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Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Last Lecture: A Study in Circulation

Leah F. Cassorla

Prof. Kathi Yancey

Digital Convergence

29 September 2008

The Last Lecture: A Study in Circulation

Randy Pausch

On September 18, 2007, a professor at Carnegie Mellon gave a lecture that turned out to be a whole lot more. Though described in the press as “beloved” at Carnegie Mellon, Dr. Randy Pausch was certainly as unknown as professors generally are. Even so, a crowd of 400 attended the lecture. It was recorded for the few who could not be there. Within days, Pausch’s lecture would become an internet phenomenon—a rare occurrence for any lecture. Pausch was giving his Last Lecture.

As he explained a month later on Oprah, the Last Lecture is a genre of lecture in which a professor is invited to give the talk she would give were it to be the last thing she could say to the world. It is intended as somewhat of an intellectual exercise, to allow a thinker to condense his understanding of his years in the field into one hour (or so) long speech. As the Wall Street Journal column about Pausch’s lecture said, “Dr. Pausch’s speech was more than just an academic exercise…[he] has pancreatic cancer” (Zaslow, “Beloved Professor” prs. 4). His lecture was, it turned out, the real deal. Pausch, in fact, began by showing CTs of his tumor-riddled liver and explaining the facts of pancreatic cancer; it is the fastest, most painful, and deadliest of cancers, with an average life expectancy of three to six months for most patients. Nearly a year past the original diagnosis, Pausch had just been given the three to six month prognosis when he chose to give his lecture. He told the audience he was one month into the prognosis. He went on, however, to talk about life, dreams, and having fun.

The Circulation of the Last Lecture

Pausch’s lecture was posted on the web the same day he gave it. He had asked that it be filmed so his young children would be able to view it when they got older. It was first circulated for the students who couldn’t attend. But then all 76 minutes of the lecture were uploaded to YouTube is an interesting phenomenon as far as circulation is concerned. Because of its vast stores of video, uploaded by anyone who chooses to become a member, the chance of “hitting big” on YouTube are rather hit or miss. It could just as easily have been viewed on YouTube by a handful of people and stayed there in obscurity. Zaslow’s inclusion of the video in the online column on the lecture—and his inclusion of it in the follow up to the column a week later—may have also helped, but by the time Zaslow wrote his second column, he was writing as a result of the stacks of email he was receiving to pass on to Pausch.

By October 24, 2007, more than 6 million users had watched the YouTube version of The Last Lecture. Pausch was on Oprah. According to his homepage and the later book’s homepage, Pausch asked for 10 minutes of Oprah’s time to deliver a miniature version of his lecture as a precondition for appearing on her show. He got it. The Oprah Show, put the 10-minute speech on her web page. The page now also links to follow up shows, and one show in which a rabbi who comes on Oprah as a regular commentator on family and life discusses the book. Yes, the book.

By this time, Pausch had asked Carnegie Mellon to not copyright the lecture. Carnegie Mellon agreed. Following a $6.7 million deal, however, Hyperion published a book version of The Last Lecture. Described as an extension of his thoughts in the original lecture, the book was written by Jeff Zaslow, the columnist who helped put Pausch on the internet stage. The book was released on April 4, 2008. Pausch was still alive. On April 11, 2008, Pausch was featured on a Diane Sawyer special. By this time, according to a USA Today story, “[b]ecause Pausch had lived longer than expected, some bloggers…claimed he [wasn’t] sick at all” (Wilson prs. 39). As a media sensation, Pausch was now also an active conspiracy theory. The book has also given birth to a website—a fairly common practice in book publishing—which includes a page of “extras” including a “lost chapter” and an “exclusive” video of Pausch discussing his book. The site also has a message board. Readers are still posting today with names and levels of ability in English that indicate readership from around the world. The media page on the site includes links to the dozens of pieces of coverage. Pausch passed away on July 25, 2008. The media page of his book includes links to media tributes and obituaries as well.

The next question, once the book was out, seemed obvious; now that Pausch had a YouTube video, an Oprah appearance, a book, a Diane Sawyer special and several news stories, would there be a movie? Pausch’s refusal can be read as a commentary on remediation and on circulation: “There’s a reason to do the book, but if it’s telling the lecture in the medium of film, we already have that,” he told USA Today (prs. 32).

In Circulation

Besides being an homage to the brilliance of his last lecture, this story is a telling description of the movement of a cultural phenomenon into and through media. This is not, however, a story of remediation, though it could be told as one, I think. It is more a story of circulation. Watching Pausch’s Carnegie Mellon lecture, his Oprah mini-lecture, and his Diane Sawyer special, one gets the same message—and in very much the same way. The text may be truncated for time, and in the case of the special, it is interspersed with interview footage, but Randy Pausch is, as many professors are, a consummate performer, and his performances contain the seed of his work throughout.

I have not read the book. It might be considered a remediation because it was written primarily by Zaslow. But when one looks at Zaslow’s columns and at the vast amounts of information on the book’s webpage, one gets the sense that Zaslow’s work was as organizer and editor more than as ghost-writer. The book, according to Zaslow, is the outcome of hours of taped interviews which Zaslow transcribed and rearranged. As such, I would argue that the book is a matter of recirculation of the lecture—a story of a boy whose parents allowed him to write math equations and draw pictures on his bedroom walls, who learned to dream and followed through on those dreams, and was now trying hard to get the world to do the same; dream, and follow those dreams—and in each version of the lecture, he also begs parents to allow their children to write and draw on their bedroom walls so that perhaps they, too, will become dreamers and professors.

In addition to the faithfulness of the many faces of the Pausch story in its different media, one must also take into consideration the speed with which the story—and its versions—spread. Within a week of delivery of his first lecture, Pausch’s video had been viewed over a million times. Within a month, he was on Oprah. The longest lag was the seven months from lecture to book. I suppose that’s a necessary outcome of pancreatic cancer. My uncle died of pancreatic cancer two years ago. His disease process lasted fewer than ten months. But the speed of movement through media also affects the way in which a story is told. There seems to be less of a “telephone” effect. The message remains what it is, or as Pausch told USA Today in refusing to create a movie version, “Besides, you lose control” (prs. 32).

Works Cited

“Confronting Death.” The Oprah Winfrey Show. Harpo Productions. Chicago. 24 October 2007. Web. 27 September 2008.

Pausch, Randy. Interview by Diane Sawyer. “The Last Lecture.” GoogleVideo. 11 April 2008. Web. 27 September 2008.

Pausch, Randy. “The Last Lecture.” YouTube. 20 September 2007.Web. 27 September 2008.

Pausch, Randy with Jeffrey Zaslow. “The Last Lecture.” Hyperion. 2008. Web. 27 September 2008.

Wilson, Craig. “Professor Pausch’s Life, ‘Lecture’ go from Web to book.” USA Today. USA Today. 8 April 2008. Web. 27 September 2008.

Zaslow, Jeffrey. “A Beloved Professor Delivers the Lecture of a Lifetime.” Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal. 20 September 2007. Web. 27 September 2008.

Zaslow, Jeffrey. “The Professor’s Manifesto: What It Meant to Readers.” Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal. 27 September 2007. Web. 27 September 2008.

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