Eagle 200px

What happened to January and most of February? The time has flown. The steady ticking of the clock over the weeks between now and April mark ‘a time of making’ for International Programmes, following on from brochure completion. Over 300 enrolments are in, with more pending. The next layers of preparation, running in parallel with the processing of these applications and responding to enquiries, involve the posting of completed course materials on the online resource centre for accepted students, the finalising of plenary lecture titles and dates, excursion-planning, and a host of process updates, so that the machinery we put in place runs like clockwork.

I bought a clock at the end of December, to hang in the place where my grandparents’ clock used to be, as that one has gone to my sister. It’s not identical to that ‘Vienna Regulator’, but very close, and it is pleasing to have the gentle ticking and strident strike at the heart of the house. I’m less happy that it is rather fussier in design that the original, but delighted that it has at the top a wood and plaster eagle, a feature which was lost from my grandparents’ clock years before it came to us. It’s not a particularly fine bit of carving – there’s more than a hint of parrot to that eagle – but for me, this particular eagle is precious as a symbol of something found, to recall something long lost. It’s an innocent thing, in that context.

A glance through the office window to a bird-table sends butterfly-flitting thoughts to eagles, in general. I’m familiar with them through zoo visits as a child, raptor centre visits and television documentaries. Since our part of the UK rarely sees any very large birds in the sky (red kites are slowly returning, and there are a few buzzards, and the occasional heron comes over, on its way to the lake at the front of Madingley Hall), seeing an eagle in the wild is a rare treat for me. I have fine recollections of a train journey between Vancouver and Seattle, 18 or more years ago, watching sea eagles swooping for prey along the shoreline, and seeing some 11 or 12 altogether (an extended family of juveniles and adults) in a field a few years later, when driving with my own extended (surrogate) US family.

Still with eagles, my mind bounces to the famous Eagle pub in Cambridge, opened a year after the Great Fire of London, in 1667, and originally called the ‘Eagle and Child’. (There’s a pub of that name in St Giles in Oxford, known as the ’Bird and Baby’, frequented by C S Lewis and Tolkien. C S Lewis distributed proofs for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe there in 1950.) Our own ‘Eagle’ hosted Watson and Crick in 1953 as they announced their proposal for ‘the structure of life’: the discovery of DNA, and also boasts a ceiling covered in graffiti by World War II airmen.

Speaking of war, eagles (single, or double-headed) and hawks have been used as symbols of power and strength for thousands of years, in Ancient and in modern Egypt, in Ancient Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, by Arab States, by Spain, Germany, France and the USA. They’ve also appeared in medieval heraldry, and were used for their seal by several Hanse wool-trading guilds.

All of this thinking, from glance at a clock on the wall: networks of thoughts which tie in – on so many levels – to the chart on my office wall of courses for 2014…courses on Egypt and on Rome in the Ancient Empires Summer School; courses on international relations, crises and war and empire in the History Summer School and the three Terms of the Interdisciplinary Summer School; a course on Tolkien in the Literature Summer School; sessions on trade and trading ports in the Hanseatic League and – as a result of an email exchange just this morning – a plenary on heraldic achievement as part of the Interdisciplinary Summer School series.

The very process of recording the way the mind flits from one topic to another, or the way thoughts and recollections are triggered brings me to the memory and networks courses in the Science programme, and last, but not least, to the Creative Writing option, which might one day help me be a little more erudite in my blog writing!

Sarah J Ormrod

GillianCarr2 180pxJersey hoard 180pxJersey hoard detail 180pxJersey hoard coin 180px

On one of my recent visits to the Channel Island of Jersey, where I conduct some of my fieldwork on the heritage of the German Occupation of the Second World War, I was given a private viewing of one of the island’s newest archaeological discoveries. The Jersey Hoard was found in June 2012 and was judged to be the world’s biggest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered. Jersey Heritage’s conservator, Neil Mahrer, allowed me into his laboratory so I could see how the project was coming along.

Before I moved into the field of Conflict Archaeology around seven years ago, I was an Iron Age archaeologist, and so the hoard was particularly exciting for me to see. Sticking out of the massive clump of corroded green-coloured coins was a golden torque, a form of necklace which is usually associated with Iron Age hoards found in Norfolk. The most famous hoard of torques ever found in the UK comes from Snettisham, and these are on display in the British Museum.

