November 22, 2005

'Last Lecture' Focuses On Interest in Reading

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Last night, Prof. William Kennedy, comparative literature, gave what could have been his last lecture at Cornell – at least in theory. Kennedy delivered the first of this year’s Last Lecture Series, in which professors are able to present their hypothetical last lecture before an audience of colleagues, students and members of the Cornell community.

The lectures often center on the lifetime culmination of a professor’s research, and the talks typically have a personal note that professors may not get the chance to express in the classroom setting.

Kennedy began his lecture, entitled “Interest in Reading: The Usury of Literature and Supplementary Investments in Accounting for It,” by asking the audience, “what might interest be?” He defined the words interest and investment, quoting philosopher Immanuel Kant in his expression “das interesselose Wohlgefallen,” or “disinterested satisfaction” from Critique of Reason.

“In reading Hamlet, you’re not really interested in whether a Prince of Denmark really existed, but more so the quality of what you’re reading,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy talked about the first lecture he ever gave, in 1967, in a class teaching about great books.

“The argument between creationism versus evolution seemed settled; what could I say about the Genesis that would spark interest?” he said.

The topic of interest with respect to reading was discussed, and Kennedy specified that interest did not equal usury.

“Do we measure the worth of reading in terms of labor, effort, the research required to excavate that text, or the use value in terms of immediate gains?” Kennedy asked.

Kennedy read and interpreted the German poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Discussing the ideas of poetry and how this literary form is taught in high school, Kennedy said that symbols, metaphors and similes are taught in high school, but the true meaning and beauty behind poetry is often not covered, resulting in a disinterest in poetry.

“I really liked how he addressed how poetry was analyzed in high school, and almost felt guilty that I don’t enjoy and engage poetry as much anymore,” said Gregory Hom ’06.

Kennedy also addressed specific times in history, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Sept. 11th attacks, and how stories of interest are created by particular events.

Mortar Board is a national senior honor society that recognizes students for distinguished scholarship, leadership, and service. This nationwide society now grants membership to both sexes, but it was the originally the only all-female honor society in existence. Its initial purpose was to honor senior women, and one of its continuing missions is to further the advancement of women.

The Cornell Chapter of the Mortar Board meets on a regular basis throughout the year and aims to enrich the Cornell campus and the surrounding Ithaca community through thoughtful leadership, service and academic pursuits, including the annual Last Lecture series. The chair of the Last Lecture committee, Cameron Cooper ’06, organized this event. Because the series appeals to a wide variety of students and members of the community, the Mortar Board considers a particular professor’s field of interest when selecting a speaker for the Last Lecture Series. Community Service Chair Jason Rotstein ’06 nominated Kennedy.

“He is one of the most open-minded professors at Cornell. I took his class, Shakespeare and Europe, last year originally to fulfill one of three pre-1800 literature requirements in English, but I ended up really enjoying the class – learning a lot and having some fun. Kennedy is funny, creative and theatrical without ever compromising his professionalism. I think his students have a lot of respect for him and his accessibility. He gave me an appreciation and approach to Shakespeare that I desperately needed and did not have before taking the course,” Rotstein said.

The lecture ended with a question and answer session, with many in-depth questions on Kennedy’s lecture.

“It was a very engaging lecture with a topic that’s very relevant. This question of interest is something everyone can think about,” said Daphne Lo ’06.

Archived article by Noreen Rizvi
Sun Contributor