Madingley Minds

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Iron Age tax haven or gift to the gods? The strange world of archaeological interpretation

Written by Gilly Carr Monday, 10 February 2014 14:25

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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



Alice in Wordland

Written by Emily Caddick Bourne Saturday, 21 December 2013 15:50

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


A seasonal scientific miscellany

Written by Erica Bithell Friday, 20 December 2013 09:35

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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


MOOCs, SOCCs and kisses

Written by Jenny Bavidge Tuesday, 09 July 2013 10:19

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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


What’s the buzz?

Written by Ed Turner Friday, 31 May 2013 10:09

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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


Teaching the unteachable

Written by Sarah Burton Monday, 25 March 2013 10:07

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‘But can you really teach people how to write?’

It’s a line I’ve heard so many times, yet it’s still surprising. When someone wants to become a painter or a sculptor, they go to Art School. No-one says: ‘But can you really teach people how to paint?’ It’s just universally accepted that if you are artistically gifted you will benefit by studying technique, observing how other artists have achieved their effects, and experimenting, under the guidance of tutors (who are also artists) in order to develop your own unique style. But teaching (or learning) Creative Writing is regarded as a much more spurious affair. Writers are born, not schooled, according to some.

One of the writers I read in my early teens who made me sit up and realise there were vital voices which had not formed part of my Eng. Lit. education at school was Kurt Vonnegut. This was a writer who changed everything I had previously thought about what writing was, or could be. I didn’t know then that he had begun teaching Creative Writing at the University of Iowa at the same time he began writing the novel which brought him to the public’s attention, Slaughterhouse-Five (1965).

Past students on that course included Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor. (‘One wonders what ever became of them,’ Vonnegut reflected, when he, too, was faced with the same question: ‘But can you really teach people how to write?’)

In defence of teaching creative writing, Vonnegut repeated a legend that he felt made a key point.

‘A tough guy, I forget which one, is asked to speak to a creative writing class. He says: "What in hell are you doing here? Go home and glue your butts to a chair, and write and write until your heads fall off!" Or words to that effect.

‘My reply: "Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called, and continue to be called, editors."’

Vonnegut said that the most recent person to ask him the question about whether writing could be taught was a journalist, and that, in all probability, the asker of the question was taught by an editor. Many novelists were previously journalists, and the on-the-job training, because informal, remains largely unrecognised. Returning to the comparison with artists, Leonardo da Vinci was educated in the studio of Verrochio; Michelangelo was apprenticed to a painter and subsequently studied under a sculptor. They may well have been born artists, but they grew and learnt and refined under the critical eye and nurturing hand of other artists.

Vonnegut went on: ‘If the tough guy was Thomas Wolfe or Ernest Hemingway, he had the same creative writing teacher, who suggested, on the basis of his long experience, how the writer might clean up the messes on paper that he had made. He was Maxwell Perkins, reputedly one of the greatest editors of fiction who ever lived.’

Discovering this article fairly recently whetted my appetite for finding out more about the literary editor, Maxwell Perkins. I learned that he had indeed made Tom Wolfe publishable by encouraging him to cut 90,000 words from his first novel (that, in itself, is the length of a full-blown novel); he brought Hemingway’s first book to the press, fighting in-house resistance to Hemingway’s ‘bad language’ by securing the author’s co-operation in deleting some of it and defending the rest of it. Vonnegut was so sure of Perkins’ contribution to literature that he did not even add that Perkins had also mentored F Scott Fitzgerald and published his first novel, not to mention bringing Erskine Caldwell and Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country) to the world’s attention, supplying the plot for The Yearling (Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings), and publishing the first efforts of a number of Pulitzer prize-winning authors.

Perkins never rewrote his authors’ works. He suggested titles and plots. He gave advice about structure and selection. He advised them on what to read. And he defended them. His letters to writers are full of thoughtful, sound and sensitive advice, tailored to the needs of that particular writer, and yet of universal value. He, like Vonnegut, speaks to me about what writing can be.

And there’s another, purely economic aspect, to Creative Writing as a subject. Quite simply, it saves time. As Vonnegut himself observed, he wished he had attended a good creative writing course at the beginning of his writing career. ‘To have done so would have been good for me.’ He quotes another author who regretted not having taken a course at Iowa or Stanford when he was starting out as a novelist. ‘That would have saved him, he said, the several years he wasted trying to find out, all by himself, the best way to tell a story.’

Creative Writing is now offered as an A-level, but there appears to be an expectation that English teachers will just be able to teach it. Some will do it, easily and well. Others will struggle, and so will their students. Somehow it’s sneaked onto the syllabus without any training being offered, as if there is an assumption that English teachers can teach this, because ‘it’s all writing’. If this experiment fails, it won’t be the teachers’ fault. It will be down to a fatal misunderstanding of the difference between criticism and practice.