The Jersey hoard is estimated to contain around 70,000 coins, as well as pieces of silver and gold jewellery, and it was found and excavated in one solid mass measuring 140 x 80 x 20 cm and weighing about three quarters of a ton. The coins are made of a silver-looking alloy called billon, a mixture of silver and copper, although during the conservation process (still in its very early stages) a gold coin was found and more, I predict, can be expected. The hoard was excavated and removed from the site as a large clump, complete with a 5cm covering of soil it so it wouldn’t dry out. That clump was wrapped in layers of a clear plastic film in order both to support and contain the hoard during excavation and conservation, to prevent it from breaking into pieces.

Since the hoard was brought to his lab, where it has been kept damp to prevent it drying out, Neil Mahrer’s job has been a busy one. He recently made an epoxy resin replica of the hoard, while it was still whole, and is now waiting to hear whether he will be given funding to purchase a laser scanner so that he can make a 3D virtual digital record of the hoard as it is dismantled. I was very pleased to be asked by Neil to write a letter of support for this important purchase.

Recording the hoard digitally in this fashion is very important; research in Iron Age studies over the last 20 years has revealed that the deposition of objects often shows a patterning which was governed by ritual concerns. If this patterning can be identified, it will facilitate a greater understanding of Iron Age cosmology and ritual practices in Jersey. Although thus far Neil has been able to work out that the hoard was deposited in a number of bags or packages of some sort, it will be revealing to be able to pinpoint precisely where in the hoard certain items were placed – items such as torques and jewellery which, currently, are peeping temptingly out of the corroded block.

Meanwhile, Neil’s job is a slow one: the hoard needs to be dismantled, one coin at a time, a job which he has estimated will take six to eight years for one person. His task will then be to record, clean and chemically treat each coin in turn to remove any corrosion. His conservation blog documents the process.

Talking to Neil about the laser scanner made me mull over the changes in the way that Iron Age coins have been treated and interpreted over time. We know that these coins were minted by the Coriosolites, an Armorican people who lived around 50BC in the area of modern-day St Malo and Dinan in France, just across the water from Jersey. In the past, archaeologists might have interpreted them as having been buried by Armoricans fleeing Roman invasion, to prevent Roman soldiers or others finding them in a time of conflict and uncertainty. Alternatively, they could have been payment to Iron Age Jersey people who fought as mercenaries in the Gallic Wars, alongside their kin across the water.

Today archaeologists might be more inclined to suggest that these coins were a diplomatic gift, or perhaps a ritual gift to the gods that no one had any intention of removing. The local papers joked that perhaps Jersey was an off-shore financial centre and tax haven 2,000 years ago!

While we cannot know for sure whether any of these interpretations (or even a combination of them) is correct (although we can make an educated guess at which one is wrong!), it is important for archaeologists to make sure that their interpretations are contextual and site-specific. Further excavation at the site of the coin hoard might help in this respect. Jersey (and the Channel Islands as a whole) is also acquiring a reputation for hoards; a few months after the coins were discovered, a late Bronze Age hoard of axe heads turned up just a few miles away.

Students who have registered for the Undergraduate Certificate or Diploma in Archaeology this coming Lent term will have an opportunity to learn more about these hoards. Those taking the ‘Prehistoric Peoples’ unit (part of the Certificate course) will be gaining an overview of the British Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages. Students on the Diploma course, meanwhile, will have an entire term devoted to Iron Age Britain. I hope that an Advanced Diploma student will be tempted to write a dissertation on the Jersey Hoard soon – this exciting discovery is crying out for further interpretation and Neil Mahrer has kindly given permission for such a student project. Applications are now open for those wishing to start an Advanced Diploma in autumn 2014!

Dr Gilly Carr, ICE University Senior Lecturer and Academic Director in Archaeology


emily caddick 180pxAlice in Wonderland

I recently watched Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988), an adaptation which mixes stop-motion animation with a live actor’s realisation of Lewis Carroll’s character Alice, in the setting of a bizarre Wonderland which often seems to all be crammed within a house.

Angela Carter mentions this film in a collection called On Strangeness (ed. Margaret Bridges, 1990, Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag). In an introduction to her story ‘The Curious Room’, Carter talks of an affinity between the surrealist aesthetic of Švankmajer’s work – which she describes as involving ‘the furious disruption of rationality’ – and the exploration of nonsense in Carroll’s stories.

The strangeness of the goings-on in Lewis Carroll’s work is part of what makes it philosophically interesting. For example, take its skilled pinpointing of what is absurd. For the Cheshire Cat to leave behind a bodiless grin is far more effective than, say, the idea of a bodiless mouth, because a grin is worn in a way a mouth is not – a grin is something which is done, and done by an embodied individual.

