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On one’s last lecture

The bestseller by Randy Pausch has revitalized all the attention he justifiably earned by delivering his famous “last lecture” to students, friends, and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in September 2007.  Pausch is dying from late stage pancreatic cancer; last year he gave an inspiring lecture that has since been seen by more than two million viewers accessing it on YouTube alone (with estimates elsewhere ranging as high as ten million).  The talk has acquired an amazing afterlife, first thanks to attention from Oprah Winfrey, then more recently as the result of an ABC News special that ran last month.

The talk is inspiring, sometimes self-aggrandizing, filled with passionately offered life lessons, and also genuinely and deeply moving.  The sheer pathos of the situation is overwhelming:  his wife sits on the front row understandably derailed and touched and emotional (can anyone imagine a more difficult situation in which to sustain one’s composure?), and the situation whereby a professor enacts a last intellectual performance knowing of his imminent death creates a breathtaking scene of rhetorical possibility, one which Pausch skillfully navigates with a combination of good humor and a steadfast refusal to feel sorry for himself despite every reason to do so.  You should watch it.

The Pausch phenomenon is distinctive in its public reach but the basic concept exerts a continuing appeal in other contexts.  The March 17 issue of the New Yorker celebrates another last lecture:  “Rosamond Bernier, the world’s most glamorous lecturer on art and high culture, makes her farewell appearance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art…, and end-of-era emotions are running high.  Bernier, with her long gowns and her impeccable diction, managed to transform the slide lecture into something all her own – a performance, a star turn, a piece of theatre.”  Or consider the weirder conspiracy theories that circulate online around Philip Schneider, who delivered dark lectures about governmental coverups until he was found dead (the police said suicide, but alternative theories abound); his inadvertently last lecture receives regularly heavy hits on the worldwide web.

The intriguing thought experiment embodied by imagining one’s last lecture has also become something of a genre.  Sometimes professors are invited to give actual last lectures on the occasion of their retirement (at Syracuse University a couple days ago, for example, the campus biology legend Marvin Druger gave his last lecture after teaching for 54 years).  And on college campuses nationwide alumni groups and student organizations and academic programs sponsor series where faculty are invited to imagine what they would want to say in a last lecture and then to deliver it to an assembled group – hunting around on the web found advertisements or reports for such events from institutions including Arizona State University (where one of my communication colleagues, Dan Brouwer, delivered the 2008 iteration), the University of Alabama (where the selected speaker gets a cash prize), the College of the Holy Cross, the University of Georgia, and the University of Iowa (where the “last lecture” is both a thought experiment for the speaker and a literal last lecture for undergraduates anticipating their commencement).

All this is a little unusual given the growing disrepute of the lecture as a mechanism for learning.  The etymology of the word (lecture is a six centuries old word that refers to “reading a discourse”) itself invites some skepticism, for who wants to be read at?  I wonder if there is a campus in the nation that isn’t this year running orientations or pedagogy classes organized to condemn the “sage on the stage” model, in favor of professor as “coach” or “learning facilitator” or some other model that straddles the conflicted realities that professors are inevitably authority figures but also increasing wish to foster more democratic learning environments.

I find myself torn on this matter since some of the most profound learning (and even one might say life altering) experiences of my academic formation occurred as I sat with others in the audience for brilliant and intellectually exhilarating lecture performances.  As a new doctoral student at the University of Iowa I enrolled in a seminar taught by Michael Calvin McGee and although I was then a little unsure of how great a role he would play in my training there, I found myself hooked from day one – McGee came into the seminar room and lectured without notes for about 90 minutes, for me a mesmerizing performance.  At the end my hand was sore from taking notes and my mind was reeling with ideas and my decision to pursue the doctorate was forever confirmed.  Was I coerced or seduced by a pedagogical dictator?  No – in fact some of the most energizing moments of his seminar lectures centered on points eloquently made with which I profoundly disagreed.  As a more general matter, I confess to wondering why upper level and graduate education seems to have no problem with the written sage on the stage (hours spent rightly parsing difficult primary texts) but has so much difficulty with sages presenting their ideas in person.  And so students are led to read Zizek’s latest book or article as if it has been delivered from Olympus but apparently were he to arrive as the instructor for a seminar no one would want to risk the authoritarian prospects of inviting him to actually stand up and lecture.

I digress:  back to the collective fascination with last speech.

