From the Archives (May 24, 1984; Volume 49 Issue 7) — Dr. Will Lee: First Impression
Editor’s Note: The Commentator has decided to reprint this interview which was printed over 30 years ago. Dr. Will Lee came to Yeshiva College as an Assistant Professor of English in 1983 and has been an Associate Professor of English since 1998. Throughout his long tenure, Professor Lee has not only enlightened and inspired hundreds of students, but he has also contributed to and helped The Commentator on many occasions.
This semester is Professor Lee’s last full-time semester at YU. Though he will remain at YU part-time next year and hopes to continue teaching one course each term for years to come, The Commentator, with Professor Lee’s permission, has decided that this is an appropriate time to reprint his first interview with the newspaper.
The Commentator recently interviewed Dr. Will Lee, this year’s popular addition to the English department. Having grown up in Amarillo, Texas, which his great-grandparents helped settle, Dr. Lee graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Dappa from Dartmouth College in 1969. Thanks to a Marshall Scholarship, Lee pursued a second undergraduate degree at Oxford University, graduating in 1971, to bridge the gaps in his knowledge of English literature. At Yale, he garnered a Masters in 1973 and a Ph.D. in 1980 for a dissertation called “Interpreting Insane Characters: Toward a Theory.” Along the way he taught at Yale, Colby, Tufts, and the past five years at Harvard in History and Literature, the oldest interdisciplinary program in the country.
"Harvard is an Academic Recycling Plant"
C: Why did you leave Harvard?
WL: For junior people, Harvard is an academic recycling plant. With few exceptions, it doesn’t grant young faculty reputation in five or six years.
C: Why did you select YU.
WL: Actually, YU selected me. I was glad to come, though, because of its strong faculty, its motivated students, and its location in Manhattan. Also, frankly, the thought of ending my string of rather stuffy Wasp institutions appealed to me.
C: How have your relationships with other faculty members worked out?
WL: I’m on excellent terms, I think, with my colleagues in the English department, who warmly welcomed me, and with colleagues in other departments as well. At Yeshiva, sharing of insights and information, especially across disciplines, happens more easily than at many larger institutions, and I’ve met enough intellectually inquiring people, including some students, to satisfy me. I still haven’t returned one colleague’s book on scientific method and thinking, and earlier this year, another helped me explore the differences between fourfold Jewish interpretation and Dante’s and Aquinas’ four levels of allegory. In case you’re interested, they’re not close analogies.
"Y.U. Students Talented as Harvard Students"
C: How do Yeshiva students compare with the students you previously taught?
WL: I was expecting this one. I’d say the best here are as talented as the best at Harvard, though fewer, and the worse are worse and more numerous. Also, students here are not as well prepared in literature and writing as at Harvard. But in my field, the average Yeshiva student has two advantages over the average Harvard student: he respects texts — substance if not style — and he learns more quickly because he’s more motivated. As a teacher, I’m more fulfilled here and feel my time is better spent than at Harvard because I’m more needed here and because I see students progress more over the course of a term.
“Weakness of Imagination”
C: What dissatisfies you about students here?
WL: From what I can tell, most pursue a triple program: pre-professionalism, Torah, and Madah. That means that in effect they are taking on six programs, since they need to synthesize each pair of pursuits in order to lead coherent lives. As at other institutions, only more so, too many students are in the grip of professional ambition, so that they raise pre-professionalism above the other two programs — almost worshipping it. Also, they tend to sink the secular liberal arts below the other two. One of my challenges here is to instill respect for literature and writing, including style, and the more general secular humanities, as sources of insight, and in that sense, partners with Torah. Another problem, which I suspect may have something to do with respect for Halachic tradition, is a certain weakness of imagination, an unwillingness to follow an unlikely idea out in case it might lead to further insight. I wouldn’t want to count how many times my introductory writing classes roll their eyes and say, “Come on, give me a break,” when I ask them to consider possible connections and significances, or to read an article from New York Review of Books designed for an already college-educated audience.
C: Why do you suspect that may have to do with Halachic tradition?
WL: Again, my experience is so limited that I hesitate to answer. But I suspect that respect for Jewish law and the teachings of rabbis, as admirable as they are, may lead to acceptive rather than exploratory habits of mind. On the other hand, the interpretive debates in the commentaries must foster intellectual rigor and subtlety.
C: Why did you devote your life to the study and teaching of English?
WL: Presumably you want the abridged version of that long story. Briefly, Sputnik propelled me out of high school toward a career in science and math. In fact, my plan was to contain the world’s first practical fusion reaction in a magnetic bottle. By my senior year, I woke up to the limits of my commitment to science and to the computers which I had programmed to put myself through college. My facility with science had blinded me to my lack of real commitment and love. What I did love, and spent more and more time on, was language and literature, and more generally the humanities. At that point I had two main choices. My talent for argument suggested I should be a lawyer. My love of teaching and literature suggested I should become a teacher — a college teacher, since I didn’t feel I had the patience required to teach high school, and since I welcomed intellectual challenges. Basically, I decided that in America, math, science, and law could be counted on to take care of themselves. Literature, philosophy, morality — culture in the broadest and highest sense — needs help, all the more so since economics tends to drain talent in other directions. I felt I could make a contribution, and prepared myself for the necessary sacrifices — the low salaries and the ironically dehumanizing quest for the Ph.D. Like everyone else, I complain, but I’m lucky to be leading a life I can believe in.
"Sensitive to Dual Program"
C: Have you compromised your standards of teaching since coming to YU?