So, let’s return to the initial question. Can you teach people how to write? Yes, if the student has a burgeoning talent and the tutor understands how to nurture it. You also have to resist the temptation make everyone write like you do. You need to help them write like themselves. That’s what Maxwell Perkins did. The writer, in his words, had to ‘own the book’.

Dr Sarah Burton

Sarah is Course Director and Tutor on many of ICE's Creative Writing courses, including the new MSt in Creative Writing


What do scientists actually do?

Written by Ed Turner Friday, 04 January 2013 13:50

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One of the advantages of being a tropical biologist is that you have a legitimate excuse to escape the soggy shores of England for a few weeks over the winter. There’s something almost magical about stepping onto a plane in the UK, where the trees are leafless, the nights are drawing in and everyone seems to have a head cold, and disembarking in the tropics, where the humid heat hits you like a wall and everything’s in full flower. These research trips (or ‘holidays’ as one of friends irritatingly describes them) form the backbone of my research on tropical biodiversity and conservation.

Also, they really aren’t holidays. Over the weeks or months I am away, each day is carefully planned to fit into a research schedule that makes the most of my time. First there is the set-up and visa chasing. In my last trip this involved a noisy and smelly week in the centre of Jakarta, running from government office to office delivering passport photos and filling in forms. Then there is travelling to the research area (often quite remote), liaising with local scientists and collaborators, and setting up research plots. Once this is done, there is the careful collection of data. In my case this usually involves surveying for different insect species, collecting specimens using standard techniques and storing and identifying them.

The set-up and distribution of each survey area, the methods used and the types of insects studied are all planned well in advance; determined by the research questions being asked. Once the data is collected, the results are analysed statistically and written up for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals. For applied research the process doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the most important step is to make sure that findings are communicated to other organisations and individuals who can then make use of the information. For my research, presentations to the agricultural industry and conservation organisations are vital in ensuring results actually inform policy and management on the ground.

This whole process of research, from the inception of a research question to planning, project design, data collection, analysis, write up, review, publication and communication, is central to how science works. Most of it isn’t at all glamorous or exciting, but rather careful, balanced and reflective. Only rarely do findings lead to a sudden shift in concepts or how things operate; rather data slowly accumulates which provides support for or against a particular theory or process. As Isaac Newton put it “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” or as Hal Abelson has it “If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders.” Science is all about communication and building on the ideas and concepts of other researchers. I sometimes wonder if this careful and interactive core of science is underplayed or ignored when science is portrayed in the media. All too often scientists appear as egg-headed intellectuals, crouching in their high-tech labs awaiting a eureka moment, or, for field biologists, charging through the tropical rainforests without apparent direction on the lookout for a cure for cancer or the discovery of a new species.

At Madingley we have a wide range of courses coming up over the next few months, which break down these misconceptions and give participants a front row seat of cutting-edge scientific research. In each course, participants have the opportunity to interact with the Madingley biology tutors, who are often Cambridge scientists, and to find out more about how research takes place and its application in the real world.

For example in January, you can dive into the topic of marine conservation in Marine biology and conservation: exploring planet ocean. In February, you can discover more about the history of research in Cambridge and the value of biological collections in our Cambridge collections course, which provides a rare opportunity for a behind the scenes look in five of the Cambridge museums. Complementing this, you can also find out about contemporary Cambridge research in How science works.

In March and April you can discover more about natural history around Cambridge with Birds in spring and learn how to collect biological data in the field with Wild Madingley. Alternatively, if you’re more of an armchair biologist, you can learn about fieldwork in the most challenging environments from the comfort of Madingley Hall in Polar challenges for people and science.

So why not sign up to some of our courses and get behind the lab coats and big spectacles to meet real scientific researchers and find out more about what scientists do, and why research is important.

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


Education and social justice

Written by Nigel Kettley Wednesday, 10 October 2012 15:30

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‘There is’, as Cornford would have it, ‘only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.’ (1922, p. 18) My research explores the relationship between education, particularly further and higher education, and social justice (defined as the provision of equality of opportunity for all students irrespective of their personal characteristics or social background).

Having grown up in a working-class community in the 1970s, studied sociology at the University of Essex in the 1980s and spent much of the 1990s teaching GCSE, BTEC and A Level it is, perhaps, unsurprising that for me exploring educational differences and inequalities and their underlying causes seemed morally correct. It was, ‘the right thing to do’. Recent government changes to education in England, like the replacement (on less generous terms) of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (2010) and the increase of university tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year (2012), have only confirmed my research agenda. It remains, ‘the right thing to do’.

