Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Amazing opportunity for cultural exchange

Several weeks ago I had been asked to prepare a lecture for students at Rajarata University. The moment was at hand. At exactly 8:05, as planned, Dr. Wolly showed up in his new car. The going joke the past few days has been "Tell them back home that even the drivers in Sri Lanka have PhDs!"  In his barely-used hybrid Honda we inched toward the lecture hall on a pitted back road. Finally we arrived. 

The lecture hall was on the second story of a two-wing building built some time in the last ten years. Rajarata, founded in 2001, is one of the newer universities in the national system. As all the university buildings I've seen here I was struck by the architectural arrangement that left students plenty of space and outside air. The lecture hall itself was breezy and easily darkened. 

My colleague, Dr. Wolly, on the balcony outside the lecture hall

All the AV arrangements had been set up. All I needed to do was plug in my VGA and the screen came to life. I can honestly say this compared favorably against the antiquated system I use at Boston University, where our tech assistants seem to be scrambling all the time to make things work just before lecture. 

The students started filing in quietly and soon the whole contingent, which they call a "batch" was on hand. Similar to my group at BU it amounted to about 90 students. All studying agricultural sciences.  Initially I guess I had been asked by Professor Bandara to deliver this lecture to his non-major social sciences students on the Mihintale campus. Apparently the plan had been changed without my knowing it (how many hundreds of plans have been changed while I'm here is unknown--as a clueless outsider I smile and do what I'm told--including now extending our stay in Anuradhapura for the second time). But as a seasoned (read old) lecturer I've come to expect changes like these and no matter what my visuals, I'm able to change my approach. Is this called BS-ing it??

When the dean walked into the room all rose. He gave a longish presentation on my background, embellished slightly from the one I had sent. Very cordial and apologetic that he'd have to miss the lecture as he was off to several other meetings. This being the day before a holiday (Sri Lanka is said to have more national holiday than any country in the world) there was lots to squeeze in today. 

By the way, a minute or two before we left the guesthouse a short note from Dr. Abeysingha read "hope your lecture is one hour in length." Another adjustment we professors make all the time. Same content in twenty minutes or an hour depending on contingencies. 

Soon I was "up" and lecturing on "Wonderful Water." I've seen Sri Lankan lecturers before in front of Sri Lankan audiences and I've observed they do like a little clowning. Since this comes naturally to me I let it come and we ended up having a comfortable, nicely modulated hour together. As I always do here, I asked a student to come up front to record student responses to brainstorming questions, partly because students respond so quietly and partly to intimidate them less by asking them to respond to a peer instead of to me. 

My talk had four parts that I presented upfront: 1) Introduction to Boston, 2) Why I came to Sri Lanka (isn't the Boston weather reason enough?) 3) How water works in the special case of irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka and 4) Problems with agricultural water use in the United States. 

Through the lecture I stressed the cultural roles of water, especially contrasting our American culture of water extraction to the traditional Sri Lankan value of water stewardship. I stressed what I really believe, that young people are our future and that we in America have to change our ways to survive--our agricultural water use is unsustainable. And I found that the students were aware of concepts like sustainability. 

After the lecture a couple of the advanced students who joined us in the field earlier this week came over asking for another field trip. I happily agreed and Abey agreed as well to arrange it. Thanks to the Fulbright I can afford a van to take the group into the field, a nice touch that makes things that much easier. 

So, looking forward to more encounters with students as the weeks and months go by. In fact I will be addressing students in a couple of weeks at the University of Moratuwa after a few days of joining them in their field site in Galle. Just beyond that in early November at South East University in Kalmunai, and at the University of Kelanyia in December. It's starting off to be a busy Fulbright and I like it that way!

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