Another famous case is Humpty Dumpty’s claim to be able to make words mean whatever he wants, with his statement ‘There’s glory for you’ allegedly having meant ‘There’s a nice knock-down argument for you’. Humpty’s is not a theory many of us would endorse when trying to answer the questions of what meaning is and where it comes from. But a better theory should not only avoid fixing word-meaning by whimsy – it should also tell us why Humpty’s approach is perverse, and what this reveals about the role of the individual speaker in determining what they have said.

Communication is something so central to our interactions with one another that we often take it for granted until an occasion where it doesn’t work as we thought it would. For those who, like me, are interested in how communication underpins interpersonal exchanges and relationships, such occasions are important data. The Alice stories provide a study of possible breakdowns in mutual understanding between people. Some are extreme cases, like the impossibility of communication if the meanings of words are private rather than communal. (After all, if Humpty applies his strategy as a matter of course, there is no reason for Alice even to trust that his explicit definitions mean what she thinks they do!)

Others are versions of communicative problems more familiar from everyday discourse. The philosopher Paul Grice has argued that ‘conversational implicatures’ – where we manage to tacitly communicate something without explicitly saying it – can be understood in terms of mutual expectations concerning how one’s conversation partner will converse. For example, we generally have expectations that the person we are talking to will judge the things she says to be relevant to the topics of the conversation; and we have expectations concerning how much information a person should provide. Such expectations govern what it is to be conversationally cooperative. But Alice’s conversation partners often seem to be extremely uncooperative, at least by Alice’s standards and by ours. Why do they say the things they do to her? Are they trying to be helpful, or trying to be obstructive? Are they suggesting something she has failed to notice? Do they willingly flout or ignore Alice’s familiar communicative conventions? Do they operate with different sets of expectations which we need to try to understand?

It’s not just Alice’s understanding of others’ linguistic behaviour which is vulnerable in Wonderland and through the looking glass, but also her understanding of their behaviour more generally. Understanding somebody is a key to anticipating their behaviour. When we have difficulty coming up with reasons why others behave the way they do, we face a serious block to predicting their actions – and, in turn, a serious block to understanding them well enough to trust them. The behaviour of Alice’s companions is often alien (whether it’s advancing an argument which doesn’t add up, or engaging in insufficiently constrained beheading). Motives and interests are unclear. Characters often have a serious degree of unfathomability, which is why they are potentially dangerous to be around.

Work by philosophers like Donald Davidson has made a strong case for thinking that in order to make any sense of another person, you must work on the assumption that the other person is to some extent like you. We mustn’t suppose too much similarity, of course, else we would leave no space for the idea of difference between someone else’s outlook and our own. But enough similarity must be assumed to guide me in attributing beliefs and attitudes to the other person. When this assumption becomes unstable – as it sometimes threatens to in Wonderland – our chance of comprehending the other being, treating them as a person with thoughts and aims, starts to disappear.

The Alice stories bring our attention to the hazy line between strange goings-on which can nevertheless be interpreted (in principle and with effort) – and, on the other hand, the genuinely incomprehensible. By raising the question of what we can make sense of and how we do it, Carroll’s stories, and adaptations like Švankmajer’s, point us towards something which underpins how humans relate to one another.


If you found this blog interesting, ICE offers several courses which pick up on its themes. If you are interested in surrealism in Alice and other films, you might enjoy our weekly course on Surrealism and film. If you’re interested in how literature raises philosophical questions and proposes answers, you might enjoy our online reading group Philosophy through literature, and if you’d like to reflect philosophically on how literature works, you might like Philosophy of literature: understanding other minds through fiction, in our Literature Summer School. Finally, if you’d like to know more about philosophy of language and communication, you might enjoy our weekend course, The meaning and purpose of words.

Dr Emily Caddick Bourne, ICE Academic Director for Philosophy

erica bithell 180pxtwelve days of christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas are a bridge between the twelve months of the preceding and of the following years. The count of twelve is widespread in our lives: twice twelve hours in day, twelve spans of five minutes in an hour, twelve inches in a foot. More of this counting later, but my own ‘count of twelve’ for the Christmas season is twelve science-related highlights from Cambridge University’s Research News feed, one from each month passed in 2013. This is an entirely personal selection, so do not be surprised if you detect a bias towards the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics (I am myself a materials scientist). New materials, new applications and fresh insights into how the physical world works sit quite comfortably alongside a seasonal sense of excitement!

In January, we learnt how synchrotron radiation has been used to image the backbone structure of the earliest four-legged animals.

February brought the news that a team at the University of Surrey, in collaboration with astronomers in Cambridge, have been able to use the behaviour of phosphorus atoms in silicon to model the extreme chemistry on the surface of a white dwarf star.

