bedrock of the new colleges. It was laid during a ceremony on Alumni Day in 1961, with much pomp and pride; only the colleges’ total demolition would be sufficient to coax the time capsule back into the open air. One YDN columnist, aware that he was writing for posterity, observed, “We’re hoping to do or say something that will be remembered 300 years hence.”
We find ourselves at a comparable moment in Yale’s history. The 12 colleges housing the undergraduate student body are to be expanded t o14, with two more slated to open in August 2017. They have yet to be named. They have yet to be crested. They have yet to be given masters, deans or dining staff.But they have been assigned a space — a scrubby no man’s land between a cemetery and a hospital, whose apparent insignificance seems to pose a haughty challenge to the notion that anything, ever, could be built there. But the donors have been petitioned, the architects consulted; the show is officially on the road. Expansion really is going to happen.
Of course, the addition of two new colleges will change Yale. Yet it is a curious mark of institutional life that even the slightest alterations to the “system” are often met with anxiety by those cozily closeted on the inside — students can be unexpectedly conservative.
As plans for the Beinecke neared completion in 1961, for example, the library was condemned as a “decorated box” by a history of art professor. Six undergraduates, one graduate student and one history of art instructor wrote in an open letter to the YDN that the library would stand as “a white elephant to be ridiculed by succeeding generations,” a repository for dead leaves, hand-tossed refuse and a simmering sense of resentment.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the Beinecke is the favorite landmark of many Yalies, an obligatory but agreeable stop on the Grand Tour. You present the library to your parent/friend/grandmother, freestyle for a couple of minutes on the fragility of its marble panels, the Tolkeinesque beauty of its innards, and then move on to visit Sterling, a gooey feeling of pride in your gut. The “decorated box” is not resented decades after its construction: It is loved.
Still, in many ways, the addition of two new colleges will be a more significant change to the University than an architecturally radical library. After all, once you’ve built your library and rammed it with books, you can — to an extent — rest on your laurels, much of the marathon completed. New colleges, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. You have to fill them with people, not books — undergraduates who arrive and leave in yearly cycles, who have sweated their way into the University and who are hungry for their slice of the Yale pie.
For Maria Cortez, who just submitted her application to Yale, potentially being placed in the new colleges would not diminish her undergraduate experience.
“I think that students will still feel part of the community no matter what,” Cortez said. “The residential college system itself brings [students] together, so there wouldn’t be feelings of isolation because, from what I know at least, the residential colleges are small communities within the University itself.”
Of the five prospective students interviewed, none were aware of the planned expansion. All five added that they would have no concerns for their social lives if placed into one of the new colleges.
For Julia Kharzeev, another aspiring Yalie, students placed in the new colleges — particularly underclassmen — would bear the responsibility of socializing outside their collegiate community.
“I think it really depends on whether [the students] integrate themselves well on campus in other ways,” Kharzeev said. “It would be awesome to be in these new residential colleges.”
When they finally arrive in 2017, the undergrads at the new colleges will want intimate classes and seminars just as much as we do. They too will expect unhampered access to Yale’s music, drama and gym facilities. And they will want to participate, like the members of the older colleges, in the intramural sports league, amongst lots of other student pastimes.
The two new colleges will grow Yale’s undergraduate community by 15 percent. The student body will thus come to a total of 6,200, an increase of 800 undergrads in all. Of course, the newbies will bring dough to the table – their fees will fill Yale coffers with a net revenue of approximately $30 million per year. According to the University administration, much of that money is expected to help staff and infrastructure to deal with the extra people.
The Yale Corporation made the original decision to expand back in 2008, disregarding the weighty evidence suggesting that students were opposed to the idea. (In a 2008 survey sent out by the News, of the 362 students polled, only 25 percent favored expansion.) Adding more space for qualified undergraduates was a leading factor in the Corporation’s choice — in 1999, Yale College accepted over 20 percent of applicants; now, it admits something closer to six percent. Every year seems to present record numbers of applicants, and it was felt that Yale would best serve its educational mission by getting bigger.
But the recession hit, shelving the development plans until Yale’s economic future looked rosier. The past few years have looked up, with the Yale Division of Finance reporting a surplus of $51 million this year. Now, there are enough pennies in the piggybank to give expansion another shot.
For many, enlargement is a cause for skepticism and gloom, not celebration. Some students worry that it might be easier to get into Yale — but perhaps the facts should be allowed to stand on their own. Yale College received a record 29,790 applicants for the class of 2017, of which only about 2,000 were accepted.The notion that increasing this number by 800 each year will lower academic standards doesn’t quite compute, said Eleanor Marshall ’17.
“I find that argument pretty offensive,” Marshall said. “I think it’s pretty elitist and I’m pretty disappointed to have heard people complaining about it.”
Peter Wang ’18 agreed, cautioning that an obsession with the number “800” undermines the fact that many candidates Yale rejects are undoubtedly qualified.
