Two faculty members and a Yale alumna win awards from Phi Beta Kappa

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Joanne Freeman, Brian Skinner, and Elizabeth Alexander were honored for their teaching and scholarship.

If she were more musical, Yale undergraduate Emily Yankowitz says she would have sung — to the tune of a song from the Broadway show “Hamilton” — the praises of Yale historian Joanne Freeman when presenting her with this year’s William Clyde DeVane Teaching Award, one of the highest accolades for teaching at Yale.

Freeman, a professor of history and American studies and a scholar of Hamilton, was one of two recipients of the honor, Yale College’s oldest award for outstanding teaching. Also receiving the award on Feb. 13 was Brian Skinner, professor emeritus of geology and geophysics.

The DeVane Award honors faculty who have distinguished themselves as teachers of undergraduates in Yale College and as scholars in their fields, and has been conferred annually since 1966 by the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa (PBK). William Clyde DeVane was dean of Yale College from 1938 until 1963, a long-time president of the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and former national president of the United Chapters of PBK.

At the same ceremony, Yale alumna and former faculty member Elizabeth Alexander ’84 was honored with the Joseph W. Gordon Alumni Award. Named in honor of Yale College’s longtime deputy dean and dean of undergraduate education who retired in 2015, the award is given annually to a Yale College graduate in recognition of distinguished service and contributions, in academic or professional life, in the arts, letters, or sciences.

Undergraduate professor Joanne Freeman: Yale College seniors who are members of Phi Beta Kappa select an active faculty member (Freeman) for the DeVane Award, while alumni members choose an honoree among retired members of the faculty (Skinner).

Freeman specializes in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American history. She is the author of the “Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic,” and edited the volume “Alexander Hamilton: Writings.” She has done extensive work in the realm of public history, including co-curating museum exhibitions, acting as a historical consultant for documentary filmmakers, and giving frequent public lectures at venues such as the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the National Gallery of Art, and Colonial Williamsburg, among other places. She has also worked as a historical consultant for the National Park Service in the reconstruction of the Alexander Hamilton Grange National Memorial.

In presenting the award to Freeman, Yankowitz said: “Beyond her enormous scholarly accomplishments, Professor Freeman is deserving of the DeVane Award because of her tremendous dedication to teaching undergraduates in her lectures and seminars. This perhaps is best illustrated by her ability to ‘humanize’ the actors involved in the early period of American history and her willingness to be human herself.”

Freeman encourages her students to see historical figures as multidimensional figures, Yankowitz said, and uses archival sources in her lectures to construct “narratives with many perspectives. “In doing so, she is able to turn the ‘Founders,’ figures who are memorialized in stone and on currency, into human people with distinct personalities and quirks.”

She also helps her students see the other side of arguments, Yankowitz said in her presentation.

 “She devotes an entire lecture to the loyalist’s logic, helping her students to see the variety of reasons why individuals might not have sided with the rag-tag American army,” said Yankowitz. “Or to complicating the typical depiction of Benedict Arnold by explaining his motivations for betraying the American cause.”

Yankowitz also praised the way Freeman helps her students feel less intimidated by her “by not being afraid to be silly” and for mentoring her students through the writing process, helping them “to write clearly and convincingly.” Said Yankowitz: “Professor Freeman is proof that you can be an incredibly accomplished scholar, while being a wonderful, hilarious, and caring teacher.”

Retired faculty member Brian Skinner: Skinner was presented his award by Penelope Laurans, a former Yale English teacher, master of Jonathan Edwards College, and special assistant to the Yale president. She noted that Skinner is a “landmark mineralogist,” whose work focused on the crystallographic and geochemical properties of ore minerals that contain valuable metals (a mineral named a “Skinnerite” was named in his honor). He was also “one of his generation’s greatest economic geologists,” said Laurans, who “evaluated mineral resources and mineral supplies as well as agricultural resources, applying his extensive scientific knowledge to public issues that might benefit humankind.” The recipient of three medals from the Society of Economic Geologists in recognition of his contributions, the organization also honored him by naming an award after him — the Brian J. Skinner Award for the leading article in economic geology.

“Professor Skinner’s scholarly contributions don’t stop there,” said Laurans. “[I]t was said at his retirement that ‘in his work he has deepened our understanding of the geology of the ocean floor, the surface of the Moon, the Australian outback, and nearly everywhere else in between.’ His world-class science propelled him into decades of service to the international geological community at the highest levels. He was president also of the Geological Society of America, the Geochemical Society, and in that way has helped shape the geological sciences as we know them today.”

As a teacher, Laurans noted, Skinner helped make geology a popular course; his “Geology 110 class came to known simply as “Skinner.” Added Laurans: “His brilliantly clear and captivating presentation of geology — from the atomic structure of minerals to the movement of continents — galvanized wide audiences and influenced a number of students to continue in the field to great distinction.”

In addition, Laurans noted how Skinner is married to fellow scientist Catherine Skinner, who served in the 1970s as the head of Jonathan Edwards College, making her husband “one of the first male associate [college heads],” said Laurans. “At a moment when it was mostly the women who prepared the teas, counseled the sad, and kept the house, Brian was not only a full-time faculty member and researcher, but a full partner with Cathy in heading the college, as she was a full partner to him in geology. They were models for the future. For five years, with his Aussie wit, his gruff charm, and his true care of students, he was a sensational partner to Cathy helping her mentor Yale students in a very different environment from geology, nurturing them in their social lives as well as their studies.”

Yale alumna Elizabeth Alexander: Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College, presented Alexander her award and began by reading a poem, “note passed to superman,” by Lucille Clifton. Alexander is a poet, essayist, and literary critic, who taught at Yale for 15 years before being named as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in 2015. She is the author of six books of poems, two collections of essays, and her memoir, “The Light Of the World,” among other works. In 2009 she delivered her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

In his remarks, Holloway said that Alexander taught him “to read and see and hear poetry,” giving him a new lexicon for his own scholarship. Through her many publications, he said, the Yale alumna “has built a home.” He added, “That home is a place where everyone feels welcome; it is more like an artist’s salon in that way. I see it perfectly. The salon is warm, with vibrant, intense colors that mingle with jazz or perhaps some 1970s R&B. It is a space with a massive hearth and a roaring fire where she gathers the spirit with laughter and tears and insight and lamentations and light, always with light.”

He praised Alexander for her ability to look ahead and encouraging her students to do the same. “… Elizabeth conspires, thinking in strategic ways about how to move academic disciplines forward; she inspires her students to imagine a better world; she cultivates in others new ways to see their scholarship.”

Most importantly to him, Holloway said, is the gift of her friendship. He recalled how when he became dean of Yale College, Alexander gave him a card on which was written: “Always Wear Your Invisible Cape.” On the inside, she assured him that she would always “have his back,” as he for her.

“[A]s we recognize you with the Joseph W. Gordon Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Arts and Sciences, I have to point out that I and others see your invisible cape as well, and it is a glorious — even extravagant — affair.”