WL Not the standards, no; I just apply them differently here. Before I got here, because of pre-professional competition, I started giving more B’s and fewer C’s than I would in the fairest of all possible worlds. Since getting here, I’ve been adjusting to the “dual program” — trying to be sensitive to the burdens on students’ time while designing assignments to ensure that students actively learn something — that they not only gain knowledge, apply new skills, new modes of insight — in my courses.
C: How do you feel about students avoiding your courses?
WL: This first term, several students gave me a friendly warning after class that if I didn’t shape up and start giving more A’s, I’d lose my talented students, but that seems not to have happened. I think I did lose a few pre-law and pre-med students who felt they couldn’t risk a B, but most of my students, including most of the best, have stayed with me. As I told the “grade lobby” in the fall, I intend to teach courses in which grades, especially A’s, still signify achievement. I think I’m attracting students who think I have something to teach, and that it’s worth risking a B for that “something.” I also feel that many take my A barrier as a challenge. This term, the noise is positively deafening.
"Every WASP Should Experience Minority Status"
C: How do you feel about being the only non-Jew in the English Department?
WL: I think every WASP should have the chance to experience minority status. In fact, I feel my WASPishness more with students than with colleagues, perhaps because I share with colleagues a common liberal arts culture to a greater degree. Since I grew up in Bible Belt Texas, I’m used to religious environments. What’s new to me is Orthodox Judaism, since around 35-50% of Harvard and Yale students are reform Jews. But I continue to find that I have more in common with most Jews than most WASPs — respect for learning, for tradition, moral judgment, etc.
"Y.U. Students Not Well Read"
C: Do you find that the students at YU are culturally ignorant?
WL: Not more so than most, though I do find them less well-read in the humanities than students at Harvard or Yale, and I suspect their knowledge of Jewish culture is deeper than their knowledge of liberal arts. To break the ice this fall, I asked each student to name a book which had meant something to him, and briefly say why; two students claimed not to have read any. Another student this year made a point of surveying his Yeshiva acquaintances to prove to me that expecting people to know or learn the word “moot” was unreasonable. Out of around forty people he found only a few English majors and a faculty member who knew the word.
C: Are YU students in your class prepared for college writing?
WL: I would say most of them can learn to write at the college level by the end of the year. If they were fully prepared for college writing, why require the course? At the start, most of the writing I see is dull, incorrect, uneven, episodic, weakly argued, or all of the above.
C: So what can you do? What role do you play?
WL: First of all, I can ask them to write for a real audience, which most of them have never imagined doing, and bring in published writing as models. I can show them how to move beyond mere competence — though competence is nothing to sneeze at — toward interesting, persuasive essays. In comments, I try not to show them what’s wrong without suggesting how to correct it.
C: Do you want to get more involved in student activities?
WL: Absolutely, but selectively. So far I’ve been approached by the tennis team, the Commentator and the English Honor Society. I see my involvement as an extension of my teaching and a result of my feeling that academic disciplines shouldn’t be compartmentalized, closed off from the rest of life. Basically, I’d like to contribute more actively to intellectual and cultural life at Yeshiva.
C: Academically, what direction do you see the University taking?
WL: I’ve heard that YU is becoming a vocational school because of such factors as students’ pragmatism, state-mandated credits in accounting, etc., but the faculty doesn’t seem to be caving in to those pressures. The curriculum debate seemed interminable, but everyone had a chance to speak out, and respect for education, and the liberal arts in particular, was at least as apparent as pragmatism. The final proposal, though imperfect, divided knowledge and skills into more coherent categories, and included restricted electives, which ask that a student know more than a little about more than his major. It’s true that YU is the only institution of its kind, and yet analogies with other institutions are helpful. On the one hand, we could have moved the curriculum in the direction of Queens College, thereby appealing to a greater number of students. We also had the opportunity to make curricular reform a means of rendering education more coherent, higher in quality, and therefore moving in the direction of the best liberal arts institutions. I think the final curriculum reflects a compromise. I just hope that in practice, the quality of required courses will rise, and students will take more advanced courses in their areas of interest, as restricted electives encourage them to do.
C: What courses would you like to offer to Yeshiva College students?
WL: In my electives, I want to emphasize method and theory — frames of reference for interpreting literature. That’s why I’m introducing a course next spring on literary criticism from Pater and Wilde to the present. And that’s why I’m exploring the cultural context of Victorian prose and poetry next fall in a course that combines my appreciation for theory with my love of nineteenth century English literature. As for the direction of my writing and thinking, I will be struggling through an internal debate for at least another month. Several years ago, I was co-authoring a book on college teaching with Kiyo Morimoto, the Director of Harvard’s Bureau of Study Counsel. Eventually we’ll probably finish it, but I’ve decided it will have to wait. So will a book on the language and literature of insanity which my dissertation was trying to be. Right now I’m fascinated with John Dewey, who I find represents the directions criticism should be taking, but by and large isn’t. After courses are over, I’ll begin work on an exploratory article on Dewey which may develop into a larger project. Soon after that, I’ll begin revising the article on Austen, epistles, and interpretation which I talked about with a few members of the English Honor Society this fall, and which was intended to be part of a book on style as a key to the author’s way of thinking in nineteenth-century works. Right now my guy says “Dewey,” but it’s hard for me to imagine staying away from the nineteenth century for long.
"Lee Glad to Stay"
C: What direction do you plan to take at YU?
WL: Assuming I continue to like YU and to be well-treated, and to feel fulfilled as a teacher and scholar, I’d be glad to stay. I intend to deserve tenure, and hope it’s granted.