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Prof. McKenna gives first ‘Last Lecture’

Tess Civantos | Thursday, November 13, 2008

Short men can wear long ties and tap dancers can be serious scholars, Professor James McKenna said in his “Last Lecture” Wednesday.

McKenna, Notre Dame’s Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. chair in anthropology, shared the most important lessons he has learned through his years as a student, husband, father and friend in the first of a series of lectures planned by student government.

McKenna spoke to a packed room for an hour and a half. Students crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in the Coleman-Morse lounge, spilling out into the hallway and smaller lounge.

He opened with an anecdote about the day he realized that although he is short, he can wear a long tie by giving it a long tail and tucking the tail’s end into his pants.

“You can break a paradigm,” he said of this realization.

He described his terror when, as a graduate student, he had to teach his first class.

“If you had said, ‘Your hanging is April 16,’ I couldn’t have been more afraid.”

Despite his initial fear, he now loves teaching, and won Notre Dame’s Charles J. Sheedy Teaching Award for 2008.

“Don’t fear not knowing what your future is. Don’t fear not knowing what your major is. Don’t fear not knowing what you’ll do with that major,” McKenna said. “Always, always follow your emotions and what you feel to be right for you at that time – not in 10 years, or two years, or six months.”

McKenna said he’s done things in his career he could not have fathomed when he was younger.

“If you had told me as a college student, or even as a graduate student, that I would be studying mother-infant sleep patterns and breastfeeding – never in my wildest imagination would I ever have thought I’d be studying this.” McKenna said.

Kindness and thoughtfulness are some of the most important things in life, McKenna said. A chance visit to thank an old college professor for her good advice led to McKenna’s first job, teaching at Berkeley for a year.

“Kindness gets misconstrued as something you do to manipulate people,” McKenna said, “But the more you give away, the more you get. I promise you, this is so true.”

Self-fulfilling prophecies are a reality of life, he said.

“If you think everyone is nice and generous, or you think everyone is nasty and mean, people will be what you expect of them,” McKenna said.

McKenna advised students not to worry about big decisions or events, but rather to keep things in perspective.

“There is no single big decision; there are only continuously big decisions. You cannot know how you’re going to feel about something six months from now, a year from now, two years from now,” McKenna said. “Make decisions based on what you know to be true about you right now, and you can never make a wrong decision.”

McKenna advised students to “always be as good as you can.”

“It gives you immediate gratification, and lays a foundation of people wanting to help you,” he said.

He added: “Never ever give up the opportunity to make a friend.”

McKenna said some of his favorite advice came from his wife of 35 years, Joanne, who once reassured him after a review panel treated him rudely.

“‘You can’t be responsible for other people’s bad behavior,'” he said she told him. “‘You can only be responsible for your own, and making sure you never treat people like that.'”

McKenna shared memories of his years as a Berkeley student during the tumultuous 1960s.

“I was the only person to go to U. C. Berkeley from 1966 to 1970 who never tried marijuana,” he said with a laugh.

He told students that some day when their children call home to say that they have picked a “useless” major like anthropology, they should not ask, “What can you do with that major?” but should instead respond, “There is nothing you can not do with that major.”