Faculty Spotlight: Professor Will Lee
Professor Will Lee has been a mainstay of Yeshiva College since 1983. Although his course offerings center around the English department, Professor Lee’s influence can be felt in many different realms of the College, including the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program and the Writing Center. Professor Lee has had an instrumental role in the Academic Standards Committee, the Curriculum Committee, and the Middle States reaccreditation process. He has received the Senior Professor Award three times and is featured in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Lee recently sat down with The Commentator’s Yadin Teitz for a brief interview.
There have been a number of pieces published in the last few years encouraging students to become English majors. Do you agree?
Students should major in what they’re good at and interested in. For verbal students interested in the humanities, that could well mean English, where they will develop their communicative and interpretive skills while learning about ways of thinking and feeling and inhabiting cultures that will vastly expand their range of understanding over time. I sometimes describe English as a “utility infielder” major because it prepares students so well for so many different careers. It remains to be seen, but I have a feeling that the skills students develop in the major will grow more valuable in future years because fewer people will master them. Most YU students, whether immediately after the BA or later, will eventually enter degree programs closely associated with their intended careers; that’s the appropriate time for careerism.
The English department has particularly felt the burden of YU’s financial strains. In your opinion, are there any ways to reduce costs without hurting the department? Is YU destined to become a less high-quality institution?
Budget cuts are affecting all departments. Times like these occasionally open doors to specific educational improvements, but overall, educational compromises will continue to multiply until the university becomes financially sustainable. Most of the cuts that don’t injure education have already been made. As faculty members, our job is to maintain our high quality and minimize the negative impact of changes on education. Longer term, YU simply must maintain its high quality to pursue its complex mission for as many students as possible. That will take a sequence of wise, solid decisions by faculty and administrators. Will we emerge stronger than ever five years from now? I hope so.
How did you decide to become a professor of English?
I had great undergraduate teachers at Dartmouth in English, math, physics, anthropology, and other subjects. I was grateful to them and identified with them, so my pursuit of a Ph.D. and a teaching career came naturally. I grew up quite poor, so one secret of my success was a sequence of scholarships that took me through Dartmouth, Oxford, and Yale without saddling me with weighty debts. As for the field, although I arguably had more talent in math, I loved literature more, and I decided that the world needed a professor of English more than it did a lawyer, engineer, or math professor—the main alternatives I considered.
You’ve been a professor at Yeshiva for over thirty years. How has the institution changed? How about the student body?
YC has always had strong, admirable students, but the Honors Program has successfully raised the level of the college—not just for Honors Program students but for students in general, at least those who seek out the best courses and professors and the highest quality of education. YU is now more academically prestigious than when I came, thanks mostly to the talented professors whom we have hired. Recently we have lost some good faculty members, but we remain strong. I believe the proportion of talented students may have risen. At YC, the main educational news, all good, has been the implementation of a new curriculum based on core courses and stronger majors, the first major rethinking of education since the founding of the college.
You were featured in a popular promotional video for YU in 1992 that was recently re-unearthed. Could you tell us about that experience?
I’ve participated in a number of promotional videos for YU, YC, and the Honors Program over the years. They asked questions. I answered. I don’t know why they included the footage they did, and I don’t know why they invited me in the first place. Maybe it’s because I’m rightly seen as someone who believes in YU’s mission and the kind of education we offer.
As you know, YU’s motto is Torah U’Madda. Do you find that your students’ religious education influences their secular courses? Do Judaism and Jewish law effect what is taught in the English department?
Torah and Madda should be a two-way street, though Torah for most students will rightly remain far more fundamental. Interpretive, historical, and cultural skills should transfer to Torah studies, while sensitivity to texts, logical argumentation, and absorption of a complex set of traditions should transfer to secular studies. In English courses, professors should remain sensitive to halachic issues, but Jewish law should not determine what is and isn’t taught in the English department. Otherwise, we will cease to be a university and should change our name to Yeshiva Yeshiva.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on working in a Jewish environment. Has it influenced your own religious ideals?
