Linda Peterson, 1948–2015

A scholar of women writers, and an enthusiastic administrator.

Langdon Hammer ’80, ’89PhD, is chair of the English department.

Courtesy Fred Strebeigh ’74

Courtesy Fred Strebeigh ’74

English professor Linda Peterson, shown here at Aconcagua in Argentina in 2012, died of cancer in June. View full image

When Linda Peterson, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English, died of cancer on June 25, the news caught her colleagues by surprise. Not only was her passing at 66 premature. Throughout the past academic year, she had been working hard with the brisk cheer of someone who enjoys her job and does it exceptionally well. Although forced to take a medical leave from teaching, she continued to serve on key committees and to edit a collection of scholarly essays, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing. Completed in the last weeks of her life, the book will appear in November.

Linda spent her whole career—38 years—in Yale’s English department. Beginning as an assistant professor in 1977, she was one of the first women promoted to tenure in the department. She didn’t mention the connection, but her scholarly interest in the careers of Victorian women writers—which she pursued in many books and articles—must have drawn some of its energy and focus from her own experience as she made her way in a male-dominated profession and university.
For 24 years, she was codirector of the Bass Writing Program in Yale College, and she was general editor for five editions of The Norton Reader, a staple text for expository writing instruction. She taught the venerable writing course Daily Themes, and, with her husband Fred Strebeigh ’74, senior lecturer in English, she helped to create English 120, Reading and Writing the Modern Essay, one of the most popular and influential courses in Yale College.

Most academics view administrative service as a best-to-be-avoided obligation. For Linda, it was a great opportunity. As chair of the English department for seven years, she had a profound impact on what was taught and who was teaching. She saw the department as a whole, paying close attention to freshman teaching, making electrifying senior faculty hires, and mentoring graduate students and younger faculty colleagues (like me).

She could raise her voice. I remember not her particular words, but the force of them, as she had it out with a formidable senior colleague behind the closed door of the chair’s office. But that was an exception. Memory for precedent, respect for procedure, open-minded listening, and judiciousness: those are modest, quiet virtues, easy to underestimate or take for granted. But they’re essential, Linda showed, to strong leadership, and in the department that she did so much to shape, they made for fairness, decision by consensus, and steadily evolving innovation.

The comment period has expired.