The Past, Present, and Future of Great Teaching at Yale

February 6, 2017

On January 27, I headed over to Sterling Memorial Library to attend the grand opening of the Center for Teaching and Learning—a vibrant hub dedicated to supporting the university’s entire community of scholars. With 24,000 square feet of renovated space, the center’s new home places all of our teaching, tutoring, writing, and technology learning programs under one roof. What’s more, it puts teaching and learning in the center of Yale’s campus—exactly where they should be.

One of the reasons I joined the faculty here at Yale in 1986 is because I wanted to work at a research university that truly valued teaching. In fact, Yale has a long history of excellence in this area. Seniors in the classes of 1813 and 1814 were so enthralled by the lectures of President Timothy Dwight IV that they recorded his “Decisions” word for word and published them after his death. One student recalled that Dwight’s courses were “so interesting and so useful” that they were “more highly prized by the students than any other of the academic exercises.” “It was no uncommon thing to hear regret expressed, that the tolling of the bell for dinner in the Commons Hall should interrupt a course of remarks.” High praise for a university president!  

Then, as now, excellent teaching required constant innovation and improvement. After World War II, William Clyde DeVane, professor of English and dean of Yale College for twenty-five years, initiated major changes to the undergraduate curriculum. The new “standard program” included three years of hands-on laboratory science and modern languages that emphasized “native speakers, linguistic methods, and machines.” Anticipating the more recent emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, upperclassmen were also required to take one of several year-long courses on the “Interrelationships of Knowledge” on topics ranging from art to statecraft. DeVane also endorsed a proposal to admit women to the college, which was finally enacted in 1969. The William Clyde DeVane Medal, the oldest Yale College award for outstanding teaching, recognizes his work as a remarkable champion of undergraduate education.

The new Center for Teaching and Learning continues Yale’s tradition of great teaching by connecting all of our faculty and students with the very best resources and expertise. Thousands of students and hundreds of faculty members have already participated in activities and events run by the center, including classroom observations, technology workshops, seminars on diversity and inclusion, meetings with writing tutors, and global online learning initiatives.

A focus on outstanding teaching has long been a hallmark of the Yale experience. As in the eighteenth century, every professor in our Faculty of Arts and Sciences is expected to teach undergraduates. I am more convinced than ever that Yale is the world’s most student-centered research university. Teaching and learning are at the heart of our efforts to make Yale more unified, more innovative, more accessible, and more excellent in the future. I invite you to visit the new Center for Teaching and Learning and see the future of great teaching for yourself!