Conversations continue, and some questions go unanswered in Moira Fradinger’s classes

Sometimes, the students in Moira Fradinger’s literature classes are so engaged in their conversations with each other and their teacher that they choose to continue on at a new location, having been kicked out of their classroom space by the class that follows there.

Fradinger, associate professor of comparative literature and director of undergraduate studies for the literature major, admits that she is sometimes amazed that her students would rather occupy their evenings with more academic dialog than go on to a different activity.

Her own passion for sharing in discourse with her students — and getting them to ask questions without feeling anxious about their answers or lack thereof — is cited by undergraduates as one of Fradinger’s teaching strengths, and she equally admires that trait in them, even if they sometimes keep her engaged long into the night following her evening class.

Fradinger is this year’s winner of the Sarai Ribicoff Award for the Encouragement of Teaching at Yale College (see "Six faculty members are honored with Yale College Teaching Prizes"). She recently spoke with the YaleNews about her classroom experiences. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What do you most enjoy about teaching at Yale?

I like everything about teaching at Yale. There’s nothing that I don’t enjoy. It’s an absolute joy to teach such passionate students. Students here are incredibly curious and interested. They come from the most diverse backgrounds and places, and — as Yale becomes global —there’s a greater pool of international students that adds to the diversity. It makes the campus a fascinating environment for learning different perspectives.

I also think this is exactly the right place to be for students who have such a passion for knowledge because we have incredible resources here. I always encourage my students to do some gymnastics and go up to the Sterling Memorial Library stacks. Yale offers all kinds of fellowships to study abroad, and a fantastic financial aid program. Yale has very generous donors that really make a difference insofar as what the students can do during the summer and what they can do extracurricularly. So it’s a perfect combination, really, to have passionate students and the resources for them to explore and develop their interests.

What do you think you have learned from your students?

I really learn something new every single week from my students because they come from different backgrounds and from different disciplines. Many of my classes are interdisciplinary. I believe that knowledge is collective and collaborative; it’s not just an individual stroke of genius, and in every single class, there is the chance that something new is produced — a new question that emerges — that comes out of a student’s specific interest or out of the debates we have in class.

Is there a teacher who particularly inspired you?

Truly, the first person that comes to my mind is my grandmother, who was a very advanced woman for the time when she lived. She was very progressive. She had fantastic hopes for her grandchildren. She was a great inspiration, as both my mother and father were, and still are, always raising the bar for their children.

The other person who comes to mind is a teacher that I had in my third year of high school. She is memorable because she gave me an idea of the kind of teacher that I wanted to become. She would single out the students that she had in her class according to their interests. She very quickly understood something that I had not known until then about myself, which was that I was passionate about literature. So she would give me extra homework to take home, such as to write a poem or short story for the next class. She would develop a personal relation with all her students. In my own classes, I now do the same with my own students, trying to understand with what passions, or fears, or philosophical assumptions, they confront a text or a film.

If there is one thing you want your students to learn, what would that be?

I would say, first of all, rigorous thinking, critical thinking, interdisciplinary thinking. I am very, very emphatic about the fact that they need to substantiate whatever claim they are making about a text or a film that we are studying. I am emphatic about their consulting sources, doing bibliographic research, contextualizing, historicizing — really arriving at a depth of knowledge about any given text we are studying. I hope that they will get the benefit of what it means to be rigorous.

I also hope that they learn to tolerate the anxiety that is produced by the fact that we may not have answers to all the philosophical and literary questions we ask. Many of the questions that are posed in humanities classes don’t really have clear-cut answers. There are many perspectives, and I hope that they can see how many perspectives there can be about the subjects that they are studying, as well as be critical of the perspective through which they are seeing any given subject.

Is there a memorable classroom moment for you that you’d like to share?

The thing I want to convey is that what comes out of all these discussions for me and, I think, for my students is the pleasure we take in sharing knowledge, in gaining knowledge, in producing questions that we sometimes weren’t expecting. My classes sometimes go after hours, and the next class kicks us out of the room. So we go on to a new place late at night because I teach in the evening and we go on and on talking.

I recall one moment when we were in Blue State until about 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. in the morning. I asked my students: “Don’t you want to go outside and do something else?” And they said, “No, we just want to be sharing this dialog inside this coffee shop!” It was so endearing. They were so incredibly curious, and so passionate, and it is that kind of pleasure that I look forward to every week, and it happens every week.