“Letting more students into Yale doesn’t mean that if you set the number larger, you set the standard lower,” Wang said.
In addition to fears of a less gifted student body, many have voiced the concern that the new colleges will be ‘ghettoized’ due to their location by Science Hill — or peopled entirely by sports-mad economists. The plot of land chosen is seen as out of the way, cut off, a gray buffer zone by Ingalls Rink with little commercial activity.
In a 2007 News article, Michael Pomeranz argued that “the new colleges, up on Science Hill, would create a sub-campus away from most of the undergraduate housing.”
In response to such criticism, Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway said that campus has changed drastically since the Corporation first proposed expansion. With the addition of the police station, the construction of the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design and the completion of Rosenkranz Hall, foot traffic in the area has increased.
Some students, too, expect that on-campus social life will move with the opening of the new colleges. They reject Pomeranz’s notion of the “sub-campus” as a little over-dramatic.
“[Students in the new colleges] will be closer to the students in TD and Silliman,” Kellen Svetov ’16 said. “We may see a shift of the social center.”
In addition, according to the Yale website “The New Residential Colleges,” the University will create “stepping stones” that connect students to the new neighborhood. These will include an expanded shuttle service and enhanced security. And yet, the freshmen who are parachuted into these colleges will join institutions that have no accrued prestige and no timeworn traditions that they can inherit. Moreover, there is a historical precedent for suspecting that the new colleges will not be respected as much as the older ones, at least initially.
Ronald Allison ’63 recalled the stigma he faced when he transferred from Silliman into the newly created Morse College in the early ’60s. “You were disrespected for being there,” he said. “Morse had less prestige.”
In any case, it seems likely that the first wave of Morse and Stiles undergraduates were particularly sensitive to the sting of perceived inter-collegiate snobbery. Eero Saarinen, the Morse and Stiles architect, explained in a 1959 statement that his team’s primary aim had been to create “an architecture which would recognise the individual as individual instead of anonymous integer in a group.” Many who transferred were introverted types who craved the single rooms that the colleges offered, having been uncomfortable in their original colleges.
Henry Sam Chauncey, an associate dean of Yale College at the time, argues that the two new colleges were strange places to inhabit when they first opened, because most of the volunteers were “unhappy people” — so, “for the first two or three years at least, Morse and Stiles were not the happiest of places.”
The plans for the newest residential colleges suggest that they, by contrast, will not cater largely to “loners”. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the mock-ups show an interlocking series of communal spaces, clearly intended to generate a bustling social hub. The firm has opted not to copy the unforgiving gray modernism of Morse and Stiles, but has reverted to the neo-Gothic style so ubiquitous in many of Yale’s older colleges.
Of the students interviewed, the vast majority agreed that the new colleges look promising. Maia Eliscovich Sigal ’16, YCC vice president, went so far as to call them “very pretty,” noting that she had heard from members of the Morse administration that some undergraduates felt physically oppressed by Saarinen’s design.
As professor of English and American Studies and Morse College Master Amy Hungerford conceded, “Some students come [to Yale] with a dream of gothic architecture in mind, a stereotype of what an Ivy League college should look like.” Judging by Stern’s mock-ups, the 13th and 14th colleges will certainly fit into romantic visions of Old Yale.
But even if the colleges fulfill an aesthetic ideal, the expansion poses problems of overcrowding. Ironically, while Morse and Stiles were opened partly to alleviate the pressure on student housing, the new colleges will in fact do the opposite.
Though Eliscovich Sigal has faith that the Yale administration will maintain standards as the university bloats, she feels that overcrowding is already a significant problem. “Many econ classes don’t even have TAs,” she said. “It’s unacceptable. You’d think that if they’re bringing in hundreds more students, they’d sort that type of problem out.”
Still, despite her reservations, Eliscovich Sigal believes that University administrators are hyperaware of the impending problem — “I feel that they genuinely want to sort it out”.
Holloway has acknowledged these challenges. “We’re considering many different aspects of more students coming into campus,” he said. “Over the next 18 months, we’ll be developing plans to address those kinds of concerns.”
Without any concrete answers, expansion naysayers are arguably right to worry about overcrowding. And yet, efforts are being made by the University administration to address the issue. In October of last year, University President Peter Salovey convened a committee to investigate out how best to balance the books, to ensure that the costs of supporting the additional students would not exceed the extra $30 million revenue.
Sections of the Expansion Committee’s report, published this summer, make for potentially worrying reading. The IM league may be split into two separate divisions, for example, to accommodate two extra college teams. In the segment on classroom space, the review found that “the large majority of courses” could enroll 15 percent more students without changing locations. But many undergrads — including Svetov, an econ major who has witnessed the rush to register for Intro to Microeconomics and Macroeconomics — can already attest to the difficulty of finding a seat in many courses.