Back on earth, March brought the opening of a state-of-the-art gallium nitride growth facility, which will allow researchers to improve the techniques for growing high efficiency LEDs on cheap silicon substrates. Experiments planned for the new reactor have the potential to save the UK £1 billion per year in electricity usage.

At the beginning of the financial year, April saw the roll-out across Europe by Cronto, a Cambridge University spin-out company, of a security product designed to protect us from online malware by using visual symbols and dots to verify the authenticity of customer transactions.

May saw another materials development, of a flexible, stretchable sheet material with colours as vibrant and shimmering as an opal, but without the use of potentially toxic dyes or metals. The material has potential applications for security, textiles and sensing.

Early summer is evidently the season for new materials: ‘carbon nanotube candyfloss’ was reported in June, not for consumption by visitors to the Strawberry and Midsummer Fairs, but as a potential route to super-strong electrical wires.

If June is the time for fairs, July is the time to travel, and was also the month in which Cambridge University Library made the archive papers of the 18th and early 19th-century Board of Longitude available to the public via the Cambridge Digital Library project.

August saw a metaphorical journey into outer space, with observations of the Sagittarius A* black hole at the centre of our own galaxy’s Milky Way rejecting gas clouds when these are too hot to be sucked in and devoured.

Much closer to home, spectacular images were published in September of the first known example of functioning natural mechanical gears, in a plant-hopper insect.

With October and the onset of chillier weather, two Cambridge engineers published their analysis of the whistling sound generated by a traditional kettle. Although the underlying reason for the noise is a straightforward piece of physics, the details of when and how the sound is produced are much more complex.

The nature of policy-making is such that those taking and presenting decisions often require scientific input, and need to apply this information without necessarily sharing the same depth of technical knowledge. November saw the publication of a timely list of ‘twenty top tips’ to help non-scientists appreciate the limitations of scientific enquiry.

My twelve months’ selection ends in December with a biological materials development: the announcement that certain retinal cells could be printed into patterns using piezoelectric inkjet technology, with the potential for retinal repair procedures.

And what of the significance of the count of twelve itself? Is this just a pre-decimal, cultural relic? Not at all – 10 is a useful base for arithmetic calculation, but 12 is exceptionally useful for division into equal parts. Twelve is the smallest positive whole number divisible into two, three, four or six parts which are also whole numbers; 60 is the smallest which is similarly divisible into two, three, four, five or six parts. No surprise then that our measures of time and space put 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 360 degrees (6 x 60) into a circle. The Babylonians based their counting system upon multiples of 60, which you can learn more about at any time of year from the NRICH Mathematics resources (search for ‘Babylon’).

Our courses at ICE aim to bring the excitement of being part of Cambridge learning and research to as wide a range of students as possible. In the Physical Sciences we have courses coming up in the next few months on Geological Hazards and Geological History, Mathematics (not just as a spectator!), and Nanomaterials. I would encourage you to take a look at what is on offer, come and join us, and share in our scientific journey.

Dr Erica Bithell, ICE Academic Director in Physical Sciences

Bentley small

Looking at the spread of images for our 2013 photo competition, leafing again through the celebratory handbook, and gazing with fond memories at the images from the Summer parties (such as the bonnet of that splendid 1923 Bentley, in which you can just see reflected the image of the Madingley Hall façade), I am reminded that it has been an incredible journey through a remarkable year.

‘Memorable year’ news from the home (team) front: Claire Henry, our Academic Programme Manager who so ably produces the International Summer Schools’ publicity and manages the teaching room logistics and the Resident Assistant Team, has sent us the glad tidings - almost at year end - of the arrival of her baby - Oliver Jack - on 15 December.

Our 90th Anniversary has been memorable in so many ways, and comes to a close with the end of the calendar year.

On the subject of year end, and photos, our last 2013-related task has been to post the names of the winners of the photo competition, and you can see the winning entries on flickr, via a link on our home page.

It has been intriguing to see the images coming in, and to consider them from several angles: How closely do they conjure ’Summer Schools’? How good are they, technically? How are they different from the many Cambridge images we have seen before? We have a very worthy winner in the entry sent in by Eun Jung Kim from Korea, with the photo of books on a windowsill and King’s College Chapel beyond, taken – I think - from Gonville and Caius library. Our runners up are Valissa Hicks from the USA, with the image of Cambridge punts at night time, and Laurence Ghier from France sent in the image of a butterfly on a memorial stone.

