Dr. Howard's "Last Lecture"

Dr. Lillie P. Howard delivered this lecture at the CTL's annual awards ceremony May 26, 2010.

Dr. Lillie P. Howard

Dr. Lillie P. Howard

First, congratulations to all those being honored here today for excellence in teaching. In the academy, I don't believe that there is any greater achievement than this—the triumph of having helped students learn and succeed. I also want to thank Dan DeStephen and each of you for this opportunity to deliver my "last lecture" at Wright State University. It is my distinct honor to do so. As you might imagine, since I announced my retirement, I have been given numerous opportunities to speak at university events. I have graciously declined them all. When Dan invited me to speak to you here today, however, I felt that I could not say NO. After all, in the tradition of the "last lecture," here was a rare opportunity to reflect upon my 35-year journey at the university and to share lessons learned along the way with some of my favorite people—excellent teachers! Because I have been here so long, of course, this would be a mighty reflection, indeed, for I've spent more than half of my life here at Wright State! Wright State was my first "permanent" job (I had taught as an adjunct for one summer at the junior college at home, and had taught for one semester at the University of New Mexico); and it has turned out to be my life's work. My daughter used to say that I spent so much time at Wright State, thinking about Wright State, caring about Wright State, nurturing and otherwise attending to Wright State "stuff" that Wright State was obviously my third child, joining her and her brother as those precious beings I cherished the most. There was an uncomfortable truth to my daughter's perceptions, of course, because just as I would for one of my own, I have had very high expectations and ambitions for the university in virtually every aspect of its being, and I've persuaded, cajoled, cheered, supported, put sweat to my brow (and some would say to the brows of others), stayed up late nights and risen early mornings, paced the floor, and otherwise labored long and hard, along with my colleagues, to try to help the university reach its highest potential (the pinnacle of achievement).

At the same time that I treated the university as one of my own, I was, of course, of necessity, one of the university's own—I was of that generation of faculty that had come along after the founding faculty of the university had gotten things started, and, like my colleagues, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to help to prepare the way for those who would come afterwards. As one of the university's own, then, I'd say that I have been shaped as much by what I found here when I arrived directly from graduate school with my newly minted Ph.D. in hand—as I was by what I brought here with me.

What I found here at Wright State and in the Dayton region in general in 1975 when I arrived was a set of incredible legacies: the legacy of the pioneers of Wright State University after whom the Founders Quadrangle (the "Quad") is named—Stanley C. Allyn and Robert S. Oelman of National Cash Register (NCR), John D. Millett and Novice G. Fawcett, presidents, respectively, of Miami University and The Ohio State University—who had a grand vision that a university might rest here and grow into something spectacular for the region, the nation and the world; the legacy of two renown Dayton sons, Wilbur and Orville Wright, after whom the university was named, two local high school graduates who had used their brilliant minds, inventive engineering skills, and sheer cocky determination and will to teach the world to fly; the legacy of the renown poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, high school friend of the Wright Brothers, whose poetry had touched the lives of people around the world; the legacy of the founding faculty—dreamers, believers, pioneers—who had come from Miami University, The Ohio State University, from near and far, to create a brave new university in the middle of a cornfield in Dayton (Fairborn), OH. To put it in the vernacular of a literary person who arrived with three degrees in English, what I found here was both poetry and prose, a world that had been fueled with the creative imagination and "can do" spirits of a marvelous people-s/heroes and heroes with the collective talents and courage and "know how" skills to embark on a transformative epic journey; I found a place that was still very much in the process of becoming but that had already proven the idea of itself priceless. This was heady "stuff" to the open and impressionable mind of a new assistant professor! And this was the "stuff" that I found at Wright State when I arrived in August 1975.

I did not arrive empty handed, however. For, In addition to my degrees and professional learnings and leanings, I had brought with me the sum total of myself which, of course, I thought was also, like what I discovered here, pretty good "stuff!" I had grown up in the country in the Deep South of Alabama where I had learned to work hard from sun up to sun down, to have the wash on the line before the sun broke the horizon, to apply myself in school so that, to paraphrase Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield about his sister, Phoebe, "when somebody told me something, I knew what the heck they were talking about." And I had also grown up believing that I was as capable as the next person, though the segregated South had tried mightily, through word and deed, to get me to think otherwise. And though I had grown up in the A.M.E. church where my grandmother shouted every Sunday when the spirit moved her, I had also developed a fine appreciation for the local Baptist churches where the music always seemed to be a bit livelier. I had learned how to appreciate diversity, then, at an early age.