Shane Kim ’17 expressed similar concerns about overcrowded classes.
“If we have the same number of courses being taught, but now with 800 more students thrown into the mix, it will be a crazy time,” he said.
The report acknowledged that in some large courses, the increase would push course enrollment over the maximum capacity of Yale’s biggest classrooms — but it suggested that individual departments tackle the problem, for instance, by making classes earlier to alleviate pressure points. This has not gone over well with students, some of whom bristle at the thought of getting up early for a class they might have enjoyed at a later time in the morning.
To Qingyang Chen ’17, earlier classes would “circumvent the problem rather than solve the problem.” While he acknowledged that hiring more faculty would be a challenge, he felt that students should not be discouraged from taking classes they want to take.
The influx of 800 more undergraduates may also force the administration to curtail Shopping Period, to better anticipate resource allocation needs. Having shopped oversubscribed seminars, Kim hopes that administrators ensure that shopping period does not become more difficult following the student body’s expansion.
In addition to concerns about the increased number of students, some equally worry about the number of faculty available to teach them.
They are arguably right to do so, given that the Expansion Committee’s report advised that “some flexibility be accorded with respect to class size limits”, whilst allowing for “a small, targeted increase in funding for non-ladder instruction”. In other words, the University doesn’t plan to increase the number of tenure positions, since they have already made new hires in preparation for the expansion.
“The faculty is larger than it’s ever been,” Holloway said. “Unfortunately the growth has been separated from the arrival of the students.”
While the ratio of students to tenured faculty members will inevitably increase in 2017, Holloway said Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak were “absolutely committed to making sure the quality of teaching doesn’t suffer as the University expands.”
Despite these assurances, some students simply feel excluded from the expansion process. After all, the administration never officially asked undergraduates whether they thought introducing two new residential colleges would be a good idea.
As News columnist Scott Stern ’15 puts it, “The idea that there has been any student involvement at all in the process is kind of a joke.”
And yet, as Holloway announced on Oct. 29, a new undergraduate task force is expected to convene at the end of this semester to begin advising faculty and staff on plans for the new residential colleges. Officially called the Standing Committee on Yale College Expansion, the committee will include four undergraduates who can apply for a spot through Yale College Council.
And in February this year, two forums were held with an eye to allowing students to voice their concerns. The first, on the impact of expansion on student life, was moderately well-attended, with approximately thirty students present, alongside Polak and other members of the Faculty Expansion Committee. But only four undergrads showed up to the second forum on the effects of growth on Yale’s academic life.
So, while some undergraduates feel actively shut out of the conversation, others seem apathetic to the changes — after all, 2017 feels pretty far off; they may not be around when the colleges open.
This apparent indifference might be due to the inefficacy of the “open forum” itself — as Hungerford points out, “There’s something about calling an open forum that is either only effective when people are highly educated about the issue or [when they] have strong feelings. They’re not always an effective way of consulting people”. There certainly seems to be a marked schism between the noise some students make amongst themselves about expansion, and what they are actually prepared to do about it.
Perhaps what students tend to lose sight of are the exciting opportunities presented by the expansion plan. The new colleges’ names and crests have captured the imagination of almost all. Nine out of the current twelve are named after slave owners, and every college, except the two named for towns, pays tribute to a white, Christian male.
One favorite contender is Grace Hopper GRD ’34, one of the University’s most accomplished female graduates in engineering, mathematics and technology. Another popular choice is Edward Bouchet GRD 1876, a first-generation student of color and accomplished scientist. Yung Wing 1854 has also garnered some support, as the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university.
The opportunity to name these colleges has been hugely exciting, to both students and professors. Hungerford hopes at least one of the names will be that of a person of color or a woman — “I just think it’s time. We’re living in 2014.”
As to the danger that a college named after a female or a minority graduate will be further stigmatized, Hungerford aptly remarked, “If people worry that the Yale community will ghettoize two colleges named after women and people of color, then we’re in a lot deeper trouble than people think we are.”
In addition to the opportunities offered by the naming process, the chance to create a college culture ex nihilo has enthused many. As Eliscovich Sigal put it, “There’s an opportunity to be part of something new. That’s exciting.”
Besides, no one can deny that college identities undergo radical mutations every few years. For News columnist Joshua Clapper ’16, “The most appealing part of the residential college is that it is ever-changing,” he said. “There are traditions in different colleges that stress residential college independence over a broader University identity. But the flavor of this independence varies from year to year.”
It seems that one of the most vital goals of expansion has been somewhat obscured — which is that by growing so substantially, the Yale experience will be open to more people year on year. If it feels gratifyingly cynical to roll one’s eyes at the planned growth, with its unknown impacts and costs, it takes a little more intellectual integrity to focus on the bigger picture. More people will come to Yale, which will remain the same in some ways, and different in others; more minds from all over the world will be allowed to benefit from the unique Yale experience. That is surely something to celebrate.