Behrman medal

Yiyun Li and Michael Smith receive Behrman Award for the humanities

Princeton professors Yiyun Li and Michael Smith have received the University’s Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities.

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li is a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts and director of the Program in Creative Writing. She joined the Princeton faculty in 2017.

She is the author of 10 books, including “The Book of Goose,” which was among The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2022, and “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.”

Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages. Li’s honors and awards include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Windham Campbell Prize, the 2021 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Benjamin H. Dank Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the PEN/Jean Stein Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, The Guardian First Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award for fiction, among others.

Li was born in China. After earning a B.S. in cell biology from Peking University in Beijing, she came to the United States to study immunology at the University of Iowa. There, she started attending the readings hosted by the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop and switched her focus. After submitting a short story to The Paris Review, which published it, she was admitted to a dual MFA track at Iowa in fiction and creative nonfiction.

In addition to teaching fiction at Princeton, she also serves the broader literary community in multiple ways, including as a judge of the Booker International Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. She has also judged multiple short story prizes and served as a juror for the Rome Prize and is a contributing editor to the literary journal A Public Space. At the start of the pandemic, under the auspices of A Public Space, she initiated and ran a virtual shared reading of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (which she reads on her own every year, along with “Moby Dick”). Thousands of people worldwide participated, and the project culminated in the book “Tolstoy Together, 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li.”

“An astute and unsentimental writer and observer, Yiyun Li learned from beloved prose writers of the past — Anton Chekhov, Elizabeth Bowen, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Michel de Montaigne, Katherine Mansfield — as well as her late mentors William Trevor and James McPherson,” wrote one colleague who nominated Li for the Behrman Award. “Those of us who are her colleagues find ourselves asking how she accomplishes so much, both as a writer and as a professor who has taught compelling, demanding and highly rated (by our students) workshops in the time she has been with us.”

Another colleague wrote: “Professor Yiyun Li is a giant of literature. If you believe that literature generates knowledge that is not available otherwise, as I do, then it is more than clear that Professor Li has produced a body of work that is invaluable and indelible in the American, and global, cultural and intellectual space.”

Li is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith

Michael Smith is the McCosh Professor of Philosophy and an associated faculty member in the Department of Politics. He initially served on the Princeton faculty from 1985 to 1989 and returned to the University in 2004. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the University Center for Human Values.

Smith’s research focuses on ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of action, political philosophy, philosophy of law, and aesthetics — topics he has explored in teaching numerous undergraduate and graduate courses at Princeton, including the popular “Introduction to Moral Philosophy.” His John Locke Lectures given at Oxford University in 2017 spanned all these topics; the Locke Lectures are considered to be the most distinguished named lecture series in philosophy in the English-speaking world.

Smith is the author of “The Moral Problem” (1994), which won the American Philosophical Association Book Prize, and “Ethics and the A Priori: Selected Essays on Moral Psychology and Meta-Ethics “(2004). He is also the co-author of “Mind, Morality and Explanation: Selected Collaborations (2004).

In 2012, he received the Phi Beta Kappa teaching award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. Many of his students have gone on to pursue prestigious careers in the field around the world and play leading intellectual roles in philosophy. He is also a member of Princeton’s Committee for Film Studies and has taught courses on aesthetics and on film.

Smith has played a strategic role in internationalizing Princeton philosophy, cementing ongoing collaborations with scholars in Europe and Australia, encouraging the creation of Princeton’s popular summer seminars in Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen, and creating a long-standing institutional collaboration with philosophers at the Humboldt University in Berlin, one of Princeton’s strategic partners.

“He’s a legendary teacher and supervisor,” wrote one colleague. “He is also by universal acclaim the leading figure of his generation in what has become (thanks in large part to Michael’s work) one of the most active fields of philosophy: metaethics. Metaethics is the branch of philosophy which studies the nature of moral thought and talk.”

Another colleague wrote: “Michael’s intellectual collegiality is evident in other ways too: although they come from a completely different place politically, Michael has co-taught philosophy of law seminars with Robbie George [the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions], demonstrating to students and colleagues that it is possible to work across the political divide.”

Smith, who was born and raised in Australia, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and the Australian Academy of Humanities.

Commencement 2023