Well done to Eun Jung, Valissa and Laurence! Prizes will be on their way to the winner and runners-up in the New Year. Thank you to everyone else who submitted images: we’ll scour these for ones which may work well in the 2015 brochure! We will also look at having different categories for the 2014 competition, and will announce these before the Summer Schools begin, so you can plan a few of your shots accordingly.

From year end to new beginnings: looking towards our 91st, we hope those of you on the mailing list for a paper copy of the brochure have received that by now, and – if you do get some holiday time in the next couple of weeks - that you will spend a few days browsing the paper copy, the web version or the individual web pages. Remember, if you are thinking of attending yourself, and happen to share the brochure or the weblink with any friend or family member, that we are always very happy indeed to see siblings, parents and any other combination of friends and relatives all attending the same year. Think of all those shared memories to recall in years to come, and of the opportunities to compete with a family member to see who can get the best essay grades. The record to beat for members of a single family attending in any one year is the Hardin family’s magnificent five, this past summer. No pressure!

I understand we have a remarkable 100+ applications in already, and are always excited to see these first arrivals. Among the courses first off the mark with enrolments are International politics in a global age; Archaeology in the crucible of civilisation; Sir Christopher Wren: architect in context; Shakespeare: the mature Comedies; Medieval architecture in Cambridge and The Protestant Reformation. But with the anniversary of the start of World War I in 2014, it is perhaps understandable that the runaway leaders at this stage are courses relating to that theme: Surprise attacks from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, Britain in the Great War and The British Empire in the Great War. With over 190 courses on offer, we hope you will find a combination which exactly matches your existing interests, or tempts you into new subject areas.

If you are planning to submit an application in the next couple of weeks, please note that our offices will be closed from the end of 23 December to early morning 2 January, but the online registration system and the fax will continue to receive any applications sent in whilst we are away. These will be processed in order of receipt, as soon as possible after we return.

All good wishes for the festive season from the International Programmes’ team, and all our very best wishes for 2014. I hope we meet you here in the Summer.

Sarah J Ormrod

fireworks photo

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

Weighing scales 2

I’ve had a few days of leave, when plans unexpected changed, and I found myself shaking the dust off my palette, and returning to the peculiarly evocative smells of turpentine and oil paint. For a break, I also visited a local antiques fair, and could not resist the ‘gizmo’ pictured here. Although it looks at first glance like a medieval time-piece, one very light touch on the top plate sets into motion levels and balances, moving a pointer to a mark on the dial. It’s a device to weigh letters in ounces, used by the Post Office. About 8 inches (20 cm) high, it was not an expensive piece, and in many ways is less decorative than other similar-purpose devices which appear on the market now and again. But it is beautifully weighted, capable of defining the slightest difference in letter weight, and very cleverly but simply designed. With the joys of the internet I was able to discover an hour or two after buying it that it was probably made by Heller, in what is now the Czech Republic, between 1910 and 1920. And that I had paid a bargain price!  There is a warm glow of pleasure to be had from an acquisition of this kind. And I confess that I am harbouring another warm glow:  the afterglow of a good summer.

The 90th Anniversary Summer School season was a ‘special vintage’, as I hope all participants will agree. As always, there were a few tense moments… last-minute arrivals by students (delayed by modes of transport or twists and turns in the visa process, for those who needed them) and lecturers (one or two cut it rather fine, but arrived just in time, to our great relief). There were the usual catalogue of crises which seemed huge at the time, but then resolved themselves (lost passport – found behind a piano, a lost/stolen purse – found in a camera shop), and a few crises which were more serious (illnesses and such, of greater significance). The office seemed constantly busy, and in between events and bouts of frantic activity, the machinery of administration still required care and attention, oil and tinkering. There is no denying, it is hard work to make it run well.

On the other hand, we had a terrific line-up of Course Directors, and speakers. We saw the smiles on the faces of lecturers returning from giving their classes (‘you’ve given me such a good group this year’); the delight on the faces of Programme Directors when they were vindicated in their choice of plenary guest and discovered that they had found yet another really good speaker; the evening speaker still being mobbed with questions outside in the warm summer evening after we had locked up the lecture hall, and had so many people come (exactly as we invited them, tongue-in-cheek at orientation talks on day one) to tell us what a good time they were having.

