Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Preparing for a major public lecture - effective, but a bit bizarre and not very "efficient."

At mid day, today, I gave the second lecture in the Global Asia Institute Lecture Series. GAI is one which is one of my affiliations at the National University of Singapore. As at American University, there are many lectures at NUS each week. This one was not at the Lee Kuan Yew School but at the NUS Administration Building, University Hall, in elegant venue on the sixth floor with a gorgeous view of the city. The format seems to be a common one in Singapore and is somewhat similar to higher end luncheon events we initiated when I was Director of AU’s Center for Teaching Excellence (now the Center for Teaching Research and Learning).

Instead of seats in rows there were seven tables, beautifully set for a sit-down buffet lunch, each with an attractive flower arrangement in the Center. Invitations had been sent not only to the NUS community but to outsiders and a few representatives form the Singapore Government, the private sector the diplomatic community were in attendance. The event was billed not as a ‘lecture’ but as a conversation. After my talk of about 45 min, videotaped for posting on the GAI website, GAI Director Seetharam, Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleke (who was Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner and UN Representative in Geneva) and I adjourned to three armchairs on a raised platform and had a real conversation for about 40 min, first with each other and then with members of the audience. Dayan and I have been friends for more than 20 years. His father the former editor of Sri Lanka’s Daily News and then of the Lanka Guardian was one of my Sri Lankan mentors. So our conversation was relaxed and lively, engaged the audience, thought the subject matter was serious.

My approach to giving relatively high profile lectures such as almost always produces good results, but is not what you call efficient. Temperamentally, I now recognize that I will not produce the product I am looking for until the pressure of a deadline looms very close. This is true even if the topic is one on which I have spoken before. On Friday I tinkered and procrastinated. On Saturday I took the day off for a long bicycle ride on Singapore’s east coast. On Sunday I knew I had to get down to business, but decided I needed to read and annotate the Sri Lanka ruling party’s 100 page election manifesto, the Mahinda Chintana and incorporate it in my talk. This took most of the day. With this and that, my anxiety level was not high enough to really dig in until about 6:30 on Monday night. Then I worked until after 11 producing a final draft and printing it out (in case my computer crashed) a precaution I always try to take


I awoke Tuesday morning at 5:30 realizing that I had left out some important points that needed to be incorporated in an additional section. This improved the paper greatly, but made it too long. I always read my presentations out loud and time them with a stop watch. I hate it when others go over time and make it a priority to know that my talk will be the right length before I step to the lecture. This enables me to relax and pace my delivery. With revisions, my scheduled talk of forty minutes ran 65 minutes. By now it was nine AM and I was working efficiently. I decided to simply make cuts in the hard copy text and read the talk aloud again, making cuts with my marker as I went. With 15 min for breakfast and an extra dose of vitamins, I finished the process at 10:55. Feeling a bit bleary, I took a 10 minute power nap (the advantage of working in my apartment) showered, dressed in my television suit (with the appropriately color matched shirt and tie) and packed up my notes. Even though the temperature outside was over 90, I decided to make the 25 minute walk to University Hall. It was a beautiful morning with flowers blooming and, in the shade of trees along the way, the heat was quite bearable. When I arrived at the venue, I was able to greet some of the guests who were sitting down to lunch (a part of the ritual for these events) and then eat an extremely light vegetarian noodle dish before speaking. The talk lasted 45 minutes and I was sufficiently confident of the length to pace it as I wish. This makes a huge difference in holding the attention of an audience. I used no power points - I rarely do for this sort of event. When I looked out over the room I saw attentive eyes and engaged expressions - this is always reassuring. Afterwards, there were numerous photos to be taken. I hope I get some copies When I returned to my apartment, after 2:30 I felt drained and exhausted, but good. This somewhat bizarre ritual had worked out well again. I don’t really love it but accept that this is what it seems to take for me to produce a quality product. I decided to regenerate myself with a nap before returning to the tasks that I had mostly put off since Friday. And I decided to share my experience by writing this blog. Perhaps it will make student readers feel better about assignments and term-papers they write.

Here is an the abstract of my talk.

Looking beyond the war: Are Sri Lanka’s leaders more likely to learn from history or repeat it?


What are the prospects for reconciliation and a lasting political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, following the government’s military victory over the LTTE and then Mahinda Rajapakse’s strong victory in the recent presidential election? This question is now engaging Sri Lankan political leaders as well as regional and international actors who concern themselves with Sri Lanka. In seeking answers, it will be useful to focus attention on the period before Sri Lanka’s conflict became protracted; before Sri Lanka’s government faced a cohesive, well lead militant group that was unwaveringly single-minded in its objectives.

Under three previous Sri Lankan governments, following elections in 1956, 1970 and 1977, there were lost opportunities to move toward communal reconciliation. Following decisive victories, the policies each government implemented lead, rather, to intensified confrontation accompanied by violence. Each sequence of events made it more likely that the next would catalyze formation of a viable militant movement, leading to protracted conflict. Between 1983 and 1985, that was the outcome. Now Sri Lanka’s government and civil society once again face circumstances where the Tamil community’s aspirations are not irrevocably (if unwillingly) tied to the LTTE’s agenda. There is an opportunity to learn from history rather than repeating it. Does Singapore’s less violent and more prosperous development trajectory also have lessons to offer?

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