Beyond the last lecture is the collective fascination with “famous last words,” and deathbed confessions and talk about “what would I want them to say about me at my funeral?”  Last statements are implicitly understood as potential carriers of deeper thoughts, final reckonings, occasions for truth telling and the sharing of accumulated wisdom.  They seem to invite us to rise above the mundane everydayness of lives dominated by drudgery and simple common sense, to a plane occupied by wiser figures whose lives of contemplation portend messages of deeper insight and prophetic witness.  Even now scholars debate the meaning of Socrates’ last words (was “O Crito, I owe Asclepius a rooster” meant ironically or as Nietzsche argued intended to convey his final pessimism and resentment?), focus on the literary significance for early America of “dying Indian speech” narratives, and on the last words uttered by Julius Caesar (was et tu, Brute spoken as regret or as a final curse?).  Douglass Adair argued many years ago that Thomas Jefferson was specifically influenced by the widely circulated “dying speech” given by Richard Rumbold in 1685 on the topic of treason.  For many centuries convicted criminals were given the opportunity to speak once more before the noose was slipped on.  Sometimes they did so by railing against their opponents and at other times by begging forgiveness; in 17th century England these addresses were widely covered and arguably carried political significance, especially when the execution was ideologically motivated.

Because last expressions sometimes do eerily anticipate the future (think Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “I may not get there with you” address he delivered in Memphis the night before his assassination), the entire genre may be taken more seriously than it should.  Final speech is granted an authority both by rationalists (since a last talk can potentially convey summative knowledge) and romantics (since facing one’s imminent death or departure is thought to connect to one’s deepest and most authentic passions).  Apple Computer helps sponsor “golden apple” last lecture events where the prize goes to “outstanding teachers who teach each lecture as if it were their last,” and I guess the impulse there is that such an instinct would (if universally enacted) prevent lectures filled with stupid ephemeral trivia.

Knowing one has only a final chance to speak would focus the mind, to be sure.  But what I find striking about so many talks billed as “the last” is how readily they revert to aphorism and cliche and folk wisdom (carpe diem, have fun out there, follow your bliss) or are openly celebratory, as when Matthew Lassiter delivered a University of Michigan talk praising students for their under-appreciated political involvement.  Delivering a last lecture at Cornell University, president David Skorton emphasized how unpredictable is life, how little events can set humans on significantly different courses, and the importance of education.  These talks are eloquent and inspirational, and do reiterate certain important ideas, but we didn’t know all this already?

I’m surprised at how infrequently these last addresses prompt moments of disciplinary reflection or connect to important technical scholarly controversies of lifelong interest to the speaker.  I wonder if this arises from the fact that, with the end in sight, the absurdity of the intellectual enterprise comes into fuller view and the eternal verities assume a more central preoccupying place, or whether the prospect of one’s mortality simply makes too daunting the prospect of explaining one’s inevitably narrow but lifelong topics of rigorous investigation in an engaging manner for audiences attracted as often by sentiment as scholarship.  Maybe the best compromise was struck by Professor Druger:  “Today I’ll be teaching my last lecture of Biology 123.  I was going to have an inspirational message.  But first we’re going to go over the circulatory system.”

SOURCES:  Melissa Daniels, “One Last Lecture: After 45 Years Teaching Introductory Biology, Professor Marvin Druger Finishes Off His Time at Syracuse University,” Daily Orange, 4/29/08; Sonja Barisic, “’Last Lecture’ Sensation Becomes Book,” AP online, 4/7/08; J.A. Sharpe, ‘Last Dying Speeches’:  Religion, Ideology and Public Executionin Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present, no. 107 (May 1985): 144-167; Annulla Linders, “The Execution Spectacle and State Legitimacy: The Changing Nature of the American Execution Audience, 1833-1937,” Law & Society Review 36.3 (2002): 607-656; Douglass Adair, “Rumbold’s Dying Speech, 1685, and Jefferson’s Last Words on Democracy, 1826,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, 9.4 (October 1952): 521-531; J. Crooks, “Socrates’ Last Words:  Another Look at an Ancient Riddle,” Classical Quarterly, new series, 48.1 (1998): 117-125; Daniel Gershenson, “Caesar’s Last Words,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43.2 (Summer 1992): 218-219; Kristina Bross, “Dying Saints, Vanishing Savages: ‘Dying Indian Speeches’ in Colonial New England Literature,” Early American Literature 36.3: 325-352; Laurel Madison, “Have We Been Careless With Socrates’ Last Words?: A Rereading of the Phaedo,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.4 (2002): 421-436.


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