March 15, 2005

Prof Gives 'Last Lecture' on Stories

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Yesterday evening Senior Lecturer Harry Segal, psychology and human development, gave a lecture on his view of the profound connection between psychology and stories. The lecture was part of the “Last Lecture” series organized by the Mortar Board national honor society.

The series gives distinguished professors a chance to give a hypothetical last lecture centered around a topic that has been a focal point of their career.

For Segal, who has a Ph.D. in both psychology and English literature, that topic has been the psychological depth revealed through narrative. “This lecture brings together three human actions that start when we’re born and end only when we die: creating stories, returning to early memories and leaving home.” Segal said.

Segal explained each of these subjects by examining different kinds of narratives. First he described the creation of stories by telling the audience stories created by Segal for his daughter. While these stories may have seemed simple, Segal says that they “came from my experience of my daughter becoming more herself, becoming more independent, becoming stronger.”

Segal also talked about the novels of Mark Twain. He says that taken chronologically, Twain’s novels show a progression of the author’s ability to deal with his psychological issues through writing. “When we first write, it feels magical, it just comes to us,” Segal explained, “The reason that writers get writers’ block is because writing over the years brings you more in touch with your own psychological issues.”

Finally, Segal talked about his research involving the connection between narrative and psychology. Segal had 400 18- to 19-nineteen-year-olds write an “anticipated life history,” which is a prediction of what his or her life will be like in the future. He also had them give interviews about early life memories. The narratives were scored for several different aspects, such as level of depression or malevolence. When the results were analyzed, Segal found that the single biggest predictor of content was early maternal memories.

“If the memory of your mother was negative, the level of depression and malevolence in your narrative was high.” Segal said. This phenomenon can likely be explained by the connection the participant feels between their future life and their past. “If the ALH is about leaving home, then it is also linked to the home that is being left,” he said.

“Creating a story, as much as it is about leaving home, is also about returning home.” Segal said in closing.

When asked why he chose this topic as his last lecture, Segal said “My fascination with stories has been so long standing. It’s such a powerful invitation, to discuss what’s really captivated you through your life, and for me really it’s been narrative.”

The lecture drew a large crowd, nearly filling the auditorium, and Segal illicited frequent laughter from the audience as well as several moments of silence.

“We had an amazing turn-out. About one hundred people came.” Ed Pettitt ’05, the Last Lecture committee chair said after the lecture. “Prof. Segal, as expected, gave a riveting presentation.”

Audience member Marianne Spatz ’07 said “The topic was very relevant to college students who are just now deciding the direction of their lives.”

Ross Blankenship ’05, president of Mortar Board was also happy with the lecture. “I commend Prof. Segal. He really made students look within to find themselves. He did a superb job,” he said.

The lecture was held at 5 p.m. in the Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium. “Last Lecture” series lectures are not actually professors’ last lectures, but they give professors a chance to present what they would say in a final talk.

Archived article by Julia Darcey
Sun Contributor