Portraits of Wanda Corn, Arthur Kornberg and Herbert Lindenberger

Professors emeriti, Wanda Corn, the late Arthur Kornberg and Herbert Lindenberger are three of the professors who share their stories on the Emeriti Council's Autobiographical Reflections lecture series available on Stanford on iTunes. (Photos by L.A. Cicero)

Emeriti Council's Autobiographical Reflections lecture series now available free on iTunes

"Autobiographical Reflections," a lecture series in which retired professors talk about their lives, careers and post-retirement experiences, was organized in 2006. While its audience was once strictly retired faculty, recordings of the series are now available for the general public.

In front of a crowd of about 100 of his colleagues, Herant Katchadourian is recounting the story of how, after a single dinner in Berkeley with Stanford psychiatrist David Hamburg, he came to be a professor emeritus of psychiatry and human biology at Stanford.

During that dinner in 1964, Katchadourian mentioned that he planned to return to his hometown of Beirut, Lebanon. Hamburg, who was then the first chairman of Stanford's Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, told Katchadourian, "If you ever get tired of Lebanon, I hope you think of Stanford."

Two years later, Katchadourian remembered Hamburg's remark. "I went to the library [in Lebanon]. They had a Stanford catalog. I looked at the pictures – looked like a nice place," Katchadourian says, amid laughter. He wrote a letter to Hamburg,  reminding him of his offer and explaining that he "was now tired" of Lebanon.

"Two weeks later, I got a letter that said 'You're hired,' " Katchadourian says.

Series in its sixth year

Katchadourian's story comes about 20 minutes into his talk "Life and Serendipity," part of Autobiographical Reflections, a lecture series in which retired professors talk about their lives, careers, post-retirement experiences and revelations. The series was organized in 2006 by the Stanford Emeriti Council, a committee of the Faculty Senate. Since then, approximately three professors each year have been invited to participate.

Recordings of all 13 lectures, given to a strictly emeriti audience, are now available to the public as free downloads on Stanford's iTunes channel.

In addition to Katchadourian, talks are presented by Paul Brest, law; Luca Cavalli-Sforza, genetics; David Kennedy, history; the late Arthur Kornberg, biochemistry; Herbert Lindenberger, comparative literature; Eleanor Maccoby, psychology; Albert Macovski, electrical engineering; James March, business, political science and sociology; the late Diane Middlebrook, English; Haresh Shah, civil engineering; Patrick Suppes, philosophy; and Wanda Corn, art & art history.

Emeriti Councilmember Susan Schofield took on the task of organizing the release of audio and visual recordings of the lectures on iTunes. She said she was pleased that now all members of the public, not just emeriti and their spouses, will have the opportunity to listen to the lectures.

"We thought it would be really interesting in the Stanford community and beyond to hear well-known emeriti talk about their lives and careers," Schofield said.

So far, interest in the recordings has been robust. Schofield said Maccoby's lecture  "Reflections on Fifty Years as a Research Psychologist" has already been viewed more than 800 times.

David Abernethy, professor emeritus of political science and 2010-11 chair of the Stanford Emeriti Council, said members of the council organized Autobiographical Reflections as a way to get to know their colleagues, many of whose early lives and career paths were unknown.

The results, he said, have been fascinating.

"There were many moments [during the lectures] when you could hear a pin drop," Abernethy said.

Many talks share common themes

Though the lectures have ranged in topics from childhood memories to academic accomplishments, some common themes have emerged. Many speakers, like Katchadourian, discuss the impact that serendipity and chance have had on their lives.

"One has the sense from these talks that people's lives are tremendously influenced by random events, but that these very events can set individuals off in non-random, purposive directions," Abernethy said.

Others talked of a love of learning long past retirement. Even after they leave Stanford, many continue pursuing the topics that inspired them to go into academia in the first place.

"Many of them were working on research activities and scholarship activities well into their eighties. In some senses, retirement allowed them to go back to why they entered academic life," Abernethy said.

Lectures by Middlebrook and Kornberg proved particularly poignant. Each died shortly after giving their Autobiographical Reflections.

In Middlebrook's recorded lecture, she discusses her decision to retire and her fight against cancer, and Kornberg's "For the Love of Enzymes" includes his experiences with anti-Semitism in medical school and the "accidents" that shaped his career.

"Those are particularly memorable because it's the last time we heard them speak," Abernethy said.

In his lecture "Law and Where it Led," Brest, former dean of the Law School, discusses the inevitability of failures and the importance of learning from them, being open to criticism, and how to address the problems of future generations. He also talks about his current work as president of the Hewlett Foundation.

Brest said that for him, the chance to write autobiographically for the first time was what excited him most about his lecture for Autobiographical Reflections.

"It was a good chance to think back in a semi-coherent way about my life," Brest said.

As Katchadourian considers his life at the end of his own lecture, he comes to the conclusion that while chance plays a big part in our lives, as it did for him at that life-changing dinner in Berkeley, we have to help ourselves a little too. Don't be a passive object, he says, and concludes with this simple advice:

"If you don't buy a ticket, you cannot possibly win the lottery."

Download all of the Emeriti Council's Autobiographical Reflections lectures on Stanford's iTunes U channel (launch the iTunes application and enter "Autobiographical Reflections" in the search bar in the upper-right hand corner of the iTunes store).

Robin Migdol is an intern for Stanford University Communications.