July 04, 2008
Last Lectures
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

In late May I attended the Teaching Drafting and Transactional Skills conference put on by Tina Stark and Emory Law School. Athens is separated from Atlanta by 70 miles and about 2 hours of hideous traffic. So I prepared for my trek to the Big City by hitting the public library for a book on CD, selecting after brief deliberation Tuesdays with Morrie. I knew only that it was a wildly successful bestseller by Mitch Albom, who I knew from The Sports Reporters, an ESPN show that my husband watches religiously, and that it was about Albom’s visits to his dying former professor. Why not?, I thought.

Why not, indeed. Surprisingly, it turns out that I’m a bit of a sucker for the “dying prof imparts last lessons” genre. Upon arrival I narrowly avoided tearfully embracing those unsuspecting conference attendees unlucky enough to count among my acquaintances.

A month later, I can’t help but wonder what makes TWM and the “dying professor’s words of wisdom” genre so appealing to those outside academia. A recent entrant in this category is Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. Pausch was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He gave a last lecture to a packed auditorium at Carnegie Mellon, where he’d taught computer science for years. I followed with interest WSJ writer Jeffrey Zaslow’s account of attending the lecture and the enormous reader response to Zaslow’s column. The lecture itself was viewed over 6 million times on the internet. Pausch’s book has also been a best-seller.

I have several different responses to the popularity of the dying professors’ concluding reflections, but they’re hard to cram into one blogpost, so I’ll focus on one. The Emory conference was fabulous and flawlessly run, and I look forward to hearing upcoming Glom guestblogger Tina’s reflections on it. But for me, it’s tied up with TWM and the question of what we’re teaching and why. The “why” ultimately must be a question of “stickiness,” that is, that fraction of the information or knowledge that we impart that sticks with our students after they've left our classrooms.

We at Georgia are offering more and more transactional skills courses: Anatomy of a Merger, Drafting for the Transactional Lawyer, Lending and Commercial Finance, to name but a few. The students still clamor for more. At panels on choosing classes, I emphasize the importance of taking Corporations as a 2L, of Securities Regulation, of tax, tax, tax. I believe all these points to be vitally important.

And yet, on the most recent curriculum panel for 1Ls eagerly anticipating being able to choose their own courses for the first time, my distinguished colleague Wally Hellerstein, a state & local tax expert whose work had that very day been cited multiple times by the Supreme Court, told the students, “Don’t worry about it. Take courses that interest you. Take a law and literature course. You’ll learn what you need in practice.” In Albom’s account, at least, few of Morrie’s many visitors seek sociological insights, and Pausch’s wisdom doesn’t seem to have much to do with computer science.

Do other law profs wrestle with the issue of stickiness? What would you say in your last lecture?

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