The class I’ll never forget

If you had to name just one, what’s the Yale course that will always stay with you? Here’s what Angela Bassett, Alan Dershowitz, David McCullough, and others had to say.

Illustrations by Stephen Savage

Illustrations by Stephen Savage

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Some parts of our education—yes, even a Yale education—seem to stay lodged in our brains only long enough to pass a final. But most of us have vivid memories of lessons learned or epiphanies encountered in the classroom. Some of the courses we took serve us well in our careers or avocations; some of them merely haunt our anxiety dreams.

We asked a handful of alumni of all ages from Yale College and the graduate schools to tell us about the one course they’ll never forget. We only had room in print for the 15 that follow, but you can read more of them here. And if you’d like to tell us about the course you’ll never forget, write to alumnimag@yale.edu. We’ll add readers’ contributions to the website.


Alan Dershowitz ’62LLB
Attorney, Harvard law professor, and best-selling author

I was a nervous kid from Brooklyn, waiting for my first teacher to instruct us on the law of torts. Fifteen of us were milling around wondering out loud what Assistant Professor Guido Calabresi would be like. As the clock struck 9 a.m., one of the guys we were schmoozing with simply walked to the front of the classroom and said, “Hi, I’m Guido Calabresi, your teacher.”

I don’t remember much about the law of torts, but I remember everything Guido taught us regarding analytic thinking, writing, and law. My first written assignment earned me a D and a comment implying I might not be suited to the practice of law. That night Guido called me and told me my D paper was the best in the class in terms of thinking, but the worst in terms of writing. “You write like you’re having a conversation with your friends in Brooklyn,” he said. Guido worked with me all semester and helped turn me into the writer I have become.

Guido Calabresi ’53, ’58LLB, later became dean of the Law School.—Eds.


Tanya Wexler ’92
Director of Hysteria and other films

My most memorable course was Women in Film with Jennifer Wicke. There was an entire lecture on Madonna and the Blond Ambition tour. (I went to a concert and wrote a paper on it.) Every week there was another kickass-awesome chick movie, often with a lesbian context. The Aliens-specific lecture I remember like it was yesterday, because it was about constructed mothers—Sigourney Weaver as the real mother, and the crazy alien who was protecting her eggs. Weaver’s line “Get away from her, you bitch!”—I wrote a paper on that too.


John Downey ’51
Connecticut judge and former CIA officer, imprisoned in China for 20 years

In senior year, we sensitive types rushed to enlist in Daily Themes, directed by Professor Ben Nangle. Daily Themes required submission Monday through Friday, before 9 a.m., of one page, no more, of prose. Students met weekly, one on one, with an instructor (or Nangle) for a critique of their efforts. Plot was out. Rather, we were supposed to sketch a scene, delineate a character, evoke a mood, describe a moment. By mid-term many of us were encountering an unforeseen crisis. Our supplies of disgusting roommates, faithless maidens, callous parents were running low. In the later stages of the course we took to wandering the streets of New Haven late nights, in the hope that something, anything, might occur to furnish a page. The assignment was grueling, but the instructors took us seriously and their comments were perceptive. I recall one instructor as both kind and candid. His name was Peter Matthiessen. Peter Matthiessen! It was a memorable course.

Since then, Peter Matthiessen ’50 has won the National Book Award three times.—Eds.


Jonathan Hartman ’09
Senior advanced concepts engineer at Sikorsky Innovations, program manager for the company’s all-electric demonstration helicopter

Freshman year, relying on sheer confidence, I decided to place myself in a physics course well above my ability. Even after the first lecture, which covered the sum total of material I had ever learned, I was not dismayed. After an abysmal first midterm, I knew I was in trouble. Luckily, my newfound friend (and later Marshall Scholar in math and physics) Adam Bouland was, like many Yale students, willing to assist a struggling peer. Instead of the near failure, I will remember the course more for the life lesson imparted: the realization that a person should know his or her strengths and weaknesses, should not be afraid to seek assistance, and should be equally willing to impart that same assistance to others.


Krista Tippett ’94MDiv
Journalist, author, and host of the public radio program On Being

Leander Keck, one of the great minds of twentieth-century Biblical studies, nearing the end of full-time teaching, walked us book by book through the canon of Christianity in the year-long Introduction to the New Testament. He wove a lifetime of scholarship with a life steeped in the practical, human, and societal implications of these texts. I will never forget his reading to us, as the final semester closed, from the wild, apocalyptic book of Revelation: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” He had struggled with health problems, and his wife of many years was in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. He had taught us to read this text in its literary, historical, and sociological context. At the very same time, we were witnessing its tender, transcendent promise tucked between demons and reckonings and battles. I will ever after hear that promise in Leander Keck’s voice and imagine it in bold as the point of the story.


