Wednesday, April 27, 2011

the last lecture, by dr. paul maier

Students stuffed notebooks into backpacks as they waited for perhaps one more nugget from the 80-year-old professor who just delivered a 90-minute lecture without notes.
Paul Maier looked at his watch. He smiled. It was time.
"Sorry to run over team, but it's my last lecture. What can I do?" he said to student laughter and applause.
The lecture was the Socratic capstone on a 50-year teaching career at Western Michigan University. After he administers final exams this week, the professor plans to retire, ending the longest-tenured teaching career at the 108-year-old university.
During his half-century, Maier has written 25 books with 4 million copies sold. He's a frequent expert cited by national news media, and he has delivered seminars across the country for decades.
As Paul Maier effortlessly careened through a couple centuries of Roman emperors, he quipped about their short life-spans: "If you're the insurance company, don't sell any of them a ... policy," he said to the class, referring to dead emperors as if old friends.
Without using notes, he imparted knowledge for an hour and a half from a vast mental repository of facts. It was different from the first time he taught -- during the Eisenhower administration. Back then, he needed notes.
"I was still learning the material," said Maier, the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western University Michigan. "I know it a lot better now."
After Maier gives his final exams this week, he'll retire and put to bed a teaching career that spans nearly half of WMU's 108-year history and 11 American presidencies.
The year he came to campus, the average American made less than $4,000 a year, and the first microchip -- forerunner to the personal computers -- was developed.
Despite changes and advances, his love of teaching has stayed the same. The information for his lecture Thursday readily sprang from his mind as he strolled around the classroom, gesturing and smiling. He wore a coat and tie and got slightly more rumpled as the class went on.
"There are people who have to go to jobs they don't like every day," he said after the class. "Not me. I love what I do. I love teaching."
His energy is still there. But his eyesight is waning a bit. This past winter was hard -- he already has plans for Florida in the colder months. It's time for younger folks to step in, he said.
He arrived on campus in 1958 as the Lutheran campus pastor, a year after Western Michigan College was renamed as a university. He joined the faculty for the 1960-61 school year.
He has known every school president, save the first. He has seen more than 20,000 students come through his classes. He has written dozens of books and articles. He has appeared in the national news media as an expert. He has conducted seminars across the country for decades.
He has seen campus golf courses turned into buildings, some named for professors he knows but who have long since retired. He has seen the university grow from 9,000 students to more than 25,000. The history department has expanded from 12 faculty sharing space to nearly 40 full-time and adjunct faculty.
"His lectures were more than educational, they were truly enlightening as well as completely engaging," said former student Ruth Villeneuve, who had Maier for two courses in the early 1990s. She was among several former students who commented this month on a WMU Facebook wall post that linked to news about Maier's departure.
She remembers he asked the class to vote on the title of one of his books from a list of possible names, she said in a telephone interview. "It was obvious to me that Professor Maier's love of history was second to none and that his knowledge was beyond compare."
That love was sparked as a young boy, and tied to his family's Christian faith. "Over half the Bible is history," Maier said Thursday. "I always was interested in learning more."
During his career, his research examined the actual date of Jesus' crucifixion and the persecution of early Christians at the hands of Nero.
Courses on ancient Romans and the Greeks are his favorites. He also has taught a class about general Western civilization, which he says he likes because it's a chance to get students interested in some era of history.
Even after 50 years of lecturing, Maier wasn't coasting at the end.
His last lecture didn't include much about his career. It was apparent, however, from the row of neighbors sitting along the back classroom wall and by the presence of news media cameras.
As usual, the class was mostly about Maier trying to cram more knowledge into his students' heads.
"I just love teaching," he said. "It's too much fun."

(from the detroit free press)

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