The Last Lecture: Something I Said Last Time You Thought Was Important

Photograph of an empty classroom

 Courtesy of Library of Congress

Stephen Engle

Over the years, I have had the good fortune of participating in forums that examine how professors spark students’ minds. In one workshop we read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture (2008), which was the published version of a lecture he gave in 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University. Later, I decided to watch the lecture on YouTube, because I wanted to know what it was like to have actually witnessed Pausch’s final lecture. Watching “The Last Lecture” was far more impressive than reading it. Suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer, Pausch moved the audience with his engaging style. The lecturer made the audience think and consider what was said, who was saying it, and why. Pausch made the material significant and memorable because of his desire to invest us in his viewpoint.

In my twenty-five years of teaching, I have recognized that we all strive to ignite a spark in the classroom. I believe this begins with a dynamic, challenging, and engaging lecture style that pulls students into the material and convinces them that it is worth studying. It is worth studying not only because it is historically significant, but also because there is something useful to their own lives in understanding the world around them. Great lecturers remind us that teachers and students share the responsibility for working through historical problems and issues that arise in the classroom. Great lecturers also remind us why incorporating students into the enterprise helps make the material relevant.

For me, the lecture is the most important time I spend as an academic. I use the lecture as a means of drawing students into an understanding of the relationship between the past, the present, and how and why knowledge is power. These days, students expect that a digital component is integrated into their instructional experience. That expectation raises interesting questions about the fate of conventional teaching approaches, including the lecture. As teachers, we must often ask ourselves: are lectures effective, do they provoke questions, and do they prod students to learn what is taught?

I realize that the lecture-centered classroom is not all that it could be, and I applaud efforts at innovation. Increasingly, professors are responsible both for teaching information and ensuring student absorption and learning. This change requires that professors be in tune with the process of learning. Professors always strive to ensure that learning is taking place beyond the “question and answer” segment of the lecture. Even with sophisticated gadgetry and pedagogical innovations, we still may not spark a student’s desire to learn the concepts being taught. What then? Try striking the match again, and wait to see if it takes flame. Engage the students, and invest them in sharing the responsibility for why what you are saying is significant (beyond the fact that it will be on the test). Make students own their understanding of the information because it will establish within them a credibility that sets them apart from those who lack knowledge. If we truly believe that knowledge is power, we must challenge students to believe that power and autonomy are achieved by closing the gap between opinion and research-based knowledge, and that what is required of them is developing, owning, and being responsible for the credibility that comes with that knowledge: power.

Stephen Engle is Professor of History and a Master Teacher in the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.