As they learn to read and write, students have illuminations in Edwin Duval’s classroom
As he introduces students to literature and language, Edwin Duval pays close attention to what his students have to say. One student described him as “equal parts teacher and maestro,” while another praised his ability to “create an environment in which all students freely join in the discussion” while also making sure they “didn’t miss critical points in the text.” Awarded the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize, Duval says he is most gratified teaching students to read and write well, and a teaching highlight for him is when his students have “small illuminations” of understanding when learning something new.
Courses: “The French Renaissance,” “Lyric Poetry of the Renaissance,” “Religion and Literature in the Renaissance,” “Love in the Renaissance,” “Introduction to French Poetry,” “Poetry and Music in France,” “Heroes and Quests,” and Directed Studies.
What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
I love teaching Yale undergraduates. They come with such energy, such commitment, and such eagerness to learn. They absorb everything I can give them, and they pursue on their own things I can’t give them. They also resist things in the right proportion. They know how to question, how to probe, and how to discuss. They learn from each other as much as they learn from their professors. It’s a dream to teach these students.
What do your students teach you?
I learn from my students every day. They come with a fresh perspective to works that are sometimes very familiar to me, and they teach me to read these from a slightly different angle from the one I’m used to. Even in my own scholarship, many of the articles I’ve written have come from questions in class that I could not answer. On pondering those questions, I often discover something I had never noticed before, something my students have actually taught me to see.
What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
Given my field, I would naturally encourage students to take as many courses as they can in literatures of all traditions and, whenever possible, in the original language. But I would also urge them to take advantage of these four years to learn as much as they can about as many different things as they can. I’m one of those humanists who believe it is very important for everyone to learn science. I would urge students not to take science courses simply to fulfill a QR [science and qualitative reasoning requirement] but to learn some real science, regardless of what they’d like to do in the future. And then read some more literature!
If there’s one thing you’d like your students to learn from you, what would that be?
I think what I would most like my students to learn from me is an appreciation of works of art whose medium is language, which is to say “literature.” And by appreciation I mean not just admiration, love or respect, but also a deep understanding of the difficulties, the problems, and the complexities of a work.
If I could ask for two things, I would want to help my students learn to read and to write. We all think we know how to read and write, but very few of us can actually do this really well. Helping my students to read and write with the greatest possible intelligence, accuracy, and sensitivity is my greatest ambition, and my hardest job.
Tell us about one of your most memorable classroom experiences.
There are many classroom experiences that are not earthshaking, but that are like small illuminations. What I love and remember most is this flicker of understanding that comes across the face of a student when he or she begins to understand something for the first time — this glow that illuminates their faces when they first realize they’ve understood something that hadn’t understood before. You can see this happen at the strangest times — in response to another student’s comment, in response to a question I’ve put to the class, in response to something I’ve pointed to that might suggest a different approach to a particular question. Those moments are gratifying beyond words.