Last Lecture: “Why Are You Here?”


USF> Last Lecture> Fall 2010> “Why Are You Here?”

So, it’s the infamous “last day of class” – the blissful day in which we supposedly “do nothing because everything’s “turned in already” – which we justify to ourselves by reassurances like, “Today’s an abbreviated class. It doesn’t really “count” – I mean, what more could she possibly assign?” Yet, here we are in class, again. What are we going to do? What am I going to say? Better yet, WHY am I saying anything at all?

When I started teaching college English – one year ago – I decided that whatever the situation, I would always make time to write a “Last Lecture” for my students. Yes, I’ve written this for you – well, honestly, it’s for us . I decided to make this ritual of last lecture-writing a priority because I believe that it is incredibly important for anyone to – frequently – remind themselves of their long-term goals. Long-term goals are the exciting ones, after all. They’re the ones that keep us “keeping on” with the exciting and frustrating challenges of everyday life.

Speaking of challenges, do you remember when we watched Dr. Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” on one of the first days of class? HIS CHALLENGE is my inspiration. Therefore, I have an answer to my previous question, “What am I going to talk about?” The answer is: I’m going to talk about inspiration. Inspiration, motivation, focus, authority, and virtuosity – and, most importantly, what all of this “stuff” looks like – what it means, and why YOU should care about it.

Dr. Pausch’s “Last Lecture” is significant because the author, a former professor of computer science, human-computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, gave his last lecture entitled, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” a short few months before he died of pancreatic cancer. Although Dr. Pausch was in the last stages of life at the point in which he delivered this lecture, he couldn’t have expressed more energy… and it’s my belief that this energy – this inspiration to simply be energetic – came from his commitment to feeling good despite the circumstances, in fact, in spite of them. In spite of cancer, Dr. Pausch vowed to continue having fun, enjoying life, learning, teaching, lecturing, and living his final moments to the fullest; disallowing himself to become disinteresting, dull, apathetic, or lethargic.

Let’s watch: (1:02:06 – 1:05:07 … skip to 1:13:58 à end)

Essentially, I’m here today to give you something to think about. Specifically, I’m here today to speak on behalf of someone who is unable to speak anymore, Dr. Pausch; to reiterate his simple yet profound assertion that “it’s all about how you lead your life.”

What’s more important than me or Dr. Pausch’s wisdom, though, is the question, “Why are YOU here?” (*pause) The following scenario/justification constitutes likely answers to this question: (‘anystudent’ may reply) “I’m here because I need to have ‘a college degree’ to ‘get a job’ and I need a job to make money, because you have to have money. In order to graduate from college and ‘get a job’ I am required to take/pass ENC 1101. Therefore, I’m here because, literally, I have to be.” Honestly, this is a fair answer … and, surprisingly, it’s an answer that doesn’t offend me in the least. I understand that the state of Florida requires that you take ENC 1101 and ENC 1102. I was subject to this law, too … I took ENC 1101 and ENC 1102 at the University of Florida in 2002. But who cares? I mean, who cares that you’ve taken ENC 1101 and ENC 1102? Why does “the state of Florida” care that you’ve taken/passed these courses? Why does it value this course, enough to make it a requirement for graduation?

If you are anything like I was at 18, 19, and 20, you honestly don’t care about why you are required to take these courses, you simply “follow the rules,” enroll in the courses, do your best and hope the entire experience isn’t too skull-crushing, so that you can eventually prance down the aisle of some big auditorium at some boring graduation, accept your diploma, shake hands with the dean and go on to some elusive money-making, college degree-necessitating job. I have to tell you – it’s not that simple. And, what you’re really not going to believe is that you ought to be grateful that it’s not that simple. Let me tell you why.

In thinking about the best way to explain why you ought to be grateful about the complicated situation you’re in, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Curtis Brantley a few weeks ago. Curtis is enrolled in a course entitled “The University Experience.” Essentially, the course is supposed “welcome [students] to USF. Each class consists of 25 students and is built around four major themes: building community, learning about campus resources, developing effective academic skills, and exploring personal character and values. Research has shown that students who complete the University Experience course have a higher GPA, are more likely to graduate on time, and are more involved in campus activities” (http://www.ugs.usf.edu/ue/ue.htm).  As part of a requirement (see, another “requirement”!) of this course, Curtis had to conduct an interview with “a” professor – namely, me. I’ve been interviewed for these types of courses ever since I’ve started teaching – again, a whopping year ago – so I’ve admittedly had a little experience in answering these types of questions. However, I’ve been *required to answer these types of questions for other responsibilities, too – namely, my responsibility to this university (my application to the program and my subsequent teaching theories/practices as observed by mentors and professors in the department) and my responsibility to myself, via these lectures. Yes – I said, “responsibility to myself” – because I take my commitment to my SELF seriously. A year ago, I committed to my SELF that I would write and deliver a last lecture at the culmination of each semester, and although I ought to be writing a critical creative project on the environmental politics of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Bill Belleville or a seminar paper on Dr. Bruno Latour’s recommendations for ethical communication among scientists/policy-makers, instead, I’ve prioritized my SELF, and my commitment to you – specifically, a commitment simply to giving you something to think about.

