The Collegian
Wednesday, February 01, 2023

"Last lecture" program intended to inspire students

One University of Richmond professor will give a lecture about what he or she would want to tell his or her students if it were his or her last lecture.

The professor will be chosen out of nominations from the Richmond student body, and will speak at the Jepson Alumni Center April 7.

Senior Erin Fields, biology major, said she created the program at Richmond with the help of Juliette Landphair, Dean of Westhampton College, and two other Westhampton students, Adrian Bitton and Sarah Latimer. Fields said the provost, Stephen Allred, and the Office of the Provost financially supported the project. This included the monetary award that would be presented to the nominated professor.

Fields said she had created the program after she read and watched Randy Pausch's last lecture. Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who gave his last lecture in 2007 after learning he was terminally ill. The lecture has received more than 9 million hits on YouTube, and the book has sold more than 4 million copies.

"He had a positive outlook on his life even though he was dying," Field said. "He also told people that they should follow their childhood dreams, even though they could be silly dreams."

She said Pausch encouraged students to "find what [they] like to do and just do that as opposed to worry about what other people think."

Fields said she thought Richmond would benefit from the last lecture program and e-mailed Landphair about her idea during the summer. Landphair said she had helped advertise the program among faculty.

Bitton said the organizers were trying to get students engaged with the program.

"I think we have some wonderful faculty here at the university," Bitton said. "We want to use their wisdom and expertise and have the students benefit from that."

The program would reflect Richmond's academic community, Landphair said, and the close relationships between students and faculty.

"I also think," she said, "it has the potential to draw everyone in the community together, including alums, community members, students, faculty and staff."

Landphair said she was impressed with Fields, Bitton and Latimer.

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"Being involved in starting something from scratch," she said, "building it up, nourishing it and growing it is a huge learning experience for when they graduate."

Fields, Bitton and Latimer set up ballot boxes around campus for nominations from Feb. 9 through Feb. 13. Bitton said nomination forms asked for the professor's name and for reasons why the students were nominating the professor. Fields said the selected professor would be announced right before spring break.

Latimer said she was pleasantly surprised with the number of student responses.

"You never know with something that's new at school, how well it will go," she said.

Bitton said one day she did not get to refill nomination forms at a ballot box before the forms ran out.

"People had just written [their nomination] on scraps of paper and put them in there because they wanted to participate," she said.

Fields, Bitton and Latimer will make up the committee to select a professor.

"It's just us, but we're looking at a number of things," Latimer said. "The number of votes that certain teachers get, the reasoning for the votes and then just simple things like if the person's available."

Fields said more than just the number of votes alone had to be taken into consideration.

"If someone's voting for a professor for no reason," she said, "then we'd rather look at someone who has some reasons why they want that professor."

It was touching, Latimer said, to see what students had written about their professors. She said students wrote everything from, "He's the best teacher I've ever had," to "really engaging and challenging." Some students nominated professors, she said, and wrote the professor was the most difficult they ever had.

"We recruit faculty here who take teaching seriously," Landphair said. "I think a lot of bigger schools, I think a lot of research-oriented schools, give lip service to teaching. It's not lip service here."

Contact reporter Laurie Guilmartin at laurie.guilmartin@richmond.edu

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