Randy Pausch sold over 5 million copies of his book The Last Lecture. It was based on a lecture he gave to his students after being diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer. A video of the lecture was uploaded to YouTube, where it went viral. Today the lecture has been viewed over 18 million times. Randy Pausch would pass away within a year of the lecture but his words have lived on.
I recently took out the book from the Rondebosch library and was able to read it in a day. It contains many of the themes from the lecture as well as other material. As a lecturer I gobbled up references to his students, teaching techniques and the purpose of education.
For instance here he is reflecting on his role as a lecturer:
“Education is … rather like paying for a personal trainer at a gym. We professors play the roles of personal trainers, giving people access to the equipment (books, labs, our expertise) and after that, it is our job to be demanding. We need to make sure that our students are exerting themselves. We need to praise them when they deserve it and to tell them honestly when they have it in them to work harder.”
Given the current impasse South Africa faces in Higher Education, a brief section on how to work well with others really struck a chord. Pausch constantly placed his students in groups and these groups would be changed throughout his course. He wanted his students not only to learn the content (computer science) but also the important skill of collaborating with others. This is a skill we desperately need to exercise over the next few weeks in SA.
His 7 ideas from the book could be described as basic, but don’t we often get ourselves into trouble because we forget the basics? Pausch says that we need to start by sitting together and then doing the following:
- Meet people properly – invest time at the start getting to know every person. Learn to pronounce names properly and exchange contact information.
- Find things that you have in common – build with what you have in common. Sports, TV series, the weather – find common ground.
- Try for optimal meeting conditions – strive to meet when no one is hungry, cold or tired. These factors can make a massive difference to the success of a conversation. Try and include food when meeting, it can soften things considerably.
- Let everyone talk – give everyone a chance to contribute. Don’t finish others sentences and remember that speaking loudly and quickly doesn’t mean you have the best argument.
- Check egos at the door – discuss ideas, listen to the views of others and don’t self-identify too heavily with your ideas. You might not have the full picture and should be open to modifying your position.
- Praise each other – always look for opportunities to say something nice
- Phrase alternatives as questions – there is a big difference between “I think we should do A, not B” as opposed to “What if we did A, instead of B?”
Those are the basics that Randy Pausch taught his students on Day 1 of class. Whether you are part of a project team at University, an audit team as a trainee or an APC team preparing for your final exam, doing these basics well should increase your chances of success.
Let’s hope that across South African campuses we can all learn to better collaborate for the good of our nation. That might be a high expectation, but Randy Pausch did say that part of my job is to be demanding.
Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.