From the Editor

Professors emeriti tell their stories

Imagine that one of your favorite Yale lecturers had delivered, at the end of the course, a personal talk on his or her own intellectual growth from childhood—witty, insightful, and humane. You’d have learned something new about the academic subject you were studying, laughed out loud a couple of times, and, possibly, jotted down a piece of life advice to remember for the future.

Now imagine that 27 Yale faculty had delivered such lectures and that those lectures had been collated into a book, witty, insightful, and humane.

I ran across Intellectual Trajectories, Vol. 2 (2013), at the Koerner Center, a facility possibly unique to Yale: a kind of social and intellectual club for faculty emeriti who want to stay engaged with the life of the university. The Intellectual Trajectories series began soon after the center opened in 2003. These informal talks are delivered to two or three dozen of the speakers’ peers, gathered in a friendly and attentive circle. (The first volume was released in 2009; the new one is available, for $25 including shipping, by e-mailing

It’s impossible to sum up a book of personal essays of great detail and diversity. But there are a number of common themes. Here are a few.

The turning point. Many of the professors experienced a moment that crystallized a scholarly interest or mode of thought. When Judith Colton was just 21, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky told her, “You know more about Endymion than anyone else,” a generous gesture that affirmed her in her field. When literature student Annabel Patterson first held a manuscript by the sixteenth-century English poet Thomas Wyatt, the “old, intensely real, palpable record of his thought sent me into a kind of ecstasy”—shaping her historical approach to literature for the rest of her career.

Lived history. These are retirees who have seen many different times and places. The physicist Frank W. K. Firk, born in 1930 to a family of bakers in London’s East End, writes, “My earliest memories include men—blind and crippled—slumped against the warm outside wall of our bake-house. They were the forgotten warriors of the Great War.” In 1961, the late political scientist William J. Foltz ’63PhD interviewed a serigne (a regional leader) in Senegal; at one point, a servant entered the room, lying on his belly to show obeisance, pulling himself along the floor with one hand and holding a glass of water for the serigne in the other. And decades ago, after a technician in Yale’s virus labs sickened and died, virologist Gregory H. Tignor ’60 took it upon himself to institute safety precautions in the labs—special suits with respirators, negative-pressure rooms, safety hoods—that are commonplace today but were innovative then.

Humility. Yale professors rank among the best in their fields, but in most of these cases, you wouldn’t know it from their attitude. Michael Holquist ’68PhD, a former president of the Modern Language Association, says, “I was always a slow learner.” Jeffrey L. Sammons ’58, ’62PhD, former chair of Yale’s German department, writes, “The most important thing I learned in graduate school was that I did not possess anything like an intellect of the first rank, so that, if I were to find my way, I would have to make up the deficit with industry.”

And finally: wisdom. Radiologist Jack Lawson: “In life, it is not so much a question of making the right choice but of maximizing the choice that you have made.” Divinity School professor Margaret A. Farley ’73PhD: “The ultimate story of our lives will be the story of what and how we have loved.”

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