Summer Schools in the making: ready to roll (and rock!)


It’s a beautiful day outside: the window is open, the temperature perfect, and it’s quiet in the office – but only because it is a Saturday. The countdown to summer has begun, and we are now surrounded in the offices by growing piles of student packs, forms, itineraries, and all the ephemera which indicate that it is just days away before the great Summer Schools’ machine whirrs, whistles and spins into the busiest time of the year. There are a thousand and one things to do on my tick-list, and on everyone else’s, and long hours are being worked to ensure everything is ready.

Against this backdrop, of course, people are still applying, particularly for the programmes which take place later in the summer. And, although our primary concern is the running of this Summer’s programmes, we are also setting in place firm plans for summer 2012. Plenary themes for next year will be revealed later in the summer. There are exciting new plans which will, we hope, lure huge numbers from 2011 to return in 2012. Speaking of returners: we have over 200 this year who have been to the Summer Schools on one or many more occasions: a phenomenal number.

For returning and new students, we hope that you are excitedly planning for your journeys (even if, like another 50 or so, you are only travelling from within the UK). I hope everyone coming is better at packing that I am: the received wisdom is to pack once, then halve what you planned to bring, and pack again. If you can bear to travel very ‘light’, there will be a lot of discounts in the clothing shops and on Cambridge’s wonderful seven-day-a week market: July is one of the two times in the year when there are ‘sales’ in the shops. (And for our August visitors, some of these still linger on.)

As an end of day treat, I’m currently reading 1215: the year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham. I don’t know what all of our medieval experts say about it (I’ll find out, later in the summer) but it’s an enjoyable introduction to life in Britain nearly 800 years ago. I’ve just read the chapter about schools and universities, talking about education in Oxford, Cambridge, Lincoln, Exeter, and, of course, about ‘study abroad’, since many of the wealthiest and the ruling classes sent sons to Paris or Bologna (for Roman law), or Salerno (for medical studies). It’s hard to imagine what it was like, eight centuries ago, to pack up what you needed and set off on a journey to study in a foreign country, and to stay there for several years without going home. The language issue was probably not as great as it might be today, if the student already knew Latin and French, and may be the ‘postal service’ was not so much worse than it can be today.

But for growing generations the idea of being out of daily (or hourly!) contact electronically with friends and family whilst tens or hundreds of miles (or kilometres) away from home must seem incomprehensible. For those of you travelling alone, or travelling abroad for the first time… don’t be daunted. Yes, you will be immersed in an environment where teaching and learning takes place face-to-face, through a mixture of lecture, discussion and debate, just like your medieval forebears, and yes, the food, the weather and the customs might on the first day seem just as unfamiliar! And yes, there’s a slim chance that your journey to us might just feel as though it was as epic as one that gets a student by sailing boat and on horseback between Cambridge and Salerno or Bologna. But it’s an adventure! You are not here for three or seven years, and only have a brief while in which to embrace all of the learning, the discoveries, the experiences before you return home.

When you do get free time outside the classroom, Cambridge is brim full of things to do. We plan evening lectures and events, and weekend excursions, but in addition you can sneak in to the Fitzwilliam museum to their ‘Treasure under your feet’ exhibition, and perhaps glimpse the sort of thing your medieval student predecessor could have seen being made be a jeweller in Italy, France, Spain, of even farther afield.

Consider, anyone who is a budding botanist or naturalist, this opportunity to apply to help in something called a ‘bioblitz’ in the magnificent University Botanic Garden. (For one day, from 5pm on Friday 22 July.)

I’ve lived within 15 miles of Cambridge and worked for the University for over 20 years, but I still keep finding new places to discover. I still get a buzz when I go to a website to discover that St Bene’ts (no, that’s not a punctuation error), a building I passed carrying my shopping the other day without giving it a second thought, is described in quiet understatement as: ‘This ancient parish church is an Anglo-Saxon foundation dating from around 1020, when Canute was King of England.’ Make it a quest to discover the very oldest parts of Cambridge, not only St Bene’ts, but also the School of Pythagoras, the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene (‘The Leper Chapel’), and the Round Church.

For those of you who are interested in more modern architecture, you’ll find plenty on the Sidgwick Site where a lot of the teaching takes place, oooooh… goodness, another discovery - I hadn’t until now realised that there’s a site with an audio guide that introduces you to the buildings right next to our Summer Schools’ Office!   Fun: now you will all know more than we do about these buildings. In case you thought the whole of Cambridge was medieval, this will help to prove that it’s constantly being updated and added to. The downside is that there are very often building works in progress and unsightly scaffolding around in Summer. Grr: just when we want Cambridge to look its best for our visitors! But on the upside, those who came a year ago will see that a new Humanities and Social Sciences building has sprung up from behind the hoardings next to the English Faculty, and will soon be ready for use. Hopefully that means by next summer, there’s another building with a café and social areas for you to enjoy (when you return, of course), and we might just be able to book their teaching spaces. And fans of modern architecture can investigate the new buildings shooting up in profusion on the West Cambridge site (with some fun construction-site webcam footage, too).

Well, I had planned to write about all the things I need to get finished this weekend (statistics about the enrolments, welcome notes, a work rota so our Resident Tutors know which days they will be behind the desk and ready to welcome you, and dozens of other things….   But I’ve just got carried away talking about Cambridge again.

And a last thing to mention, of course, is that – even though we are right at the core of the planning – the International Programmes team still gets excited every year by the range of courses we have on offer, and the great feedback we have from the courses and the plenaries. We’re devising and printing the feedback forms now, so that you have a quick and easy way of letting us know what you thought of each plenary and each course.

My ‘therapy session’ this evening, as a break away from the computer will be to prepare the boards on which the Art History students joining John Myatt’s practical session (pm Friday 15 July and am Saturday 16 July) will be painting. The practical is a great way to learn about how paintings are made, and is a firm favourite every year with the students who participate. (Art Historians: book now...)

That’s it then….   A week from today we shall be ready to roll.   And the Summer Schools, we hope, will not only roll, but rock… with the vibrancy of a string quartet, three ceilidhs, a silver band and well over a thousand voices. If you are reading this, and planning to be with us, you can add your voice. If you had planned to be with us, but cannot be (a small handful of our dear returning friends are not well and cannot come), then your voices still resound from your previous visits, and will be back with us next year, we hope.

For those on their way to us over the next few weeks: see you soon!