Working in a Jewish environment has influenced me in many ways. “People of the Book” come to class already having worked closely with a range of texts in different genres, on average, so in my field, I have a head start. I’ve found it interesting to find out a good deal about halacha, Jewish thought, and Jewish history partly for their own sake and partly to better understand where my students are coming from.
My own beliefs and values wouldn’t meet some definitions of a religion. One summer during college, I read the scriptures and writings of all the major world religions, searching for the grounds of belief and meaning across cultures and across time. I concluded that thinking about relationships and conflicts between human beings, or at least co-religionists, proves remarkably consistent across religions despite obvious theological differences. The monotheistic religions tend to think about the divine in similar ways. More surprisingly, certain Upanishads feature similar concepts. I retain one conclusion I reached all those years ago: doing my best to improve myself including my own character, and to make positive contributions to the world, will keep me busy my whole life. Perhaps I should say it will have kept me busy my whole life. Theologically, I believe in a higher, spiritual level of existence. Morally, and to some extent politically, my beliefs parallel the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As an American, I believe that we have plenty of work to do to become the nation we could be at our best.
What is your favorite part of teaching? Which course is your favorite to teach?
I love the give and take of class discussion, especially when almost all the students have done almost all the reading. In particular, I love digging ever more expansively and deeply into the question at hand. I describe my main approach to teaching as the “guided Socratic” method. I have an agenda of issues but remain open to different ways the discussion of each issue could go. I hope that students feel more actively engaged than they would if I lectured. I do give mini-lectures to provide context and to set the stage for discussion, but my courses remain interactive for the most part. Even at this late date in my career, I continue to learn from students’ insights and points of view.
I don’t have one favorite course, but a menu of favorites, including Victorian Studies, Literary Theory, Advanced Expository Writing, Reading and Writing Poetry, and a good many more. Currently I’m enjoying developing core courses. Shakespeare and the Arts looks at a few Shakespeare plays and how painters and directors have later interpreted them. This term I’m teaching for the first time a course on cultural revolutions from the Romantics to the Avant-Garde.
I know this is a hard question, but what is your favorite book/film/play?
I can’t pick a favorite book or play or film. George Eliot is probably my favorite novelist because of her combination of vivid characters, engagement with history and community, and willingness as narrator to engage with morality and other forms of wisdom. Shakespeare, shockingly, remains my favorite playwright on the basis of at least half his plays, with The Tempest and King Lear as particular sources of wonder. For poets, I have a long list, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Browning, Whitman, Tennyson, Stevens, Williams, Szymborska, and I’m leaving out so many more. It’s even harder to narrow down films. Just yesterday I saw two great ones, Still Alice with Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor reduced by Alzheimer’s, and Mr. Turner about one of my favorite Victorian painters, J.M.W. Turner. I would have trouble naming my top one hundred films ranging from the twenties until now. In general, I prefer artworks with a serious, complex human core. I don’t much like light comedies or action-adventure films. I long for and seek out and often find artworks that will significantly influence my emotions and thoughts and remain in my memory. I enjoy sharing some of those experiences with students.
How do you spend your time outside of school? What are your hobbies and interests?
Most recently, beyond reading in preparation for my courses, I read Eliot’s Romola, the debates swirling around the American Constitution, a volume of religious poetry, broadly defined, in the Library of America series, and a history behind the Brooklyn Bridge. I listen to music, mostly jazz and classical. I’m a historic preservationist especially interested in residential and vernacular architecture. I write local history about Englewood and Bergen County in New Jersey as well as about the early history of Yeshiva College. Based on archival research, I’ve written two articles about Bernard Revel and the founding of Yeshiva College, a fascinating chapter in YU history.
What’s the best advice you can give to students?
Try to get the most you can from every experience, even if it doesn’t look so promising. Aim for excellence in some if not most of what you do, even if it will take you years to achieve mastery. Take the best courses and professors you can find in a broad range of fields, challenging yourself to grow intellectually and personally. Make sure that internships and your career give you much more than they take from you. Don’t settle for just about sort of good enough. Do your best to balance and integrate your personal, family, and work lives.