In conversation: Robert Stepto on four decades of teaching at Yale

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Robert B. Stepto enjoying a talk by a former student during “Bringing Unknown Patterns Into View: The Critical Vision of Robert B. Stepto." (Photo by Harold Shapiro)

Since 1974, Robert Stepto has taught legions of Yale students in the fields of African American studies, American studies, and English. In October, his distinguished career and his influence on his students — both graduate and undergraduate — were celebrated with a festschrift held in his honor.

Among the numerous positions that Stepto has held in his 40 years here at Yale are: director of graduate studies (DGS) for American studies; chair of theater studies; and chair, DGS, and director of undergraduate studies (DUG) for African American studies. In fact, he was the inaugural DUG for African American studies, a post that was established after the M.A. degree was created in 1978.

Stepto’s writings include “A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama,” “Blue As the Lake: A Personal Geography,” and “From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative.”

“Robert’s impact as a teacher has been singular and he is one of a few who has earned the stature of creating three signature courses. ‘Autobiography in America,’ ‘Modern African American Poets,’ and ‘American Artists and the African American Book’ are must-dos for students in African American, English, and American studies,” says Jacqueline Goldsby, chair of the Department of African American Studies.

“At the graduate level, Robert directed over 30 dissertations,” she continues. “Yale has been fortunate to have a scholar who is so dedicated to teaching. The field of African American literary studies owes a great debt to the work he has done both on the page and in the classroom. Lucky for us, Robert has been committed to doing that work here for 40 years.

YaleNews recently spoke to the renowned professor about his career at Yale, and how Yale’s collections have been, in his words, a “joy and an intellectual pleasure” to use in his teaching.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

What attracted you to Yale 40 years ago, and what has kept you here all these years?

One reason that I decided to teach at Yale was that it was the one place where I could pursue my interdisciplinary curiosity. Yale gave me the opportunity to teach in an excellent English department, and in one of the very best American studies departments. At the same time, I could play a part in the growth of African American studies, which, when I arrived here, was only about six years old. But one of the biggest attractions to me at Yale was — and still to this day is — the libraries here. I remember arriving here and realizing the treasures that were in the Beinecke Library.

How have Yale’s collections impacted your teaching?

One of my goals in teaching is to bring art and music into the classroom, and to that end in 1995 I began scheduling classes in the Beinecke Library and the Yale Art Gallery. This was a transformation in my teaching. Having these resources at hand was such a joy and intellectual pleasure and has led to my newest seminar titled “American Artists and the African American Book.” In this class we examine how African American books in particular have been designed and illustrated, and how art is being imported into book projects.

What projects have resulted from this class?

Robert Stepto was honored for his four decades of teaching at Yale with a festshrift held in his honor. (Photo by Harold Shapiro)
Robert Stepto was honored for his four decades of teaching at Yale with a festshrift held in his honor. (Photo by Harold Shapiro)

My students have devised some incredibly creative projects. One took a selection of Robert Hayden poems and presented them in a bound volume with original watercolors that she had painted. Another example — a marvelously whimsical one — was a student who wrote a Brer Rabbit story that was set in the Harlem renaissance, where Brer Rabbit — known to all as Jack O’Hare — is seen walking down the streets of Harlem. Talk about invention! One of the things we talk about in class is not simply how you would illustrate a book, but rather how you would create or find images that will converse with the literature.

Tell us about some of the important developments in African American studies.

One of the more important developments in the last decade has been in transatlantic studies where we begin to understand Europe and Africa in the Old and in the New World. It is important to have this kind of comparative study across languages and art forms. At Yale, we would be remiss in not studying African American literature precisely because of our libraries. And I take great joy in working with the graduate students who have developed library and gallery projects here.

You’ve spent almost your entire career at Yale. What has kept you here all these years?

When people ask me that question I always answer that it is because of my dear colleagues, the incredible resources at Yale, and because these are the best students anywhere. I have worked with truly extraordinary people during my time here at Yale.

What do you hope to instill in your students, and what advice do you give to them?

I want my students to be attentive explorers. I think that it is important to explore but to do it attentively. I want them to have an interdisciplinary curiosity leading them to an interdisciplinary intelligence.

One of the pieces of advice that I have given to a student is to write what you think is going to be the last chapter first. Begin with the end. What was implicit in that advice is that if you write how you think it’s going to end, you’ll have a clearer sense of what comes before.

What do your students teach you?

I can’t help but admire those moments when students stop by my office or email me and say, ‘Look what I found’ or ‘Look what I discovered.’ Yale students are not deterred by obstacles that get in the way of their research, and I admire the energy that they have for learning.

What was your favorite moment from the celebration in your honor?

I was overwhelmed with the kind words by my former students, the Dean, and President Salovey. And I still cannot believe that this celebration happened to me. I’m not surprised that I broke into tears at the festschrift, but I am surprised that I did it before 10 a.m.!

What is your greatest academic achievement?

My undergraduate and graduate students are my greatest academic achievement.

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