Last lectures to remember

Last lectures to remember
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First Published: Thu, Jul 31 2008. 10 13 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jul 31 2008. 10 13 PM IST
On 25 July, the man who delivered possibly the greatest last lecture of our times died of pancreatic cancer. His name was Randy Pausch and he taught computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I first read about him in the pages of this newspaper, as Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Zaslow recounted the dying professor’s inspiring talk and plea to parents to let their children paint their walls however they desire.
I became obsessed with Pausch, googling him, watching him on YouTube over and over, and chuckling over his blog entries: “Just to prove I’m still alive, here I am, holding today’s New York Times!” Pausch imparted wisdom of great value to his own students and us metaphorical ones in simple terms, significant because his career was one spent not in philosophy or theology but in writing and teaching computer code. Explaining away why we encounter obstacles, he said, “Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.” Patience, he reminded, is a great virtue. “Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.”
The last lecture, whether it ends a semester, or, as in Pausch’s case, a lifetime, ideally connects the dots of all that has been learnt and all that remains to be. The best professors take accrued course material and relate it to lofty concepts such as “The Meaning of Life”. Sadly, students complain that link can be lacking in Indian academia; they get bogged down with cramming in coursework before the exam and trying to ensure not too much time or mushiness passes before regurgitation is required. There are brilliant homegrown teachers, of course, as anyone who has seen Indian Institute of Management Bangalore professor Ramnath Narayanswamy in action will attest. But the problem is that there are too few overall educators to begin with—a problem globally, but especially acute here.
A few weeks ago, I happened to be on the campus of the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad as another last lecture unfolded. No, in this case the professor was not dying, but he was wrapping up his six weeks as a visiting professor. After that, he’d return to his home base of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
For the first half of Jagmohan S. Raju’s presentation, I confess drifting in and out. The hundreds of students around me seemed riveted and excited but I just couldn’t get into the exercise on price points, market forces and competition for hypothetical products named Sonite and Vodite.
But after about 45 minutes, Raju’s tone changed and I too tuned in with a different ear. The professor began extrapolating lessons from the data relating to marketing and strategy, or “MarkStrat”, the shorthand moniker for the class he taught, and I felt sudden relevance to my life.
Responding to one group’s sudden plummet, Raju said, “The difference across the industry is how you care for these customers.”
Pointing out seemingly scattered approaches on old and upcoming product lines, he warned, “Don’t spread your resources too thin. We want to launch new products but it’s just as important to manage existing products. Staying there is very hard.”
Great ideas, he said, should not languish too long, on a lab bench or in the brain. “The world is not going to catch up with you. You have to catch up to the world.”
Moving away from the projected images, the turbaned and eloquent Raju turned to the class and reinforced the exercise. Not about their numbers going up or going down, but teamwork, ethics, motivation, drive.
“How well you are perceived outside as managers will depend on do you make good decisions and how do you go about making good decisions... Life is rough. It is best to suffer and then learn. Then it will stay in your head forever.”
He likened the students’ lessons at ISB to a set of golf clubs. The real challenge was to come. “The hard decision is knowing which club to pull out. Here you got a manual. There, you will not get a manual.”
But pace yourself, eager students. “Life is a marathon. You will be working more than managers have ever worked in the history of the world.”
Fittingly, he ended with a reminder about integrity: “It’s somebody else’s money. You better be just as responsible and treat it as your own.”
ISB and many stellar institutions in India are often criticized for their lack of permanent faculty, which leads them to rely on professors such as Raju, who perform short stints. ISB, for example, has 28 resident faculty, but nearly four times that in visiting faculty. While plans for its second campus in Mohali are still being devised, a spokeswoman says the school is likely to follow the same model—not an ideal solution but a necessary one to marry and master soft and hard skills. In the meantime, more Randy Pausches and Jagmohan Rajus need to be groomed, first lecture to last.
(Your comments are welcome at widerangle@livemint.com)
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First Published: Thu, Jul 31 2008. 10 13 PM IST