In her eighth decade, Yale professor becomes a student

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During her 50 years as a teacher, almost 30 of them at Yale, Sterling Professor of English Ruth Yeazell ’71 Ph.D. has sometimes wondered if, fired up by her literary passions, she talks too much in her classes.

So, in two of her three classes this semester, she said, she’s trying to be a “fly on the wall.”

Yeazell, a scholar of 18th- and 19th-century literature, has taken the semester off from teaching to be a student in Directed Studies (DS), an interdisciplinary program in which undergraduates examine some of the seminal texts of Western civilization. She has taught in the program for more than a decade.

I thought it would be fun to be on the other side of the table,” said Yeazell, whose other scholarly interests include the history of gender and sexuality and the relation of literature to the visual arts. “I’ll be teaching DS literature next spring, which I have never done before, and this gives me a chance to observe how others are teaching.”

Her leave is made possible by Teaching Relief for Learning (TRL), which allows faculty members to spend a semester enrolled as students in undergraduate or graduate courses of their choice.

Directed Studies, open to first-year students who are selected via an application process, consists of three integrated courses — philosophy, literature, and historical and political thought. Over the course of the academic year, they survey Western civilization from classical antiquity through the modern day. Yeazell has taught only the fall DS literature course, which covers works from Homer through Dante.

It’s a little strange that I teach fall DS because my research and teaching is focused on the British and American novel from the late 18th- to the early 20th-century,” said Yeazell, who is especially noted for her scholarship on Henry James. “While it’s not my world, I’m comfortable teaching this literary period. I’ve been hesitant to teach DS literature in the spring, because it seems a lot to work up to. I’ve thought: Maybe I could sit in a class to see how they teach ‘Paradise Lost,’ for example, which is a poem I haven’t read since graduate school.’”

Yeazell asked Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, whether TRL was meant only for faculty members to further their own research. Gendler told her that TRL could also be used for “sheer intellectual refreshment,” Yeazell said. So she signed up.

TRL is part of a suite of programs called Scholars as Leaders: Scholars as Learners. They “create opportunities for faculty to develop new and innovative projects and ideas, initiate new collaborations, and continue to pursue excellence in research and teaching,” said Gendler, who established the program with a gift from an anonymous donor. She modeled TRL on the Mellon New Directions Program, which each year supports roughly 10 mid-career faculty across the country in a full-year leave. Gendler herself went back to school via the Mellon program.

Yeazell and the professors teaching her DS courses together decided whether she would contribute to class discussions or stay silent, so as not to intimidate her younger classmates. She is a full participant in Professor Stephen Darwall’s philosophy class, but mostly keeps mum in Jane Levin’s literature class. After spending a few weeks on the sidelines, she began to talk in David Sorkin’s class on historical and political thought when the group seemed comfortable with the prospect.

Yeazell with other students, taking notes
(Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

As a teacher, I might have hesitated to have someone of my age and experience taking part in classroom discussions,” Yeazell said. “It could potentially throw off the balance, especially among first-year students. But in each of the classes, the students seem to want me to take part! I’m content to hold back. I feel no temptation to dominate the classes.”

Yeazell, one of six professors participating in TRL this semester, first became interested in teaching in the DS program after hearing colleagues and students rave about it.

There is a real camaraderie among DS faculty and students,” she said. “It’s a rigorous program, but I have never heard anyone say they wished they had not done it. Many feel nostalgic about the experience.”

Her classes this semester, she said, allow her to read or re-read some of the books in the curriculum that she either never tackled or barely recalls.

It gives me a better sense of what my students are learning if they tell me, for instance, that they are reading Spinoza,” she said. In addition to re-encountering Spinoza for the first time in many years, Yeazell is looking forward to her first-time-ever reading of Caribbean author Derek Walcott’s “Omeros.” Other texts on her course syllabi include works by Machiavelli, Simone De Beauvoir, Rousseau, Karl Marx, Wordsorth, Milton, and Proust.

The most challenging part of being a student again, she said, is balancing her time in class with other obligations. During her leave, for example, she still serves on university committees and meets with the independent studies students she advises. Each of her three DS courses meets weekly for one lecture and two seminars. To manage her commitments, Yeazell is not undertaking the writing assignments for her courses.

The program is notorious for its heavy reading demands,” Yeazell said. “That seems less overwhelming to me because I’m used to having a lot of reading in any one semester while I’m teaching. Now I’m spending over 10 hours a week in the classroom. I’m the first faculty member to be taking DS as part of TRL; most faculty members usually only take two courses.”

Someday, Yeazell said, she’d love to see a second-year DS program that examines non-Western literary, philosophical, and historical traditions. In the meantime, the 73-year-old English professor has no plans to retire anytime soon, or subdue her yearning for lifelong learning.

Students keep me young,” she said.

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