Yale Bulletin and Calendar

Polak and Prown are honored with DeVane Medals for teaching

An economist who teaches a popular course in game theory and a long-time art historian at Yale who was the founding director of the Yale Center for British Art have been awarded this year's William Clyde DeVane Medals.

Benjamin Polak, professor of economics at the Cowles Foundation and at the School of Management, and Jules D. Prown, the Paul Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, were presented with DeVane Medals at the annual spring banquet of the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa on Feb. 21.

Conferred since 1966, the DeVane Medal is a prestigious tribute to excellence of scholarship and teaching. It is the oldest and highest-ranking award for undergraduate teaching at Yale. The medal is named for William Clyde DeVane, who was dean of Yale College 1938–1963 and served as president both of the Yale and United chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. DeVane was also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Senate.

Graduate members of Phi Beta Kappa select a retired faculty member for the honor, and Yale college seniors who are members of the society choose an honoree from among active faculty members who have been teaching at Yale for at least five years. Thus, Prown was chosen for the medal by alumni, and Polak was elected by current undergraduates.

The Phi Beta Kappa dinner was held in the President's Room of Woolsey Hall. Ernesto Zedillo, director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and former president of Mexico, served as the keynote speaker for the event. Peter Salovey, dean of Yale College and himself a former DeVane Medalist, introduced Zedillo, noting that the event marked the first time a former president was the guest speaker. Elizabeth Alexander, associate professor (adjunct) of African American studies, was the Phi Beta Kappa poet. As such, she presented a poem written for the occasion.

In his introduction of Polak, Anthony Xu '06, described the Yale professor's game theory class as "prized" and "one of the best classes" at the University.

"Every lecture is packed with students who inevitably overflow onto the stairs of Luce Hall," said Xu. "How is Professor Polak able to attract so many avid learners? Through the prodigious use of humor and engaging class interactions that excite and motivate students. In what other course at Yale can you compare 'evil gits' (also known as Yale students) to 'indignant angels' (also known as University of Arizona students)? Where else can you duel another student with wet sponges during class?"

Xu also praised Polak for "drawing on relevant examples to highlight theory" and for "emphasizing intuition rather than memorization," thus making the subject accessible.

"For example, if I told you that a 'randomization of pure strategies can be an equilibrium in a game,' you would probably nod and promptly forget what was just said," Xu told his audience at the dinner. "However, if I told you that randomizing what you pick is the best strategy in 'Rock, Paper, Scissors,' you would certainly agree with me. Apart from making game theory easy to understand, Professor Polak also makes it applicable to the real world. Through showing us the 'practical' side of game theory, Professor Polak greatly enhances our appreciation of the class. By practical, I mean, for example, how to calculate the likelihood that your tax return will be audited by the IRS if you 'accidentally omit' information. Or, how to overcome the 'Battle of the Sexes' problem when choosing where to go on a date. If you need advice on these two questions, definitely seek out Professor Polak's help; he makes himself extremely available to students outside of class."

Xu concluded by saying that Polak's "wide learning, his brilliantly lucid and imaginative lectures, his good humor and his approachableness" had made him "something of a Guru" on campus.

Mary E. Miller, the Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art, and graduate president of the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, introduced Prown by noting that he came to Yale in 1961 and became the founding director of the Yale Center for British Art seven years later. In such a capacity, she noted, Prown worked with philanthropist Paul Mellon '29, whose contributions made possible the creation of the art center, on bringing Mellon's "vision
to life."

Miller praised Prown for taking his students to art collections and teaching them "to see."

"In these classes, he began to formulate what became known as the Prown method," Miller commented. "At a time when art historians at other institutions were known to say 'American art ... isn't that a contradiction in terms?' Jules had made American art central to the Yale curriculum."

Prown was also renowned for his expertise in material culture, Miller noted.

"How could we look at all the stuff of our world, from doorknobs to refrigerators to Winslow Homer? He honed the Prown method, and students learned under his tutelage to develop language for talking about all these problematic things, language that would resist, if not defy, interpretation until the last possible moment. Students learned from this, and they exported this vision into all manner of art history. Jules' students also demanded direct encounter with works of art, and this insistence on the primacy of the thing characterized both him and, as he trained generations of both undergraduates and graduates, those who went on to make American art central to the curriculum everywhere."

Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest undergraduate honors organization, was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Four years later, the original Phi Beta Kappa Society was abruptly forced to cease operations as the British army under Cornwalis advanced on the city. The year before, however, the society had already granted charters to Yale and Harvard, making them the second and third chapters of the organization, respectively.

Last year, the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa awarded DeVane Medals to Fred Strebeigh, a lecturer in English and at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Wayne Meeks, the Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies. Other DeVane Medalists have included historians Edmund S. Morgan, Howard R. Lamar, Jonathan Spence and John Gaddis; literary scholars Cleanth Brooks, Maynard Mack and Marie Borroff; economist James Tobin; and sociologist Kai Erikson.