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Students choose favorite professors to give 'Last Lectures'


April 16, 2008

Three inspiring ASU professors who kindle a passion for learning in their students have been chosen for the 13th annual Last Lecture Series this month. Their classes may be challenging and their assignments difficult, but they make students want to learn.

The honor is based on students’ nominations and the nominees’ lecture proposals, with the idea that professors can speak on any topic close to their hearts—as if it were the last lecture they would ever give. The events are free and open to the public, each beginning with a 7 p.m. reception and a 7:30 p.m. talk in the Education Lecture Hall, room 117.

Psychology Professor Peter Killeen spoke on April 14. Claudia Mesch, assistant professor in the School of Art, will speak on April 22, and Thomas J. Davis, professor of history, will talk on April 29.

Killeen spoke about a theory of mind, comparing the thinking of Plato and Aristotle. His topic was “Greek Mind, Geek Mind: Chaos, Complementarity, Consciousness.” In Killeen’s case the Last Lecture honor is especially appropriate, since he will retire from ASU next year after 40 years of teaching.

Anthony Barnhart, the graduate student who nominated Killeen, said he is a Renaissance man who can speak intelligently on any topic. He cited Killeen for his hands-on approach to teaching, his contributions to the field of behavioral psychology and the fact that he makes it a point to get to know each of the students in his classes.

Mesch will talk about the power of visual culture in developing a sense of national identity, and its importance in our identities as citizens of a globalizing world. Her topic on April 22 will be “The Paintings of Others: Art, Television and Identity in Cold War Germany,” referring to her new book on visual art in the era of the Berlin Wall.

Just as East and West Germany managed to differentiate themselves during conflict through art, other countries can do the same now.

“National cultures during the late 20th century re-engineered through visual art a place for themselves in a changing world,” she says. “(In Germany) there were points of connection and cultural exchange that took place between two opposing visual cultures and opposing political systems. I think it is important for us to reconsider these presumably opposite visual cultures and the identities they helped create, since we are in a time of global and cultural conflict as profound as that of the Cold War.”

Three students who nominated Mesch called her a “dynamic speaker” with a “fireball mentality” who is approachable, knowledgeable and engaging.

Davis will talk about the conflict between self and society in American culture, and the struggle by ASU students to define their personal and public lives as they demonstrate on Hayden Lawn and in classroom discussions. His topic on April 29 is “Beyond Me to We: Public Goods and the ‘General Welfare’ of the U.S. Constitution.”

“America’s traditional constitutionalism presents a perennial tension between the ‘me’ and the ‘we,’ between radical individualism and commonwealth liberalism. The American nation has adopted a dual position,” he says. “I want to reach ASU students and others seeking to navigate the dangerous and dizzying intersections of personal and public life.

“The search is a lifetime theme, the ultimate subject of any true higher education. Especially for Americans, burdens of individual and national identity further complicate it as the glittering smoothness of U.S. constitutional principles run afoul of the rough texture of U.S. global practices.”

Jill Carle, the student who nominated Davis, says he has “a reputation that precedes him” for thought-provoking lectures and high expectations. He expects students to take an active part in their learning.

“Although his assignments are rigorous, they are the perfect accompaniment to his lecture style, which always leaves a student questioning the principles he has always been taught,” she says. “His courses emphasize learning for the sake of learning and learning to become a better person.”

Each of the three professors will receive an honorarium of $500. The events are sponsored by ASU Campus Activities and Student Engagement programs.