Heidelberg Lectures: First Appearance



Why would anyone want to read about the experience of giving a lecture on a topic related to contemporary religion? To learn about the person giving the talk? To delve into religion in society and politics? To experience vicariously the give-and-take of a university “moment” shared by speaker and audience where ideas are presented, examined, debated, considered, deconstructed, rejected, or just possibly, inspiring?


I make no claims on any of the above in my first appearance before eight people and two professors (yes, it’s debatable if professors are “people”) during the period between winter and spring terms. For me, what is significant is how I responded emotionally and professionally to the queasy sinking feeling of, once again, facing technical problems prior to the talk.


Maybe I should have seen them coming. After all, the Powerpoint I planned on using for the first talk was originally finalized in Jogjakarta, Indonesia back in November. I’d created the basic structure of the talk for my first lecture in the department of Anthropology at the Univ. of Hawaii in September 2013. I had then updated and refined the topic of “experimental religion” while staying at my son’s apartment in Tokyo in October.


When I used the computer at Sanata Dharma University in Jogja to add a slide, change a bit of text, and then save the whole thing, I never imagined that the ancient Microsoft word version (1999-2003) would jeopardize the end result here in Germany. Certainly, when I looked at this file while preparing for my talk at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala (Jan. 2014), there was no problems with compatibility.


I came to the Religious Studies department offices a couple days before my talk to finalize the slides and Powerpoint, and the office computer had no problem reading the file or making upgrades. But the day of the talk, when I wanted to add one more slide, the entire file was now “unreadable” (or whatever the word is in German) because of compatibility issues. I couldn’t believe it. I tried other files on my portable memory stick/drive and they were unreadable as well.


Was the drive corrupted? Was there a God of compromised computer documents I could pray to for deliverance? After close calls in Indonesia and India, this time was I screwed? I was already imagining using a chalkboard and reading parts of my book, and how to make that combination interesting.


I decided on a plan of action that might possible result in a functional Powerpoint. I had about 90 minutes to return to the apartment (my iPad could not access the university WiFi because I did not have an account), download the document from Dropbox, send it to my email account, then return to the university, download the email attachment, and rebuild the Powerpoint. Right.


But then how to get the document to the lecture location with a possibly-corrupted memory drive? Simple: I had to go downtown and find a computer store and purchase a new memory drive and then return to the university, transfer the file, and head to the lecture location.


I did all that, thanks entirely to a little bicycle I was allowed to use that belonged to the owner of the apartment I was staying in. I was watching the minutes closely, breathing deeply, regularly, so as to control upsurges of panic. Internal dialogues went something like, “Chill out! It’s just a lecture (at a major university) during interterm (before graduate students, faculty, and undergrads as well). This problem you’re facing does not touch life or death, only your ego and reputation.” Gee, thanks for being so encouraging.


I met my colleague’s assistant, Kathrin, a Ph.D. student assigned to be my “handler” for this talk. She in turn had her own assistant in charge of the laptop and projector. 10 minutes before the 2:15 lecture time, we entered the room and put the freshly-purchased and recently-loaded memory drive into the MacBook Pro laptop. Nothing happened except the “wheel of doom” spinning and spinning. A “restart” menu attempt went nowhere, so there was nothing to do except reboot the computer via its powerbutton override. By now it is 2:10, and the laptop is slowly coming back to life after 30 seconds in shutdown mode. The room has 10 people waiting for my lecture on “experimental religion” to begin. By 2:13, the main screen is back and the Powerpoint icon has been clicked. The “wheel” spins, the seconds flow by, anticipation builds as the three of us hover over the laptop–and then, tah-dah!


“Experimental Religion: New Theories and Methods for a Fast-Moving Target” appears on the screen, and Inken begins introducing me. I don’t have a prepared text and work from the slides in making my main points. By all accounts, the lecture is well-received. Several of the grad students mention that my way of “mapping” some of the dynamics in play when a person affiliates with a particular religious tradition is useful and relevant.


Immediately after my talk concluded, I used the handy little bike to buzz back to central Heidelberg and attend the keynote address of a conference on Pentacostalism in Brasil and Australia. Cristina Rocha, the speaker, is a co-editor for the Journal of Global Buddhism, a leading scholar of global religious “flows,” and is a person whose work I cited in the opening pages of my own recent book. I’d never met her before and so it was a good chance to see her in action. It was time well-spent, and we later connected a day later for a chatty and fun lunch.



By the time I returned to the apartment and had a German bock beer in my hand, I was deeply reflective about the day and its challenges. I’d managed to overcome them without despair or too much frustration. No anger was involved either, so all in all, I felt okay about both lecture and lecturer. Yes, this is mundane but the possibility exists that presenting my ideas in an interesting and visually compelling manner will make a difference in the research or thinking of a student or two. The opportunity gave me yet another valuable opportunity to have both research and Self dramatically in the spotlight.


One more talk to go.



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