There were enjoyable excursions and ceilidhs, and good meals. And then there were the three 90th Anniversary parties – two at Madingley and one in the Botanic Garden. Each a huge logistical exercise, but, weighing effort versus enjoyment, well worthwhile! There were memorable moments as people started to dance in front of the jazz band, or stopped chatting to listen to the barbershop quartet serenading arrivals, or clambered all over the 1920s Bentley to have their photograph taken. There were moments of laughter in the lecture hall, and a moment of absolute stillness, as Cath Alexander talked not only about those first Summer Schools in the early 1920s, but also the literature and music of the time. Along with jazz, she played Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending. It was a piece that had never really appealed to me before (I associated it with hot summers as a teen, working for pocket money on a farm, with skylarks laughing at me from a great height) but this time, in a lecture theatre full of people silently appreciating the soaring music, connecting through 90 years with their Summer School forebears, it was magical.

On balance, it has gone well. Very well, indeed.

I have been thinking about ‘balance’ a good deal, since the purchase of the letter scales. There has been time to think (a precious commodity) in the first part of my holiday, these past few days. After 26 summers of total immersion, my friends and family know not to expect calls whilst I am in the midst of summer schools. The ‘work/life’ balance tips, weighted entirely in favour of the former for a good three months (sometimes longer), embracing pre-summer planning as well as the programmes themselves. Even before everyone goes home, we are multi-tasking, to run a number of planning meetings for 2014 alongside this year’s programmes. The handsome 2014 posters and postcards were delivered very early in the summer, so that current students could take home and display them, and our trusty team of Resident Assistants (a cheery, dependable and thoroughly likeable bunch this year... on balance, one of the best teams I can remember) could help us mail out the first few thousand to museums, galleries, universities, colleges and individuals. (That was a weights and measures exercise in itself: a number of us will remember trying to slide dozens of bags of envelopes along the floor and into the lift, because there was a lecture going on, and the delivery van could not take them away via the normal route without disturbing speaker and audience.)

The weighty question which causes all of the permanent staff to smile wryly is: ‘what do you do for the rest of the year?’, with its implied long period of post-summer leisure. Certainly, all of us try to redeem some balance in our lives with periods of leave in late August, September and into October. A little ‘down time’ -  to travel, spend time with friends and families, rescue long-neglected correspondence and calls, homes, plants, hobbies and interests -  goes a long way to helping a slightly healthier balance between work and home life.

Back at work, the pressure’s on again. We’re feverishly looking at another set of checks and balances: checking invoices and outcomes, looking at feedback, balancing curricula, to ensure a range of subjects within each programme, and across programmes. The deadline for the next brochure is looming very close indeed. And after so many weeks of total immersion in the business of delivering programmes, we have to swing back the pendulum a little, to balance the business of IP (International Programmes) with the wider business of ICE (the Institute of Continuing Education): there are meetings to attend, policies to devise, reports to write. Back to plate-spinning, the balancing-act which best characterises our working life…

Watch the site: we hope soon to post photos, some more Summer School recollections, excerpts from Cath Alexander’s 1923 talk, and news about the 2014 programmes.

Sarah Ormrod
August, 2014




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I’ve recently finished teaching a five week course on the creative and critical afterlife of Wuthering Heights. We looked at various responses to Emily Brontë’s novel, from the commercial (MTV’s film version which recasts Heathcliff as a blond rock star, oh dear) to the brilliantly eccentric (the still-classic Kate Bush song). I’ve taught this subject before, but this was the first time I’ve conducted a course entirely online, never meeting my students face-to-face. My students had the advantage over me as they could see my short video lectures whereas I had only a small photograph and their postings by which to get to know them.

Academic colleagues sometimes express uncertainty about how teaching online works and I’ll admit to some anxiety about how it would feel to teach students I’d never meet in person. A lecturer friend of mine says he can only imagine teaching students when he can “see the whites of their eyes” and it’s certainly true that any teacher of any subject will know how they respond to their students’ body-language; how one picks up the eager lean forward, or little flicker of comprehension or disagreement, a politely-concealed yawn or exasperated eye-roll as you speak too fast or snigger too long at your own joke.

As well as this kind of physical noticing, eye contact feels important in the classroom. You can prompt someone to speak by staring hard at them, or instigate a cheerful argument by glancing at a student whose opinion you suspect differs from that of the person speaking.

My old schoolfriend Hannah Thompson, a Cambridge alumna who now teaches French Literature at Royal Holloway, writes a wonderful blog about her research into cultural and literary representations of blindness which also charts her own experiences as a partially-blind lecturer. In an article about her research and teaching practice, Hannah describes how she has recently changed her approach in the classroom as she has become less able to make eye contact with class members or recognise faces. Rather than relying on the connection of eye contact, Hannah encourages her students to forget raising their hands or waiting for the conductor/teacher to bring them in, and to call out their responses and answers instead. Her students were nervous at first, but she describes how, gradually, some of the usual formalities and restrictions of the seminar room began to fall away. The students’ understanding of their teacher’s disability and her inspirational mastery and exploration of it, provoked all sorts of interesting responses to their subject of study and to their experience of studying it together.