Lisa Sanders ’97MD
Physician and author of the New York Times Magazine’s “Diagnosis” column

It wasn’t exactly a class, but as a third-year medical student, I went to Resident Report, a teaching meeting that happens every day at Yale–New Haven Hospital. The residents and medical students sit around a large table, and in a circle around them are the seasoned medical teachers, who mostly sit quietly. I had covered medicine as a TV producer for years and thought I knew the kinds of stories I’d see as a doctor. But I didn’t realize diagnosis was like a detective story, where the doctor gets to play Sherlock Holmes. Nothing had prepared me for the uncertainty you encounter when you first meet a patient and don’t know what’s going on. Going to Resident Report is still my favorite activity of the day.


Daniel Weiss ’85MPPM
President, Lafayette College

Economics with Sharon Oster. In addition to gaining a strong foundation in the “dismal science” from one of Yale’s great professors, I was introduced to two key concepts: opportunity costs, which provide a framework for understanding the tradeoffs involved in strategic decision-making, and marginal costs, which remind us that the context in which decisions are made matters a great deal. These two concepts, which are relevant to almost any situation, guide my thinking almost every day.


Peter Diamond ’61
Economist and Nobel laureate

Mathematical Analysis, an introduction to real variables taught by the late Shizuo Kakutani, was where I learned what a real proof was. I thought I had aced the first exam, but I scored in the 40s. That focused my attention on finding out what I was not getting. I learned a lot and well enough that he wrote me a letter of recommendation for grad school. And I got in.


Janna Wagner ’95
Founder of All Our Kin, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that trains community child-care providers

Introduction to Women’s Studies and Feminist Thought with Laura Wexler gave name to things I had been thinking but didn’t know were called “feminism.” The readings made me think differently about how the world works and how I could change it. Among other things, we looked at women as caretakers and nurturers, and I live that, every day, in the work I do now. I’m a better teacher, entrepreneur, and nonprofit administrator because of the foundation I got in that class. Because I didn’t know what feminists were, seeing Professor Wexler and other women claim that word without fear and with pride was empowering, freeing, and exciting.


May Berenbaum ’75
Professor of Entomology, University of Illinois, and founder of the Insect Fear Film Festival

Throughout my childhood, despite a love of biology, I suffered from an extreme entomophobia. In spring of freshman year, the only biology course that fit into my schedule was Biology 42b—Terrestrial Arthropods, taught by Charles Remington. I figured if I made it through, at least I’d know which insects to be afraid of. Charles Remington was an amazing teacher and brought about my complete conversion from entomophobe to entomophile. In his class I first learned about insect-plant coevolution, a subject that so captivated me that I’ve spent 35 years conducting research in that area. Were it not for Bio 42b, I wouldn’t be who I am today: not just a member, but the head of a department of entomology and public advocate and defender of almost all things six-legged.


David McCullough ’55
Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning historian

Without any question: Vincent Scully’s Introduction to the History of Art and his spirited, memorable lectures before an audience of students of every kind. By showing us what he loved with such enthusiasm and vivid use of language, he made us see as we never had before. Some of his lectures I still remember in detail. He changed my life.

Vincent Scully ’40, ’49PhD, has won both the National Medal of Arts and the highest honor of the National Endowment for the Humanities.—Eds.


R. Owen Williams ’07MSL, ’09PhD
President, Transylvania University

No class stands out more than Documents in American Political and Social Thought, the graduate history course I took with Daniel Walker Howe. The class dealt exclusively with key primary texts from American history, and there were a dozen extraordinary students working under the guidance of a master. Howe directed conversation to the most fruitful conclusions, largely based on his creative assignments. Each class featured a student presentation that revolved around six questions the student devised, three for a hypothetical undergraduate course and three for a graduate course. We were also given regular readings from which Howe had selected a key passage that our group was meant to contextualize. (Howe always zeroed in on the most salient and compelling sentences, as if he had written all the texts himself.) Every session of that course dazzled and inspired me.


Harold Bloom ’56PhD
Sterling Professor of Humanities

I had two one-year graduate courses with W. K. Wimsatt and John C. Pope, and one each with William Clyde DeVane and Helge Kokeritz. I learned immensely from all of them. But my great mentor at Yale was Frederick Pottle, whose courses, and supervision of my doctoral dissertation, were crucial to me in every way. I revere Professor Pottle and hope his memory stays alive within others as it does in me.


Angela Bassett ’80, ’83MFA
Academy Award–nominated actor

There were few classes that generated the buzz of Annette Insdorf’s freshman English class. Seeing a foreign film or small independent movie was a weekly requirement. Jules and Jim, Swept Away—what ensued were rich, vibrant, electrifying discussions. Sure, we wrote the requisite papers, but the thrilling part of it was watching this petite lady share her love of learning, joy of teaching, and passion for cinema with us. It was worth getting up early to garner a spot!


Robert Morgenthau ’48LLB
Former Manhattan district attorney

It was the course on bankruptcy with J. W. Moore in my final semester. After I got a job in New York, I was coasting. I realized he was really angry and wanted to flunk me. At the time, although he never mentioned it, he had the leading book on bankruptcy. I went to the library and read both volumes from cover to cover. The final exam came, and I got through so quickly that I was afraid I had missed something—but it was right out of his books. I saw him a few days later and he said, “Damn you, Morgenthau, I wanted to flunk you but now I’ve got to give you an A.” 


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