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Last Lectures: Prof. William Ray [French, 1972]

We salute retiring (and not-so-retiring) professors

By Randall S. Barton | September 1, 2013

He has been called a man of unassuming genius, a wry professor—always in command of the material. Bill Ray made 19th-century French literature come to life, dazzling students with surprising, multilayered interpretations. He held the John B. and Elizabeth M. Yeon Chair in French and the Humanities, and waxed eloquent on culture, the novel, and literary theory.

“Is it true there was a time when teenagers read current issues of academic journals as if they were the latest fanzines?” asks John Culbert ’85. “That they regarded the contributors to Diacritics and Yale French Studies with feelings usually reserved for rock stars? If I remember these things right, then Bill Ray was a celebrity, a man whose books and essays rubbed shoulders with works of the cosmopolitan, intellectual elite. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man were distant idols, but Bill Ray walked among us, wearing light blue jeans with an oversize Western belt buckle and a tan jacket whose physical composition—leather or Naugahyde?—remains a matter of sustained debate.”

After earning his PhD in 1971, Ray taught at the State University of New York–Plattsburgh before joining the Reed faculty in 1972, where he taught French, humanities, literary theory, and French fiction.

“Anyone who took a class with Bill would know the drill on the first day,” remembers Joanna Schildt ’98. “You enter the conference, sit around the table, Bill walks in, sits down, shuffles his papers, and then . . . says nothing. Nothing at all. For minutes at a time. Students shift uneasily in their seats. Eyes roll queasily from side to side. Who will break the silence? Who will speak? Feet cross and uncross under the table. Everyone stares at their books and their papers, taps their pens. And that’s when it clicks: this conference wasn’t about Bill. If this conference was going anywhere, we had better do something. Bill gazed at us expectantly, smiling benevolently. And then began some of the best discussions I’ve ever had about literature in any language, hands down.”

Ray plans to continue traveling with his wife, eminent art historian Kathleen Nicholson, who shares his passion for bird watching and nature photography.

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