But back to Curtis’s interview questions … the most significant question read something like this: “If you had to give any advice to a freshman student at USF, what would you say?” When Curtis asked me this very question, I literally responded before I even had time to think, “I would say that you need to be motivated about something. You absolutely MUST find something to be motivated about.”

While this abstract advice is well and good theoretically, it’s not necessarily useful to someone like you, someone who’s *required to do a bunch of things that you don’t necessarily want to do. How can you be motivated about something that you’re required to do?

Here’s how I look at it: You can’t really know what you’re motivated about until you’ve done a lot of things that you absolutely KNOW that you’re NOT motivated about. To be blunt: if you’ve decided that there is no way in hell that you can be motivated about English and writing, then fine! At least you can cross that off the list. But, again, I’ll guarantee you that English and writing won’t be the last things that you’re not motivated about. There will be others. Other *requirements and other rules to be followed … requirements and rules that you’re not necessarily going to like. They may even be skull-crushing. But you’ll endure if you know that there’s something BEYOND the requirements and the rules: namely, virtuosity. These types of euphoric experiences won’t come to you, though … you’ll have to endure some pretty significant challenges – brick walls, as Dr. Pausch would say – before you realize what is worth scaling the brick wall for. As Dr. Paush explains in his “Last Lecture,” (metaphorical) brick walls exist to remind us about how much we want things in life. If we come to a brick wall and stop, turn around, and go home, we must not have really wanted the thing that was on the other side of the wall. But if we come to a brick wall and stop, think of ways to get around, over, or under it, THAT is motivation – THAT means that we must have really wanted whatever was on the other side of the wall. Brick walls are there to remind us about how much we want something. So what do you want? Do you know?

I want to close by articulating HOW you come about deciding what specifically you are passionate about – motivated about – inspired by – etc. The most accurate document I can think of is an excerpt from CrossFit Journal, published by Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, an “exciting training protocol and way of life that is rapidly gaining popularity in a wide variety of sports” (http://www.powerathletesmag.com/archives/Girevik/Five/interviewglassman.htm). This article is incredibly significant to me because it was shared with me by someone who understands me, knows me for my strengths and weaknesses, and loves and admires me in spite of it all. The excerpt I want to share with you reads, “In gymnastics, completing a routine without error will not get you a perfect score, the 10.0 – only a 9.7. To get the last three tenths of a point, you must demonstrate ‘risk, originality, and virtuosity’ as well as making no mistakes in the execution of the routine. Risk is simply executing a movement that is likely to be missed or botched; originality is a movement or combination of movements unique to the athlete – a move or sequence not seen before. Understandably, novice gymnasts love to demonstrate risk and originality, for both are dramatic, fun, and awe-inspiring … virtuosity, though, is a different beast altogether. Virtuosity is defined in gymnastics as ‘performing the common uncommonly well.’ Unlike risk and originality, virtuosity is elusive, supremely elusive … virtuosity is more than the requirement for that last tenth of a point; it is always the mark of true mastery (and of genius and beauty). There is a compelling tendency among novices developing any skill or art, whether learning to play the violin, write poetry, or compete in gymnastics, to quickly move past the fundamentals and on to more elaborate, more sophisticated movements, skills or techniques. This compulsion is the novice’s curse – the rush to originality and risk …”

What’s most significant about this is TIME. As I suggested a few minutes ago, it is likely that you will be *required to follow the rules of institutions, businesses, and even people that you don’t necessarily agree with. And that’s ok, because of two reasons: 1. Although authority – especially authority that is requiring that we do things that we don’t like – is a frustrating challenge of our lives, if we approach this type of authority with virtuosity, we will respect it while questioning it, and 2. In spending time on required tasks, if you’re critically attentive to WHAT it is that you’re doing that you either like or dislike, you will have an explicit idea about what you are and are not motivated about.

Essentially, what I want to leave you with is the following assertion – and a question, of course. The assertion is this: Given Glassman’s insights about virtuosity, I suggest that you don’t necessarily have to “be motivated” about something extraordinary (i.e. something earth-shatteringly profound like “discovering electricity” or “writing the next great American novel”). What you DO have to do, though, is do SOMETHING well. In order to do justice to your existence, you must do some thing well. This means that you need to do some thing with virtuosity – with the genius and beauty of one who patiently endures the requirements and the rules WHILE he/she is developing the grace and sophistication of the master.

Think about it. Patiently ruminate on this, and ask yourself the following: Why Are You Here?

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About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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