University of Michigan 2010 Golden Apple Award winner: Other people matter
Christopher Peterson, the recipient of University of Michigan's 2010 Golden Apple Award, promised not to lecture the audience of hundreds who gathered to see him do just that.
"We’re in the business of ongoing life, not school," the U-M positive psychology professor told the crowd at Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor Tuesday evening. "What would we learn in life and why should we learn it? My answer is very simple and my students have heard me say it often - it is that other people matter."
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
That idea, he said, is the cornerstone of the field of positive psychology.
"It is the single best one-sentence summary of my research findings in positive psychology and the best lesson I’ve learned as a teacher," he said.
Peterson would reiterate that message often in his hour-long address. And rather than lecture at the crowd, he made them laugh, regaled them with stories from childhood and his years as a professor and student, and spread praise for his own students, friends, colleagues and family. It all looped back to that central theme: other people matter.
His teaching style - combined with other qualities warmly described in e-mail submissions by his students - led the all-student Golden Apple committee to select Peterson as this year's award winner.
"He didn't lecture at us, he listened to us," one submission read. "He was there as a professor and a friend."
The contest is in its 20th year at U-M, founded by U-M Hillel and run by the student group Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching. Apple Computers and U-M are also sponsors.
Eliezer Ben Hurkanos, considered one of the great teachers of the Jewish tradition, inspired it with a concept he taught 1,900 years ago: "Get your life in order one day before you die."
Because no one really knows when that day might come, the idea is that you should treat every day as your last, said Tani Shtull-Leber, a U-M senior and chair of the Golden Apple Award committee.
"We honor a professor who gives every lecture as if it's the last lecture he was giving of his career," Shtull-Leber said.Â
That person receives the honor, a $1,000 prize (which Peterson pledged to Afghani students) and the chance to lecture on any topic that would be an ideal last lecture. Peterson admitted to being in a state of near-panic before the talk.
But once on stage, he cracked jokes and threw a few real golden apples to honor colleagues in the crowd before getting to his lecture. The Golden Apple Award had him deeply honored, humbled and happy, he said.
"This is the 'People’s Choice' award," he told the crowd. "This is not one of the prestigious awards, it is the prestigious award."
Peterson, one of the 100 most cited psychologists in the world and a founder of the field of positive psychology, praised the idea of delivering a "Last Lecture." But he played with the concept, calling his talk "The First Lecture."
"Yeah, I’m not going to die tomorrow," he said with a shrug, evoking laughs from the crowd. "And neither are most of you. I’d like to suggest we should worry about our last lecture, but we ought to worry about our first lecture too. Because the first lecture is tomorrow."
Introducing her friend and colleague, fellow psychology professor Nansook Park warned the crowd not to let Peterson's unpretentious, humble style fool them. He is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at U-M, a prestigious title given to tenured faculty members who excel at undergraduate education.Â
Peterson has penned hundreds of scholarly articles, in addition to books and chapters on topics from character strengths to terrorist rhetoric. And he's one of the most sought after speakers in psychology worldwide. He's been teaching at U-M since 1986 as a professor of psychology and organizational studies.
He's first and foremost a teacher, Park said.
"He’s a great teacher not because he’s perfect, but because he never stops trying to be a better one," said Park, who teaches a course called "What makes life worth living."
In "The First Lecture," Peterson talked about why relationships are the key to happiness and what makes a true friend, describing the relationships in his own life, including those with his parents and twin brother.Â
He credited his parents' longevity - they are 93 and 95 - to their happiness with each other. Instead of lecturing him, his parents taught he and his brother by example to work hard and be nice, in a house with little money but an infinite supply of books, he said. Twins, he said, know a lot about mattering to other people and friendship.
"A good description of a true friend is when they take pleasure in your pleasure," he said.
He ended the lecture by giving the crowd tips on how to put some positive psychology techniques to practice. Reach out to others by talking to them, he said, even if you're not a natural at it. Let people know they matter to you by responding positively to good news that they share-avoid the phrase "but" at all costs when reacting to their happiness.
"Other people matter," he said. "We are all other people to everyone else."
Students who nominated Peterson for the award said after the event that the night's special lecture felt exactly as his class lectures do.
"Even though tonight's lecture seemed really inspirational, it was no different than the lectures in class," psychology senior Matt Dubin said. "Essentially, all of his lecture feel like the 'last lecture,' because he's always imparting that kind of wisdom on his students."
Inspired by Peterson's class, Dubin said he is applying to graduate programs in the field of positive psychology.