As he makes the arts and ideas come alive, Craig Wright encourages ‘pushback’

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Craig Wright won the 2016 Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

In describing Craig Wright, the winner of the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize, one student said: “He made us feel we actually could comment on music, his area of expertise, and not feel utterly dwarfed by his talents.” Indeed, for Wright, some of his best classroom experiences come when his students are brave enough to challenge him, to “push back” on whatever he’s discussing with them. He says he hopes that the moments in his classroom add up to an appreciation for lifelong learning — and a questioning of authority.

Courses: “Listening to Music” and “Exploring the Nature of Genius”

What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?

It used to be that we would say, “Who wouldn’t like to teach Yale undergraduates?” because we had the brightest students in the United States here with us. But now we have the brightest students in the entire world. So I get to come here every day and challenge myself. They are doing me more of a favor than I am doing them. It keeps me alive. It keeps me intellectually active and au courant with what is going on in their world — the real world — so we can have a common context in which to engage, I with them and they with me.

Why is it important for students to study what you teach?

I’ve always thought that teaching is not for the moment. The evaluations that we ask of students may in many cases be irrelevant because we won’t know the outcome of the teaching for many, many years hence. Teaching is really a life experience. The teaching that I hope I am doing is changing the lives of these young people going forward — for the next 5, 10, 20 years, for a lifetime. It’s lifetime learning.

At the moment I teach two courses, only two courses, because I am very near retirement. I have backed down to the most basic level courses. Both are 100-level [introductory] courses. I like teaching 100-level courses because that gives me the opportunity to teach the largest number of students, so I get more diversity of experience in that classroom. What I’m hoping to do in these classes is inspire these young people. There are two kinds of education in this world: One is informational, and the other is closer to what I do, which is inspirational. I hope to encourage the young students to go out into the world and learn to embrace things, based on what they have experienced with me, that they otherwise would not have experienced. Their life journey through this world will be richer and more diversified because they have been prepared to experience the world in ways that I, perhaps, was able to share with them.     

What do your students teach you?

I sound like some sort of public announcement for good behavior, but believe it or not, they actually teach me to be a better person. I see the diverse experiences that they have had. I think about where they are coming from. I think about the particular struggles that they may have had — economic struggles, educational struggles, geographical struggles, or political struggles — just to get where they are. I respect that, and I think as time goes on, as the nature of the undergraduate body changes, I am more respectful of them and their backgrounds. I have learned from them a great deal about the diversity, the disparity, and the enormous opportunity of human potential.

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

To question authority, to be skeptical about what they read, what other people tell them, and what I tell them. Ironically, I’m a parent to four children, and I was always telling my children to do things one particular way. I think it was out of necessity: my wife and I were just trying to bring law and order to this domestic situation.  But I would hope, perhaps, that through discussions around the dinner table, that sort of thing, that we encouraged them to have their own particular opinions about everything.

I hope that when my students come into the Yale classroom, they learn to read a particular assigned text and question it, perhaps come back to me with particular questions. If I say something, I hope they raise their hands and say, “May I offer a little bit of pushback here? Here’s a counter opinion. Here’s what I think about that.” When I get that going on in a classroom, that’s exciting. As I am fond of pointing out in my course  “Exploring the Nature of Genius,” parents teach their children what the rules are, how they are supposed to behave, what they are supposed to do. But when these same now-grown children are in a university context, we have courses for them in which they are asked to study all of the people who became hugely successful doing exactly the opposite of what their parents told them. And I think I’ve learned something from that, and I’m going to keep that as a foremost agendum, and that’s what I want my students to come away with.

What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?

That one is an easy one. You have the opportunity when you come here to have this enormously broad educational experience. Many people come in with an idea they are going to major in x, y, or z. I would say, “Don’t focus on just x, y, and z. Get out there and experience a, b, and c, or whatever sequence of experiences that you would like to have.  And don’t worry about your GPA — mine wasn’t very good!” If you study the successful people in Western cultural history over time, you’ll find that they are hugely diversified, and they have been able to be creative and change the world in positive ways because of their diversity of thought. That’s why we emphasize diversity in terms of our admissions policy here at Yale. We want diversity because it leads to the best outcomes. So my one point of advice is: When you come to Yale, come in and experience all the riches that Yale has to offer.  

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,