The situation in an online seminar room is different to Hannah’s classroom, of course. I can’t see my students’ response to my talks or questions, but I can’t hear them either. It is possible to set up online seminars where students communicate with audio rather than typing or ‘live’ lectures where students can type in real-time questions, but many of my students were in different timezones, dropping in from Japan or the US (and, heavens, Northampton) so we normally didn’t have even that vague sense of each other’s physical presence to aid our communication. Instead, we got to know each other through initial introductions in the orientation week, where students worked out how and where they could talk to me and to each other, and then relied on the space of online forums to discuss the week’s reading.

Much of the recent discussion about online courses has concerned the growth of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) where the emphasis is on massiveness and accessibility. At ICE, our model is the more cosy-sounding ‘SOCCs’ (Small Online Closed Courses), which are taught to closed groups with a limited number of students. Our SOCCs are organic, hand-knitted experiences, carefully designed to fit busy feet and based on the artisanal pedagogic approach for which Cambridge is known: small group-teaching, led by a tutor, encouraging wide-reading and independent thinking.

Unlike most MOOCs, your SOCC tutor will talk back to you when you post a comment or want to argue a point. And like undergraduate modules that develop from year to year, our courses are also protean in their content because they are research-inspired. My ICE colleague Ed Turner recently taught part of his online course in Conservation from the jungles of Sumatra where he was conducting research; my own course was punctuated by a visit to the no less exotic University of Leeds for a conference on creative responses to the work of the Brontës, so I came back to my students with my head full of Lisa Sheppy’s ‘Empty Dress’ and discussions of the Japanese version of Wuthering Heights.

One recent commentator on the MOOCs/SOCCs issue says that the mobility and flexibility of online courses are best suited to vocational subjects designed to respond to an ever-changing employment landscape, and not for traditional academic topics which move more slowly. Adam Kotsko says: “A course on The Odyssey could remain relatively unchanged for a long time, but that’s not the kind of thing that people are generally looking for with online ed.” Whyever not? That ‘kind of thing’ (the Humanities in general, or just old stuff?) isn’t inert knowledge. Our readings and understanding of The Odyssey, or Wuthering Heights or Ancient Rome change with every year, every new adaptation, or archaeological find, or critical move, or, indeed, with every new group of students who come together to travel with Odysseus, Heathcliff or the Romans.

I also don’t accept that Humanities courses which might rely on traditional techniques of slow and close reading can’t be taught via speedy digital technologies. And, in truth, the online class I was teaching had something rather beautifully old-fashioned about it even in its shiny new medium; as we post and respond to each other, we’re engaging in the communication common to letter-writers over the centuries. Writers, readers, editors, and groups of literary critics have always sent their thoughts over many miles: admiring, caustic, critical, devoted, fannish or furious, and, above all, focused, letters of discussion and comment. Digital letter-writing has its own advantages. There’s a spell-check for a start. Online, in-class discussions are more carefully constructed than emails, longer than tweets, and can use the little windows of hyperlinks which drop interlocuters into related areas of discussion alongside the main topic: I can place a link in a sentence to something that my reader can dive off to read before they come back to finish my sentence.

In a letter to his patron Henry Wotton, John Donne wrote in praise of the power of words to overcome distance:

“…more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak.”

There are many joys in the weekly encounters of our Certificate and Diploma classes at Madingley, or the yearly visits of our Summer School students who arrive in Cambridge with the swifts, but as Donne suggests, there are other ways to ‘mingle souls’, and although we can’t promise kisses, we think our SOCCs will warm you up.

--- Dr Jenny Bavidge, ICE Academic Director for English Literature

Find out more about online courses at the Institute of Continuing Education

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Summer Schools in the making: ready! Pack light…

It’s a measure of just how busy we have been that my last blog posting was far too long ago. The Summer Schools begin tomorrow, and we are ready at last. For those of you coming tomorrow or Monday, the weather forecast (as far as one can ever be trusted), is for sunshine, at least for the next 10 days or so. So pack the essential books that you are in the middle of reading for your course, or find them here, and pack light! I always find I travel with far too many clothes. I’ll take the blame if the weather turns chilly after you have arrived, and will point you in the direction of affordable warmer clothing. As some of you will have seen on the online resource centre, our anniversary garden parties this year on 10 July, 25 July and 8 August, have a 1920s feel, to reflect our 90th, so if your wardrobe contains a blazer (gentlemen) or a dress which has a 1920s look to it, and beads (ladies) then here’s your chance! And if you forget, or need the courage of fellow class participants to encourage you to do this, there’s just about time to scour the market, and the charity shops or many outfitters for ladies hats and gentleman’s straw boaters when you get here, so that your photographs of these occasions look even more stunning. (There is - of course - no obligation for 1920s dress: you’ll have a good time, no matter what.)

