Every year, members of the graduating class at Mount Allison University choose a professor they would like to hear from one last time.
“This year we were excited to announce that Dr. Robert Lapp was selected,” said graduating student Erin Dumville on April 4th as she introduced the speaker for what’s become known at Mt. A as the “last lecture.”
“His passion for teaching has made him a beloved professor among Mount Allison students,” she said, adding that Lapp is retiring after 25 years at the university.
“I’m especially grateful for this honour,” Lapp began, “because it’s literally my last lecture.”
Then, after leading students through “a couple of deep yoga breaths,” he noted that the extra oxygen would help everyone think more clearly “because I want to take up that old and ancient theme, how to tell the truth.
“Now, as old as it is, this topic has become freshly relevant in our era of fake news and conspiracy theories and well, not to mention the current panic over AI [artificial intelligence].”
Lapp added that four years of university would have taught the students that the truth is rarely simple.
“In the English department, our instinct is always to turn to the writers and poets for wisdom on these issues,” he said.
Over the next 20 minutes, Lapp guided students through various ways of telling the truth as shown in poems by Emily Dickinson, Margaret Atwood, William Wordsworth, Siegfried Sassoon and “eco-poet” Craig Santos Perez whose “Love Poem in a Time of Climate Change” begins:
I don’t love you as if you were rare-earth metals, diamonds,
or reserves of crude oil that propagate war;
I love you as one loves the most vulnerable species:
urgently, between the habitat and its loss…
In an interview later, Lapp said that in the last few years, his research has focussed on eco-poetry, a genre that takes the climate change crisis into account.
“One of the things I discovered,” he says, “is that the role literature can play in mitigating climate change is to make the facts of climate change available to readers who need to feel it emotionally.”
He adds that climate scientists are restrained by their discipline of objectivity in presenting the facts in official reports devoid of emotion.
“Literature then can supplement the facts with the translation of those facts into emotional languages of poetry and of prose in order to make those facts, not only accessible, but to give them the proper impact emotionally,” he says, “to foster transformation and change and to inspire activism.”
Lapp says his love of poetry and ideas grew as he studied at the University of Toronto in the 1970s with inspiring teachers like Northrop Frye.
After earning his Master’s degree in English, he says with a laugh, that he took a step in another direction.
“As Emily Dickinson says, ‘Success in circuit lies,’ so I did a circuitous route,” he explains as he began working for the Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association helping large organizations book their conventions in the city.
“It was really exciting because it was in the 1980s and Toronto was just busting at that time with growth and with a new kind of identity within the world community of big cities,” he says.
“It taught me a lot of skills…and made me feel like I was grounded in the real world by having to struggle and find my way through a career in a business like tourism.”
Eventually, his love of literature and ideas drew him back to university and with the financial support of his partner, Lapp enrolled in a PhD program at Dalhousie where he earned the qualifications needed for a 25-year teaching career at Mt. A.
He says he has mixed feelings about retirement and leaving the “intensity and joy” that comes from creating challenging courses and watching students rise to the challenges.
“I was thinking the other day of grading final papers. It’s like playing frisbee with really skilful players where they send a really good shot and you catch it and you fling it back in your comments on the essay in such a way that they can catch it and learn from the whole process. I love that and I will miss that, there’s no doubt.”
He says he’ll also miss his colleagues at the university.
“What are the sources of creativity in the universe? These are the questions I pose for myself and I have little essays and notes that I want very much to look into,” he says, adding that he’s also interested in how literary theory and eco-poetics could help with climate change.
“Right now I’m working with a book by Anna Tsing called The Mushroom at the End of the World,” he says.
“It shows how we all can work with the kind of broken pieces of our culture as we go through these difficult times and to reassemble them in ways that will create new possibilities,” he says.
“I don’t know, I could end up doing podcasts or blogposts or that kind of thing to keep my skin in the game and to respond to the challenge of remaining active in changing minds about our situation.”
To listen to my CHMA report on Robert Lapp’s last lecture, click here.