As a child and then a teenager, I had chopped wood, slopped hogs, carried buckets of water, picked up potatoes in the summer for 3 cents a basket, and helped to dig the foundation for my aunt and uncle's new house. I had threaded my grandmother's needle as she preserved some of our history by quilting scraps into beautiful patterns, had listened to her sing spirituals that would bring her and me to tears as she rocked on the front porch, had rung a chicken's neck, thrown it down, and then watched it get up and run away, and I had followed my grandfather, Papa, up and down the furrows of the field as he and the old mule plowed row after row of what would annually become a bountiful crop. I was a curious, spunky, and courageous child, proud to be called a "Tom boy," stubborn about anything in which I believed strongly, comfortable with both work and play, but always held a special place in my heart for good books read in a quiet corner as thunder storms raged outside. Later, all the way through graduate school, my favorite TV show was StarTrek. I was highly intrigued by the audacity and the idea of "going where no one had ever gone before." I already liked that idea long before I came to Wright State. And once I arrived here, I thought that should be our creed.

The university was 8 years old when I arrived in 1975; it is 43 years old now as I am leaving. In many ways, we have matured together, I, in my own way, playing various roles in the university's own magnificent development, and the university, in turn, playing various roles in my own solid development, first as a college English professor, and later, as a college and then a university administrator. I thank the university for what it has given me, and I have received many thanks over the years from the university for what I have given it in return. So, again, in the spirit of the "last lecture," it is an honor to take a few moments to reflect over the life I have both helped to fashion and been given here at the University.

First, however, a related digression: As I am sure many of you are aware, the concept of the "last lecture" received a great deal of attention approximately three years ago because of Randy Pausch, the brilliant 47-year old Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor and founder of that university's Entertainment Technology Centre, who, dying of Pancreatic Cancer, had been asked in 2007 to give a "last lecture" as part of the Carnegie Mellon "Journeys" lecture series. Such lectures, previously actually called the "last lecture," invited selected faculty to reflect on and provide insights about their personal and professional journeys—about "the everyday actions, decisions, challenges, and joys that make a life." Historically, "last lectures" were opportunities for academicians to imagine themselves near death and reflect upon what wisdom they wished to impart to their students or to an audience in general before they passed on. Randy Pausch who, though the picture of good health, was actually near death (he died 10 months after his lecture) called his lecture, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." According to all accounts, he delivered a moving, energetic, and electric performance that has transformed the lives of many people around the world. The lecture was later published as a book and has since been translated into 18 languages.

Pausch's childhood dreams were a bit atypical for many, though likely very typical for him: He wanted to be in zero gravity like an astronaut, play in the National Football League, publish in the World Book Encyclopedia, and be an Imagineer with Walt Disney. His overall message was never to give up on your own dreams, and to find some way to help others achieve theirs. Becoming a college professor allowed Pausch to do just that—to pursue many of his own dreams while helping others, particularly his students, achieve their own.

Though in his talk Pausch described how he had been able to achieve virtually all of his dreams, he admitted that what he had really learned along the way was how to live a life. What he had learned was remarkably and deceptively simple. He learned:

  • When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it;
  • Show gratitude;
  • Don't complain; just work harder;
  • Be good at something; it makes you valuable;
  • Find the best in everybody: "You might have to wait a long time, sometimes years, but people will show you their good side. Just keep waiting no matter how long it takes.
  • Be prepared.
  • And finally, "If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you."

Pausch admitted at the end of his talk that his advice was not really meant for the standing room only audience that had gathered to hear him; his advice was really meant for his young children. No matter. The entire audience, and millions more around the world, learned, and continue to learn, his lessons.

