Earlier this month I had a brief visit to conference 4684 miles away in Denver, USA, where I gave a presentation about the University of Cambridge International Summer Schools in 1923, and reflected on what has changed radically since then, and what ‘universal truths’ remain. Those who have seen and read our celebratory handbook, or who attended Catherine Alexander’s lecture ‘1923’ this past summer will be familiar with some of the content.
One of the points I flagged was ‘communication’: our 1923 students were not reliant on frequent (instant) contact with home (though may have sent and received hand-written letters on a regular basis). As I sat in airport lounges, on the plane, or had breaks between conference sessions, I was surrounded by people on phones and computers, in constant contact with work, family or friends. These days, even though they might travel for 1000, 4684 or 10,000 miles or more, the great majority travel with those life-lines, the wireless umbilical cords to home. It makes the unfamiliar much less daunting, but fills me with admiration for those intrepid and self-reliant travellers of 1923.
But our current students are just as willing to embrace the ‘new’ and the ‘different’, whether that is in a first-time visit to the UK, or in their choice of a new subject area, or both. I shared with the conference session delegates some of the content of early literature courses, and am delighted to see that a few courses in 2014 are going to focus on authors featured in the 1920s curriculum: Rudyard Kipling and G K Chesterton, as well as Anglo-Saxon literature. The programmes today also have very strong History, and International Relations and Politics offerings.
I also talked about the imperative for face-to-face communication, ever more important in a world of gadgets and gizmos which do not require our presence in the same room. Some of the students of yesterday were perhaps much more accustomed to participation in discussion and debate, striking up conversations within class and over the dinner table. Vital communication skills are honed in a community which mixes age groups, nationalities and backgrounds. These days, this is such a valuable skill for career development: we never tire of hearing our students say that they have really enjoyed meeting so many different people and talking to them, in the classroom and beyond. The long-lasting ‘learning outcomes’ have to include these interactions, and the way they inevitably prompt people to re-evaluate their existing perspectives.
I concluded that at the core of the experience both for the 1920s Summer School students, and for today’s, some things have not (and should not) change. My first point was to applaud the students who are open to the idea of travel, happy to embrace the opportunity of learning somewhere new, accepting of difference, and willing to challenge their own expectations. My second was to maintain the immense value of peer-group learning, across the boundaries of age, nationality and background. And my third was to take pride in the fact that - 90 years on - we continue to share something of the immense wealth of learning and teaching at this University, changing perspectives, and changing lives as a result.
The brochure has just arrived, and the website has been revised: 2014 has begun! Whilst fans around the world are a-buzz with responses to Dr Who’s 50th anniversary, we’re also focused on two summers at once, time-travelling between final synopses of 2013 and the launch of the 2014 courses. We’re eager to ensure we interpret all of the feedback, and revise our processes and procedures to take that feedback into account. Feedback from Course Directors and students on each summer’s courses helps to shape the curriculum for the following year. Each Summer School needs to provide a good balance of courses, and we have no fewer than 115 new offerings.
The new structure for the Interdisciplinary Summer Schools (three x two-week Terms) allows much more flexibility in arrival and departure dates, and across the broad spectrum of offerings. We’ve designed several clear subject pathways, and hope that the guidance in the brochure and on the web on how to make those choices is very clear and straightforward.
As always, we are intrigued to see which courses receive the first applications: Classical heroes? International politics? Cold War flashpoints? Galileo and his world? Dante’s Inferno? The ancient Egyptian language? We’re excited by the two new programmes: The Hanseatic League and the Creative Writing Summer School, and hope that the take-up for these two new offerings will be swift.
When we have calmed down from the excitement of the brochure arrival and the web launch (hence the fireworks in the photograph) we'll look to see which courses are likely to fill first. And speaking of photographs: the shortlist for the 2013 photo competition is decided. Watch the web for further announcements.
Sarah J Ormrod