Teaching Lessons

The Value of Clarity

By Emily Bernard | August 15, 2016


A few years ago, I was invited to give a job talk at a Midwestern university. I am content enough at my current institution not to have applied for another job in 15 years. But I was curious. So, even though it is wrong to go on dates when you are married, I went.

The visit was largely unpleasant and entirely confusing. Few people seemed to be interested in my work. One prominent member of the faculty made no attempt to hide his disdain for scholars who write for mainstream audiences. “Why should my writing be clear?” he blustered. “Scientists aren’t expected to be clear.” Dude, you are not Jonas Salk, was among the rejoinders that I came up with on the plane ride home.

I learned the value of clarity in writing and teaching from one of my professors at Yale, Richard Brodhead. My first class with Professor Brodhead was on 19th-century American literature, which I took during my freshman year. His lectures were in vivid and illuminating conversation with the works of Charles Chesnutt, Emily Dickinson, and Henry James. During one class, I remember looking at The Portrait of a Lady on my desk and then up at Professor Brodhead, marveling at the magical process of a book being brought to life.

Professor Brodhead had no patience for people who were fonder of words than meaning. Teaching and writing were serious business; there was no time for self-indulgent excess or pompous obfuscation. In his scholarship, he set scenes to elucidate the mysteries of the texts he examined. His arguments were invitations to the reader to join him on the intoxicating excursion into the world of a book.

I wanted to teach and write and do both in a way that would move people, not confuse them. Every semester, and in every essay, I try to give to students and readers what Professor Brodhead gave me: an experience of the sheer glory of a story.

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