During his “ideal last lecture,” Golden Apple Award recipient Mark Conger discussed the importance of empowering students, the societal ownership of humans’ greatest achievements, and how death does not erase one from the plane of human existence.

Conger, a lecturer in the LSA Comprehensive Studies Program, was honored Monday with the 29th annual Golden Apple Award, which annually recognizes one University of Michigan faculty member for outstanding teaching. The award is the only student-selected teaching recognition on campus.

Conger teaches calculus to students through the Douglass Houghton Scholars Program, a small learning community for freshmen who plan to major in math or science and take two semesters of calculus in their first year.

Golden Apple recipients are charged each year with giving a lecture as if it’s their last, a tradition inspired by Rabbi Eliser Ben Hyrkanos, who said, “Get your life in order one day before you die.”

Photo of Mark Conger holding a saw
Golden Apple Award recipient Mark Conger displays a saw that was a gift from his father, who taught him to use it and other tools, as well as why it is meaningful to make something rather than just own something. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Conger wove an interactive math problem throughout his lecture that centered on the concept of infinity, calling on audience members to answer various aspects of the problem.

He also used several personal stories and inspirational quotes to convey life lessons, and recounted his 17-year effort to earn his Ph.D. That journey included initially leaving his math graduate program in the 1990s, pursuing a career in computer programming, and eventually returning to the classroom.

“My point is the straight-ahead path, the normal beat of the drum, does not work for everyone,” Conger said. “I talk to a lot of students these days who feel their education seems like a series of hoops to jump through. I’m always delighted when they realize that it’s much more than that and they find other things to do.”

In another story, Conger said that, as a teacher, he always sympathizes with struggling students.

“Teachers neglect the feelings of students at our peril,” he said. “Any teaching strategy fails unless the students feel empowered and engaged.”

Toward the end of his lecture, Conger explored concepts of death and the nature of human existence. He said he believed people throughout history have thought the end of the world was near because the idea that human beings are blips in the continuous lifetime of the world is more frightening.

To confront this existential crisis, people can deploy a variety of solutions, including living on through their children, believing in an afterlife or reincarnation, or joining a project that is bigger than themselves.

Conger proposed a different approach to this existential question, using points on a PowerPoint slide to symbolize all the people sharing that moment in time, as well as the people who came before them and those who will come after.

“This is the wall of the cosmos — everything that is, everyone that was, and everyone that will be,” he said.

“This perspective doesn’t solve the problem of how to deal with death. Each of us has to find our own way. But it can say this to each of you: You are not alone in the cosmos, and death does not erase you from the cosmos.

“No one can take this wall down and misplace it and no matter how many layers of people or paint are on top of you, you’re still there. Our lives are finite but they are permanent.”