Phi Beta Kappa honors three faculty members (one posthumously)
Students enrolled in a seminar with Yale historian John Merriman gain much more than knowledge, according to Yale senior Kevin Bendesky. They also gain a “family.”
For his commitment to his students, among other traits, Merriman was recently named a winner of a 2019 William Clyde DeVane Medal — the oldest award for faculty teaching at Yale. At an awards ceremony last month, a DeVane Medal was also presented to Janice Carlisle, professor emeritus of English, and the Joseph W. Gordon Award was given posthumously to J.D. McClatchy ’72 Ph.D., an adjunct professor of English and editor of The Yale Review. McClatchy died in April 2018.
The DeVane Medal honors outstanding scholarship and undergraduate teaching, and has been conferred annually since 1966 by the Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. DeVane, the medal’s namesake, was dean of Yale College from 1938 until 1963 and was a long-time president of the Yale chapter as well as president of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa.
Each year, graduate members of the society elect one medal recipient from among the retired members of the faculty (Carlisle), and undergraduate members elect an undergraduate teaching medal recipient from among the active members of the faculty (Merriman).
The Joseph W. Gordon Award was established in 2016 in honor of Gordon, who earned his Ph.D. at Yale in 1976 and subsequently served on the English department faculty. He was appointed associate dean of Yale College and dean of undergraduate studies in 1988 and in 1998 became deputy dean and dean of undergraduate education, serving in that position until his retirement in 2016.
The medals were conferred at the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s annual dinner on April 16.
Both mentor and friend
In his tribute to Merriman, Bendesky shared an anecdote about a lecture by Merriman he attended at the Yale Club of New York a year ago.
He was invited to the event by Larry Lipsher ’62, whom he met in a history seminar Merriman taught. Lipsher told Bendesky that Merriman would be discussing his book “Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits.” The two took the train into New York together.
“Typically, at the Yale Club lectures, the friends and family of the speaker and a few members are in attendance,” recalled Bendesky. “Larry and I were foolish enough to believe this might be the case for John. Instead, you could barely step out of the elevator, the room was so packed to the brim.” He and Lipsher ended up seated in the 200th row, he said.
“It was then that it dawned on me that this room full of people was, in fact, a room full of generations of John Merriman students,” recalled Bendesky.
After the talk, he and Lipsher, Merriman and his daughter Laura, and the Yale Club president and his wife joined together for dinner. Like Lipsher and Bendesky, the alumni couple had also met in a Merriman history seminar.
“It was one of the greatest nights of my life, and it was all because of the commitment that John’s students feel to him not just as a historian, but as a person,” said Bendesky.
Bedesky also praised Merriman for his “wondrous, funny, and informative lectures” and his devotion to his students, noting that the historian was back lecturing to his class just days after the death of his wife.
“[J]ust as the students in his class become family, so too would he never let his class family down, even when his own family had suffered a tragedy,” said Bendesky. He concluded his citation by saying that knowing Merriman “has been one of the greatest honors and pleasures” of his life.
Caring for the underserved
During her 15 years as a Yale faculty member from 2004 to 2018, Carlisle not only “brought Victorian England back to life for her students” but also worked to decrease social inequality, said Margaret Clark ’77 Ph.D., the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and head of Trumbull College, in her citation.
The “tremendous success” of First-Year Scholars at Yale, a preparatory summer program for incoming students in need of additional academic support, is itself a “tribute” to Carlisle, who helped develop the program, said Clark.
“Her presence has made all the difference for those who have been underserved by higher education prior to coming to Yale,” Clark said.
Carlisle was also hailed for hosting yearly symposia on Dickens for high school teachers and the general public, and for developing an English department program in expository writing.
To sum up Carlisle’s influence, Clark quoted one of the English professor’s students, who said her teacher “embodies everything that is right …”
Becoming himself in the ‘electric’ world of Yale
In his citation for McClatchy, English professor Langdon Hammer said of his friend and colleague: “Yale was the community that shaped him more than any other, and he knew it. He became a poet, critic, and a man of letters at Yale; he was grateful, and he always bled blue.”
For McClatchy, Hammer said, “Yale was an electric world where there were teachers he could learn from, like Harold Bloom. He wanted to know not only about literature but about history, science, and music. And it didn’t happen only in the classroom. It happened at poetry readings, concerts, and cafes.”
Hammer noted that it was at Yale that McClatchy also came out as gay in the early 1970s, and was the first professor to teach a course at Yale on gay writing, “or probably gay anything,” Hammer said.
After teaching elsewhere, McClatchy returned to Yale in the early 1990s as the editor of The Yale Review and to teach.
“He, more than anyone else, created Yale’s creative writing program,” Hammer recalled. “And he served with distinction as the editor of the historic Yale Review, a magazine that in his hands embodied specifically the liberal arts ideals of the institution from which he came, where he’d learned to be himself.”