Summer Schools in the making: 2014 recollections

Written by Sarah Ormrod Tuesday, 09 September 2014 12:54


Those who have just attended the International Summer Schools, will understand clearly why there has been no blog for a few weeks. As soon as students arrived, the thrilling whirligig of daily classes, plenary sessions, meal times, conversations, spun us from one day to the next. Our heads (the students’ and mine too, as I managed to hear at least one plenary talk a day) filled with facts, connections, stories, insights. As Programme Director for ISS I, II and III, I chaired the morning series of lectures on ‘Achievement’ and avidly took notes, collecting influences, illuminations and unexpected connections.

I learned what great ‘Achievers’ have in common; about Archbishop Matthew Parker’s obsession with books; what glorious, sinuous and organic buildings can be made of mud brick and ingenuity; the origins of several British honours, and arguments for and against in the latest thinking on whether we should now be planning to engineer the climate. (The recording of the debate on this last topic can be found here.) All this was just part of week 1!!

Week 2 plenaries found me listening to a Nobel-prize-winner talking about stem cells; the University’s part-time ceremonial officer talking about ‘The trappings of achievement’ – with explanations of heraldic achievements which resonated nicely with a week1 talk about the honours system; the latest thinking on the Ukrainian crisis from the former British ambassador to Moscow; the making of Charlton Heston’s El Cid; the achievement of Churchill in a few days in May 1940; and ways that millions of ordinary people are helping scientists to discover new planets via the Zooniverse – a project in which a former Resident Assistant-turned-Scientist is now heavily involved.

Some of Week 3’s talks had me re-visit my background as an art historian; tested me to the limit on logic and mathematics; offered a sobering reflection on what poetry can achieve in times of war; gave food for thought on health in the workforce; and explained the measures scientists are taking in order to save the city of Venice from flooding.

In week 4, we welcomed back David Starkey, who gave an amusing and thought-provoking take on ‘Consorts and first ladies’ in history. I heard the history of Cambridge’s best-known building, King’s College Chapel; revelled in talks on art crime and on evolution; and now have a new take on a number of classic film endings.

In weeks 5 and 6, I was instructed and entertained by the talk on English dialects; heard Creative Writing Summer School talks from Louis de Bernières and Wendy Cope – both writers whose work I greatly admire; heard a talk on medieval manuscripts that was illuminating in so many ways that I scribbled notes furiously – and probably illegibly. The former CEO of Oxfam, Dame Barbara Stocking was thought-provoking on ‘Dilemmas in doing good’ – the difficulties encountered in fund-raising and taking action to offer relief to people suffering from the effects of poverty, famine and war. ‘The shortlist’ was a wonderful evening of student readings of their own (very impressive) work selected for the Creative Writing Summer School prizes.

In week 7, the Hanseatic League Summer School taught me a terrific amount in a very short time, about travel, trade, furs, Prussian crusades, geography, and King’s Lynn. It was a wonderful way to end the Summer, full of ideas for next year…

I’ve been less than succinct about these recollections, but even then, I’ve had to leave out so many great talks, and haven’t even started on all of the other wonderful memories of people, conversations and events, and the fun of meeting students from all over the world. I make no apology for focusing here on my own experience: I firmly believe that these programmes have a profound influence on all of us – whether we are at the start of our careers, or later in our working lives, as organisers, assistants, teachers or students. For me, there is immense satisfaction in seeing the year’s plans come to fruition in these fact- and action-filled weeks. The student experience is paramount, as is the experience for those who teach, and those who work to make the programmes a success. The fact that I get to hear lectures at all is a huge bonus, and that snatched hour of lectures here and there reminds me what the programmes are really about. They inspire me to make connections, and to think of new courses and programmes of study, new ways of learning. As I scribble notes about the talks, I fill the margins with reminders and ideas.

My experience, of course, has just been to touch the tip of an iceberg of learning… glimpses snatched between the essential wheels of administration which our team turn steadily in the background, to ensure all runs to plan. The students are able to immerse themselves in classes, discussions over meal times, complete series of morning and evening lectures, and a great deal more besides.

So, to capture more than just my snapshot of summer 2014, we are inviting recollections from this past summer’s participants.

Send us your entry for our ‘recollection collection’. We’d like you to be much more succinct than I have been here, and to focus on that one moment that sums up for you the best of your summer school experience. Entries are limited to 120 words each. Send entries to

Add to each entry your name, home country and which Summer School(s) you attended. We’ll publish some of them in the next few weeks and build up a ‘recollection collection’ on the web between now and when the application process opens in December for 2015.

We look forward to hearing from you.


Sarah J Ormrod, September 2014



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