Here are the lessons I have learned during my 35-year tenure at Wright State. Like Pausch, my list is simple, and I begin with one from his list:

  • First, be prepared. I feel that I had been prepared well by my upbringing in the country in Alabama as well as by my training in the profession; but I did not stop there. I continued to prepare after I arrived, and, even now, I continue to prepare daily for whatever might arise.
  • Second, know who you are at your core—what I call the essential self—know what is important to you, and use that as a moral compass to shape and guide how you go about your daily work and actions, how you interact with others, and the voice with which you consistently speak. I've found that if you do that, you will have inner coherence and peace even amid the ambiguity and incessant white noises that are typical of daily life in higher ed.
  • Third, like the Wright Brothers, be bold and dream big; Don't be satisfied with the status quo! Be open to new possibilities, and constantly improve! I'm all for celebrating accomplishments, but even as I am celebrating, I am already moving toward achieving the next goal. Perhaps that is why I am so fond of the picture of Wilbur and Orville where, after a tremendous one of their many successes, they are striding boldly into the future
  • Fourth, be patient, but stay focused. Keep your eye on the prize and work feverishly, creatively, relentlessly toward that goal.
  • Fifth, hire and work with great, talented people who share similar values—for excellence, hard work, achieving agreed upon goals, being open to new possibilities, and getting the job done. Constantly praise and reward all accordingly.
  • Sixth, always treat people—students, faculty, staff, etc., at every level of the organization—with generosity, respect, and integrity. Care about them; don't lie to them; and do all that you can to help them maintain self-esteem, especially in difficult situations. There is nothing that can squelch dreams and destroy forward movement faster than lack of trust and bad staff morale.
  • Seventh, Say THANK YOU often, sincerely, and well! Give all the credit they so richly deserve!
  • Eighth, when and where possible, generate your own resources to minimize dependence upon others and to be able to support important initiatives when others cannot. By doing so, you can help to maintain forward momentum when the only other recourse might be to give up, dilute, or delay the dream.
  • Ninth, be optimistic! Optimism can be contagious and can fuel new ways of thinking, being, and achieving. I have had some very challenging situations in life and in work, but have found over the years that I am predisposed to optimism. So, no matter how bad things might seem at any particular moment, I have learned that, in good time, I am going to see my way through them and emerge whole on the other side and with new ideas about how to continue to move ahead. No doubt part of that is also my innate stubbornness about those things in which I believe strongly!
  • Tenth, set your standards high, be intentional in the design of programs and strategies meant to help to reach them, continuously assess, and use findings to reach new levels of excellence. Dan can tell you that I am a strong believer in following best practices where they exist, and in creating them where they do not. So, don't be afraid to lead. In fact, if we are going to "go where no one has ever gone before, leading has to become the accepted norm for the institution and for all of us within it!
  • And finally, since this work (whether as a college professor or an administrator) is not for the timid or weak, the Eleventh and perhaps most important lesson I've learned—to paraphrase Alice Walker's Third Life of Grange Copeland—is to Hold a place deep inside of yourself where "they"—whoever "they" are (the naysayers, nonbelievers, those who welcome failure, those who may even wish you harm, etc.)—cannot come. To repeat, hold a place deep inside of you where they cannot come. By doing so, you triumph even in the midst of perceived or temporary defeat, and you emerge whole from a fire that might have otherwise burned you to a crisp.

So, that's my list for now, though, of course, I've learned much, much more during my 35 years of "schooling" here. It is largely because of the above, however, that I am leaving the university with my essential self still intact, that I've been able to work with others to accomplish much—though not by far all that I might have wished—that I've remained optimistic and retained a sense of wonder about "going where no one else has ever gone before," and why, even today, as the university nears a significant turning point—another defining moment in its history—I am as excited about the possibilities for the university as I was 35 years ago. I've made a good life here and I've received a good life in return. My grandmother and grandfather, I believe, would have been proud of my canon of work-proud of the metaphorical "scraps" I've helped to quilt into beautiful patterns, proud of the fields I've helped to plow and carefully tend to annually yield good crops. I've very much enjoyed working with and for you and with many other colleagues across the university, the region, the state, the country. I want to thank you for your passion for teaching and learning which remains for me a signature passion; thank you for your indulgence here today; and thank you for the gifts you continue to bestow on the university and our students as you help to make dreams come true! I wish a very bright future for you all! Thank you!