Friday, April 15, 2011

My 'Last Lecture' at American University

Since I soon will be officially retiring from AU, this spring is a time of “last [.....]” events. Yesterday morning, I led what will very likely be my last American University class. (I taught my first university class in September 1963 and my first at AU in September 1975.)

There is a growing “last lecture” tradition at Universities, including a memorable last lecture by a terminally ill Carnegie Mellon computer science professor, available on youtube. However mine was not intended to be memorable. In fact, the students in SIS 337, “International Development” didn’t even know it was probably my “last lecture” at AU.

Like many we have held this semester, much of our class session was a richly textured discussion of fundamental issues facing those who may choose to commit themselves to “international development?” “What visions and values should guide such a life?,” we asked ourselves. “What ‘models’ seem to work best? What skills should one master to contribute most effectively?” Our wide ranging conversation included examples from rural Mexico, from Bolivia, from Singapore, from Nairobi, and of course, from Singapore and Sri Lanka. We explored the contrasting implications of planning-oriented models of governance (such as Singapore and China) and democratic models (such as the United States and Scandinavian alternatives). We discussed the role of the Japanese Imperial family and the British Royal family in governance. We considered the moral and development dilemmas raised by the protagonist figure of John, the “savage” in Aldous Huxley’s classic, Brave New World.

Each week, I ask students to write short (2 pp. or less) “reaction papers” in which they reflect on assigned readings from the context of personal values, concerns and experiences. We almost always conclude the class by displaying excerpts from some on our viewing screen and discussing them. This week’s reaction paper, from AU undergraduate Rachel Hoffmann, seemed particularly apt as a conclusion for our class, the semester and my teaching career at American University.

Linking all of these ideas together, I think that youth can be the most empowered group and the most influential in making change. Sometimes I feel as though my ideas are squashed by the wiser, more experienced generations. But I think youth are those who often start the biggest social movements and are most outraged by inequalities because at times it affects them most. I think terrorism and aggression based on social inequalities can be combated by empowering the youth and getting them involved in development projects…. Most of all, allowing for youth to have a voice and say their opinions and share ideas across cultures will allow for a better understanding of the issues, and will hopefully lead to a better solution.


Blogger Kate said...

It was wonderful to see you yesterday in Tenleytown! I'm very sad to hear that you will be leaving AU; you've had such a major influence on so many student's lives - including mine and you were never my professor! I'm excited to see where this next chapter takes you. As you're vacating the dorms - will you be leaving dormgrandpop too? If so, I will have to find your next haunt to follow your stories. Happy that your last lecture was inspirational - sounds far from a 'whimper' ;)

9:17 AM  

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