Remember, go first to your College accommodation (or to wherever you are staying, if not in College) to put your luggage into your room, then come to register in the Lady Mitchell Hall.

If you are coming later in the summer: Ancient Empires and History Summer School students arriving for week 2 or 4 only, on July 14 or 28 register in the Lady Mitchell Hall on the Monday morning, just before their first sessions. Science and Literature Summer School students arriving for week 2 or week 4 only, on July 14 or 28 also register before their first classes, but this time in the Mill Lane lecture rooms. All information is in the letters you have been sent.

And if you are joining us a little later in the summer, or are applying at the very last minute to see if there are still places available, then please bear with us. The next 4 or 5 days are the busiest of our entire year, as people arrive and settle into Colleges and classes, and we often cannot respond to emails with alacrity.

We have a tremendous list of courses and plenary lectures lined up, and are excited by the imminent arrival of students to enjoy the fruits of 12+ months of planning.

See you soon!

Sarah Ormrod



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Over the last few weeks the British countryside and particularly the gardens, woods and fields around Madingley have really come to life. From where I am sitting in my office, I can see the meadow at the back of Madingley Hall sparkling in the sun and bespeckled with pale yellow; the flowers of hundreds of cowslips.

Here and there delicate pink cuckoo flowers are in bloom, providing a rich resource for springtime bees and butterflies. Walk along one of the mowed paths through the meadow and you can see bees at work, particularly bumblebees, as they drone from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar for their developing nests.

Follow one of these furry little foragers back to their home and their lives appear even more remarkable. Many, like the buff-tailed bumblebee, one of our commonest species, make their nest below ground in deserted mouse holes. In the early spring the new queens emerge from hibernation and search for a new home. This is when you can see them hovering like miniature helicopters low over the ground, occasionally dropping down to inspect a likely looking hole or crevice. Soon they set up shop and start to construct cells of wax, which they provision with pollen and nectar and where they lay their eggs.

As the season develops, the eggs hatch into grubs, which are fed by the young queen and grow rapidly. After a few weeks, they pupate and then emerge as new adults: the first generation of workers. Now the queen no longer leaves the nest, but stays at home laying more eggs for the workers to tend. As spring turns to summer and the nest expands, more and more workers are produced until a single colony can number several hundred individuals!

But, despite the prosperity, things are not as peaceful as they appear. As the colony grows it is time for the next generation of queens and males to be produced and now mutiny occurs. To produce these new reproductive individuals, the queen relaxes production of special pheromones by which she has been keeping the workers under control. Without these chemical shackles, anarchy breaks loose and the workers begin to lay their own eggs and can even attack and kill the queen, their mother! To think that all this life and tragedy can occur just below our feet in a Cambridgeshire garden.

With so many insects flying around the meadow at Madingley, it is easy to forget that bees and other pollinators have declined severely during the last century. What caused the dramatic loss isn’t entirely clear. The destruction of flower-rich meadows with agricultural intensification and increases in herbicide and fertiliser use were probably major factors.  But in recent years, researchers have identified another potentially serious threat. Pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are very widely used on flowering crops such as oilseed rape, not only stop colonies from growing as quickly, but also reduce the chance that foraging workers will find their way back to the nest. Partly as a result of this growing evidence, the EU recently passed legislation to ban the use of three of these pesticides on flowering crops for the next two years.

Hopefully this initiative and the use of more biodiversity-friendly farming methods are helping to restore wild pollinator communities to their former glory. Not only are these remarkable species part of the natural world, but they carry out invaluable services for us by pollinating many of our crops. If you have a garden or even just a window box, you can also help make sure that these pollinators get enough to eat, by planting bee-friendly flowers and by not being too precious about tidying up your borders. After all, what would summer be without the buzz of bees?

If you would like to learn more about pollinators, their ecology, value for pollination and conservation, why not sign up to our weekend course, Bees, flies and flowers, starting on 14 June, run by pollinator professional, Dr Lynn Dicks.

Dr Ed Turner, ICE Teaching Officer and Academic Director in Biological Sciences


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