Mary Baldwin’s Last Lecture: Laughter and Life Lessons

April 7, 2006

Want to make college professors and administrators happy? Tell them they get to have the last word.

The last lecture has been an annual tradition at Mary Baldwin University for more than a decade. Invited faculty members from varying disciplines replace syllabi and course requirements with wit and their own profound truths. Speakers are encouraged to say what they would if it were their last chance to speak with students. Invariably, the event turns into an inspirational blend of silliness and seriousness — an activity intended as a break from academia where the audience learns something meaningful without the chore of taking notes.

Mary Baldwin Instructor of History Amy TillersonAmy Tillerson, instructor of history at Mary Baldwin since 2004, delivered this year’s last lecture April 13. With a little more than a week to go before the big day, she was wavering between topics — and having fun deciding whether to take an academic tact, or give a more advisory, global message.

“I want it to be a surprise,” she said. “There are different opinions about how to approach the last lecture; I’m figuring out what works best for me. The main thing, though, is that I feel honored that students selected me as the speaker. They must want to hear what I have to say!”

Edward Scott, associate dean of the college and associate professor of philosophy and religion, delivered the first last lecture address to a packed house in Francis Auditorium during the 1993–94 academic year. He set the tone for the series by making a case for the value of oral history, the telling and re-telling of stories — factual and fictional — that represent heritage, culture, and personal history. “The world is filled with stories and myths that are truly interesting and shape the way we interpret events,” he said, reflecting upon his speech. After a rousing response to his inaugural last lecture, Scott accepted an invitation to give another address in the series’ third year.

“I approached it as if I was giving my final contribution to the ongoing human conversation,” said Scott. “It’s a unique experience to talk to a college-wide audience and say what you always wanted to say, what you really believe is important.”

Mary Baldwin shares the last lecture tradition with some well-known universities across the country that recognize that the activity enriches the campus community by giving a glimpse of professors’ personalities and encouraging bonding outside the classroom. Students maintain a close connection with the event at Mary Baldwin because it is sponsored by the Student Government Association, unlike at many other colleges, where a department or academic program organizes the lecture.

While some Mary Baldwin last lecturers abandon the subject they typically teach in favor of trying something unconventional, others use their knowledge in their area of expertise to impart more universal messages.

Alice Araujo, associate professor of communication, gave Mary Baldwin’s 2005 last lecture — an insightful, timely, and humorous talk about how modern media may cause undue anxiety. “We all know by now that no matter how much you clean your bathroom, it’s never going to be clean enough, right?” Araujo said to introduce her subject, citing an example of how media can coerce people into self-doubt and fear. Her message: We must learn to live with and embrace the unknown to deal effectively with an endless stream of warnings used by the media to create mass alarm and excitement.

“The last lecture allowed me to express my opinion informally, which I rarely do in class,” Araujo said.

Others, like Jeffrey Buller, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, go heavy on humor.

Buller offered students “A 30–Minute Complete, Guaranteed, Positively Time-Tested Liberal Arts Education” for his Last Lecture in 2003. When the audience had recovered from laughing at his uproarious quips, he slipped in powerful statements: “For all of our striving for excellence, for all of our dedication to commitment and ideals, there are things we can’t control. If your happiness depends on only good things happening to you, you will never be happy. How you respond is what matters.”

“I had several students come up to me after the lecture to ask if I could just sign their diplomas instead of waiting until graduation,” Buller said. The response to his speech was so good that he has since used it on several other occasions for alumnae/i audiences, the Mary Baldwin Board of Trustees, and Phi Beta Kappa honor society induction.

Ed Petkus, associate professor of business administration, ditched his academic discipline in favor of amusement for his last lecture in 2004. Petkus’ talk, “A Survival Kit for Everyday Life,” highlighted the philosophical importance of items such as bubbles, a rubber ball, a pencil and notepad, a small drum, and a piece of chocolate.

“I’m not sure how I came upon the idea; I made it original, though,” Petkus said.

The last lecture at Mary Baldwin: inspiring professors and their audiences for more than a decade. Don’t miss Amy Tillerson April 13.