In his Golden Apple lecture last night at Rackham Auditorium, English Prof. Eric Rabkin focused on the power and significance of words and the role they play in daily life.
More than 300 students, faculty, friends and family members were on hand to hear Rabkin deliver his ideal last lecture. As the 16th Golden Apple recipient, he joins a list of eminent professors from various disciplines at the University.
Rabkin explored the diverse meanings and enormous flexibility of words, and how they are used to structure individual beliefs.
“We live in the world we create, the fiction of a life that we create,” he said. “Association of words gets us to create another context in which they function; every time we combine words we make a new world, a new fiction.”
Rabkin illustrated his arguments with real-life analogies.
As an example, he used the term “golden apple,” which, he noted, garners more than 1.6 million results when typed into Google.
By probing the diverse meanings of the two words, he contended that any two words in the English language can somehow be related and fused together to generate a wholly different expression.
He detailed the various conotations of the word “apple,” including its prominent role in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and its original meaning in Greek mythology, where it also served as a symbol of temptation.
Rabkin asked the audience to randomly select two words. When audience members offered the words “Cadillac” and “dishtowel,” he said both were objects any husband should be adept at handling.
Rabkin used his love for words to contextualize their undervalued significance in daily interaction.
Lauren Schiff, the co-chair of the committee that awards the Golden Apple, presented Rabkin with the award.
The committee, a subsidiary of Hillel called Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching, receives hundreds of online applications from students nominating professors who “teach every lecture as if it were their last.”
Rabkin’s students said they could relate to his lecture because one of the goals of his class is to explore how words can be used to express different thoughts in different contexts.
Students also said one of Rabkin’s strengths is his ability to bring literature to life and to challenge students to apply what they learn to their lives.
When asked about how he encourages student participation and interaction in his lectures, Rabkin referred to his motto “real work is better than homework.”
Committee co-chair Sean Wachtel outlined some of the qualities that distinguish Rabkin from most teachers.
“Prof. Rabkin embodies something we were really looking for,” Wachtel said. “His challenging lectures leave students completely exhausted and looking forward to their next class in anticipation.”
Rabkin, visibly moved and humbled by the recognition, expressed his appreciation of the honor.
“A week after I found out, I realized that I was still smiling at the oddest moments, feeling so gratified and humbled at being recognized by the people for whom my work is most important,” Rabkin said.
Even after a teaching career spanning 37 years and more than 150 publications, Rabkin confessed to his continuous efforts toward personal growth and improvement. He closed his speech by sharing his seven adages for life, abbreviated in the novel acronym “cuvwebs”: choose goals, use time, value people, work zestfully, enjoy life, be direct and sleep sufficiently.
“That’s my golden apple, and I offer it to you in the hope that it will help you as much as it has helped me,” he said.