The Last Lecture is a book that Prof. Randy Pausch from Carnegie-Mellon University has written with a death sentence after he found out that he had a pancreatic cancer.
I have started this review with a quote from Leo Tolstoy which means I am going to describe the decisions Prof. Pausch has made throughout his life and evaluate those. In the very end of the book Prof. Pausch reveals the biggest mystery of his life тАУ namely how he became a professor. It turned out that he was trying to get into graduate school in Carnegie-Mellon but was rejected. But he was admitted to other schools. Instead of going there he went to the dean of his undergraduate school Andy van Dam, a very respected professor in computer graphics, and asked for his help. Prof. van Dam phoned the dean of Carnegie-Mellon and this allowed Randy Pausch to get to a top-notch graduate program. Has he ever thought that he might have kicked out brilliant foreign students simply because he had pleaded the dean to let him in?
This was an act that he was hiding all his life but decided to tell before his death. A reader of the book needs to judge Prof. Pausch and of course the decision is not in his favor in the beginning. But think now of what Leo Tolstoy told us тАУ we need to take RandyтАЩs relation to time into account. After getting his PhD he went to teach lots of foreign students, many of which got jobs in industry or academia and had successful careers. Thus, even though that initial foreign student that Randy kicked out has suffered, other foreign students enjoyed Prof. Pausch as their advisor.
As a foreign student who has undergone through the US graduate school I had lots of memories while reading this book. This professor looks like Prof. X from our school, that looks like Prof. Y, and so on.
Prof. Pausch is a generalized representation of an American professor. Unmarried until age of 40 without kids but claiming to have had great fun with lots of girlfriends. Living in a 450-dollar/month studio, I guess he did not have a car.
As much as controversial he might seem, these are the working horses of the US academia and I learned to appreciate this kind of people after working under their supervision. These people are very enthusiastic, they try out absolutely crazy ideas, but most importantly those ideas sparkle successful companies or advance the field of computer science otherwise!
In his book Prof. Pausch describes that he was often asked how he got the tenure so quickly. He answers that you only need to phone him in his office at 10PM on Friday and he will tell you. And this is not an exaggeration. While at SUNY Stony Brook, I witnessed many professors in their offices well after midnight, on weekends, long after every other student has left.
Prof. Pausch dedicates a lot of attention to how students work in a team on a project. He says that one of the goals of the graduate school is to allow a student to develop the ability to evaluate himself fairly, something that I did not learn. In fact, the graduate courses that I was taking did not require that much of teamwork. Prof. Pausch asked students to evaluate each other, thus giving them opportunity to improve on their personalities. He is saying that Prof. van Dam told him that he was not that nice guy when he was an undergraduate student meaning that he did not treat his fellow students well. After that, Prof. van Dam was having long conversations with Randy on how to improve his personality.
When I came to Stony Brook from Russia at the age of 21, I quickly figured out that my style of communication was not up to the standards of US students. In general, they very much more polite, none of them used the ubiquitous F-word, for example. Often, our professors were less polite than the students of SUNY Stony Brook. Thus I realized the importance of improving personality immediately, even though there is a long road from realizing that to actually becoming a better person.
Looking at the peers who are better than you are requires you to take immediate action. Discussing your behavior with a respected professor will only make you socially-challenged.
Here is a web site dedicated to Prof. Pausch book. And here is the video of his last lecture. Andy van Dam, the professor who shaped the life of Randy Pausch once explained why he wanted Randy to become a professor. If he went to industry they would make him a salesman because of his outstanding social qualities. Why would not he sell education instead? The Last lecture video was watched over 8 million times meaning that Prof. Pausch managed to sell that many copies of education. Well done, Prof. Pausch, you have great personality after all!