Like many people, I watched Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” when it was making the rounds last fall, and followed his story off and on since, checking in on his Web site (always fingers crossed, but feeling like a voyeur nonetheless, knowing I would one day find bad news). I knew Pausch slightly, or more precisely, knew of him: he was at Virginia at the same time I was, and I kept hearing about this guy doing hot stuff with VR over in the computer science department. Everyone was devastated when he moved his lab to CMU.
You don’t hear much talk about coping with death in the extended academic family. The extent to which this is something all of us in the profession eventually have to deal with was brought home this past year, with the untimely passing of two friends and colleagues in my field, Roy and Ross. Networks and relationships become more important to you the deeper you get into your career, and I know this is going to get harder, not easier.
Lots of people lots closer to Randy Pausch have written very eloquent things about his life and career. One thing I want to comment on here, though, is how important his identity as a professor obviously was to him. He remarks on this several times in the course of the famous lecture, and he lobbied his publisher to get his title and affiliation—Professor, Carnegie Mellon—onto the cover of his best-selling book.
In the States, we live in a profoundly anti-intellectual culture. The term “academic” is often only a step away from being used as a pejorative, and formal education (“book learning”) is constantly devalued next to something presumably more authentic, like “street smarts.” Intellectuals are regarded with suspicion and anxiety, branded as elitists with bankrupted credibility in all but a handful of carefully controlled domains by a long and relentless campaign waged by the cultural right. Randy Pausch is the first professor to capture the public imagination in a long time, and I’m glad his professional identity is something he chose to foreground. Maybe, in a small way, it will help restore some public faith in education and the idea of the intellectual as someone to look to for wisdom and guidance in all walks of life. “Rest assured,” he wrote on his Web site. “I’m hardly unique. Send your kids to Carnegie Mellon and the other professors here will teach them valuable life lessons long after I’m gone.”
As for the professors themselves, at CMU and everywhere else, that’s a pretty tall order. Randy Pausch was clearly no ordinary teacher when it came to those life lessons, and there are lots of us, frankly, who won’t do nearly as good a job when it comes to teaching them. But to the extent I’ve been inspired to try to be a little bit better at what I do, it’s in large measure because Pausch was so obviously proud of his job and what he was. He was a professor, and he let everyone know it.Posted by mgk at August 3, 2008 02:13 PM