History Prof. Matt Lassiter has only been at the University for
four years, but he’s been thinking about giving his ideal
last lecture since yesterday, when he learned that the day would
come much sooner than he had ever thought — Jan. 28.
Before his biweekly “History of American Suburbia”
lecture began yesterday morning, films, books, evaluations and his
students were at the top of his mind. The lecture started off
slowly, with Lassiter handing out class evaluations and asking his
students to carefully consider which films and books should be
included in the class next semester.
As he paced across the stage of the Lorch Hall auditorium where
his lecture is held, a group of students sitting in the front stood
and told the class that they also had an announcment to make:
Lassiter was this year’s winner of the Golden Apple
As Lassiter’s students applauded and cheered — one
surprised student responded with a loud “Oh My God”
— Lassiter stood on the stage looking modest and slightly
“Well, let’s do your evaluations. Thank you,”
Lassiter finally said as the applause died down.
“I thought I was under investigation,” he later told
his students, saying that he had had no idea what was happening.
“But the Borders strikers got some free publicity out of
this,” he added, pointing to a pin he wore on his shirt.
Despite Lassiter’s surprised reaction, his students said
they weren’t shocked by the announcement.
“He’s awesome. This is the best class I’ve
taken here at Michigan,” said LSA senior John Schwartz.
“He uses a lot of media and he involves a lot of pop
culture and things we’ve grown up on.”
The Golden Apple Award is an annual award given to professors
through the group Students Honoring Outstanding University
Teaching. Students nominate their favorite professors, and the
recipient gives the annual “Ideal Last Lecture” in
January. The actual Golden Apple Award is given at the lecture.
According to the UM-SHOUT website, the theme of the lecture
comes from the belief that all educators should teach as if giving
their “last lectures.”
Students who nominated Lassiter for the Golden Apple said
Lassiter inspires them through his creative lectures and because he
is not afraid to take up controversial issues.
“He presents fair and unbiased presentations of history
while highlighting injustices that are often downplayed. He
inspires student activism and participation, not only as students
but as citizens. … He is an awesome professor, advisor and
listener who is honest and sincere with every student,” said
one student nomination.
“Over the last two years, Prof. Lassiter has opened up
doors for me that I never knew existed. His class has encouraged me
to pursue a career path in urban planning that I would not have
considered if not for his enthusiasm and devotion,” said
Lassiter, who came to the University after teaching for just two
years at a small liberal arts college in Maine, said he was
grateful for the award and what it meant.
“I wouldn’t try to say that I’m a better
teacher than anyone else. I think there are a lot of great teachers
here, and it’s a faculty that really balances teaching and
researching really well,” Lassiter said.
“Small colleges emphasize teaching as a top priority, so
there is a culture there of you’re in your office all the
time and going to lunch with students, and it’s difficult at
a place like the University, but my sense is that students can make
this a small university if they want to. … I’ve gone
to lunch with some students when they’ve invited me and I
love doing that,” he added.
He said seeing the enthusiasm one of his own college professors
had for academia is what drew him into becoming a professor.
“There is something on a college campuses where is always a
high level of energy,” he said.
“I find that to be the best part of teaching at the
University, there is constantly a new group of young, excited,
intellectually engaged students.
“The poignant part of that is that students move on and
you stay here.”
He also said he believes his subject matter — recent
American history — helps him to reach his students.
“History courses have to be engaged in the world we live
in now… we have to understand the world now through the lens
of the past. The classes that I teach are about the present as much
as the past,” he said.
Lassiter added that one of the things he tries most to do is
break up his lectures with engaging videos and films. A typical
lecture, he said, uses six to eight film clips at two or three
“I give hour-and-20 minute lectures, and nobody wants to
listen to someone talk for an hour and twenty minutes,” he
said. “(Using clips) really draws points home in a way that
talking about it, I don’t think, does.”