Yale ΦBK Honors Ground-Breaking Individuals

By Michele Dobbins

Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter honored three individuals with prestigious awards at its annual banquet on February 13. The William Clyde DeVane Teaching Award—given to one current professor by undergraduates and one professor emeritus by graduate members—was presented to Joanne Freeman (ΦBK, Pomona College, 1984), current professor of history and American studies, and Brian Skinner, professor emeritus of geology and geophysics. The Joseph W. Gordon Alumni Award went to poet and former Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander. These awards are named in honor of iconic Yale faculty; William Clyde DeVane and Joseph W. Gordon both served as deans at Yale and presidents of national ΦBK, according to YaleNews.

ΦBK members see these awards as an opportunity to give back to individuals who have positively affected Yale and the liberal arts and sciences. Describing the William Clyde DeVane Teaching award, Yale’s ΦBK undergraduate vice president Kevin Wang said in a phone interview: “It really gives undergraduates some agency to express their appreciation and to honor great professors.”

After attending the banquet, Wang described Freeman’s message about history as “inspiring” and said that Skinner’s stories of Australia and travel “captivated” the audience.

“It was nice as a student to hear experiences of fantastic individuals in their time at Yale,” Wang said.

Freeman made her impact through her extensive research on early American history and Alexander Hamilton, as can be seen in her 2002 book Affairs of Honor and her edited edition of Hamilton’s own writing—which influenced Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical about the Founding Father, according to an interview in The Atlantic. Freeman’s expertise has been called on for PBS documentaries, museum curations, and in reconstructing the Alexander Hamilton Grange National Memorial, according to her Yale profile.

Wang, who served on the deliberation committee that selected Freeman, said the panel was “struck by Dr. Freeman’s multidimensionality” because she is both a “very caring professor” and a “leader in her field of research.”

Likewise, Skinner has so impacted the field of geology that he has had both a mineral (Skinnerite) and an award named after him, the Brian J. Skinner Award for noteworthy articles in Economic Geology. He has also worked as a geologist in an underground mine in Tasmania, established a research lab at the University of Adelaide, and led a team with the US Geological Survey, but he found that a position at Yale offered the ideal balance between teaching and research.

“I’ve been touched in recent times when undergraduates come back and tell me my teaching influenced them,” Skinner commented in a phone interview. “It’s a reward that comes later in life, and the William Clyde DeVane Award is quite like that.”

Though he arrived at Yale after William DeVane’s retirement, Skinner did come to know DeVane’s son and grandchildren, making the award doubly meaningful because “it was like getting recognition from the whole family,” Skinner said.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Joseph W. Gordon Award recipient Elizabeth Alexander currently serves as the chancellor for the Academy of American Poets after years of contributing to literary criticism, poetry, and African American studies. She advocates for inclusivity in the liberal arts through her work as an honorary director of Cave Canem, while her own poetry has been widely recognized for its merit, particularly her 2005 collection American Sublime, which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. She also wrote and delivered her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Wang shares that after the banquet, Alexander took time to answer his questions about successful self-expression with the message: “Do your work. That’s how you’ll get the confidence.”

ΦBK Graduate Secretary George Levesque, who serves as Associate Dean of Yale College and Dean of Academic Programs, wrote in an email about the awards and their recipients: “In their remarks when receiving the award, our honorees often comment on how they see their scholarship as an extension of their teaching, and vice versa. And the example they provide of the interplay between teaching and discovery has application in a broad range of careers, which is an appropriate message for our graduating seniors and fits well with the mission of Phi Beta Kappa.”

Michele Dobbins is a senior at University of Arkansas majoring in English. University of Arkansas is home to the Alpha of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.