This research agenda is de facto political, I make no specious attempt to disguise it as ‘public-spiritedness’, because the structure and funding of education are the products of government ideology (Cornford, 1922, p. 23). It is, however, also empirical. It seeks to map educational differences and inequalities accurately, using statistical techniques, and then explain the underlying causes of these differences and inequalities drawing on interviews with students, teachers and managers in education. The results of the research projects I have undertaken, both individually and in collaboration, have been at times predictable and, at times, surprising. Some have also courted controversy.

My first major research project, published as Educational Attainment and Society (2007), assessed the relative impact of gender and social class on students’ examination results at GCSE and A Level. This question had arisen as a result of my experience as a teacher. The results of the analysis of data, derived from questionnaires, interviews and secondary statistics, showed that: 1) the effect of social class on examination results – to the advantage of the middle class – was approximately five times greater than the effect of gender (to girls’ advantage); 2) the gender gap (to girls’ advantage) tended to weaken between GCSE and A level, but the magnitude of the class effect persisted; and 3) the size of the gender gap (to girls’ advantage) was relative to social class (it was weaker for upper middle class students and much more sizable for working class students). I tried to explain these differences developing a theoretical model of the relationship between gender, social class and education which was, borrowing from Eckstein (1997), labelled congruence theory.

To those familiar with the results of educational research from the 1950s, these results were of little surprise. The vogue for studying the ‘closure of the gender gap’ in the late 1990s, however, resulted in some feminists responding to my findings as ‘motley’ ‘truth-claims’ ignorant of 21st century educational thinking (Arnot et al. 1999; David 2008). In trying to ‘do the right thing’, that is appraising the relative impact of gender and social class on attainment, I had apparently hit a raw nerve in education studies. In contrast, other researchers were highly supportive commenting, for example, ‘I would advise you to read this book by a promising researcher for its discussion of the role of theory, its elegant approach to methods, and the substantive findings’ (Gorard 2007).

Neglecting Cornford’s (1922) advice to the young academic politician, basically avoid making your own way in academia for this makes you ‘dreadfully disagreeable’, I responded to my critics by publishing Theory Building in Educational Research (2010/12). This text seeks, unashamedly, to map the ‘crisis’ in the quality of explanations which currently pervade education studies, as they have little or no power to explain social processes, and provide a system of logic and methods to promote superior explanations. It also considers – as another manifestation of ‘the right thing to do’ – the development of curriculum innovation strategies to promote social justice as a result of education. Responses to Theory Building have ranged from leading educational scholars privately chastising me to published responses praising the political analysis of the researcher’s role as ‘remarkable’ (Jarvis 2012). In education studies, there is little agreement over the meaning of ‘doing the right thing’ and the pursuit of knowledge of the relationship between education and social justice promotes divisions, which reflect the sectional interests of researchers (almost irrespective of the truth).

My current research projects include collaborative work on the Evaluation of the Cambridge Bursary Scheme, with Dr Joan M Whitehead in the Faculty of Education, and an analysis of variations in pupils’ educational behaviours by gender and social class which seeks to develop curriculum innovation strategies to enhance attainment. The results of the former project have been, at times, surprising. We have found pupils’ social class background has little impact on determining their decisions concerning university applications in Year 12, despite the widespread belief to the contrary (Kettley and Whitehead 2011). Results also show how men and women adapt differently to funding opportunities in higher education and how this can impact on their degree results (Kettley et al. 2008). The results of the latter project are to be published as Educational Practice and Society (2013). Here I will continue to make myself dreadfully disagreeable, despite Cornford’s (1922) warning to the academic politician, because the moral commitment to ‘do the right thing’ should not be contingent upon the responses of others. Politics is always personal as well as social.   

The focus of my research – exploring the relationship between education and social justice – is reflected in my teaching for the Institute. The pursuit of social justice through education might, at first glance, seem like an oxymoron in the context of an elite university. Yet, when James Stewart first began providing public lectures to working men in the late 1860s, it was precisely social justice as a result of ‘accessibility’ to elite higher education that he sought to promote (Kettley 2007).

If, like me, you are interested in issues of education, social justice and debates in the social sciences more generally, the Institute offers a range of courses from non-accredited open access programmes to full Master of Studies degrees. The Madingley Weekly Programme contains courses such as ‘Education, education, education’: The success and failures of British schooling and Inventing childhood. Our online courses, meanwhile, include Rebels without a cause? Youth cultures in modern Britain and our weekend programme includes Crime and deviance: Nuts, sluts and perverts? Additionally, the Institute provides a Master of Studies in Advanced Subject Teaching.

If you'd like to comment on any of the issues raised in this article, you can do so using the 'Add comment' link at the bottom of the page.

Dr Nigel Kettley, University Lecturer and ICE Academic Director in Education and Social Science

Main reference

Cornford, F M (1922) Microcosmographia Academia: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes. (Reproduced in full in: Johnson, G. (1994) University Politics: F M Cornford’s Cambridge and his advice to the Young Academic Politician. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)



Death in the Festival City

Written by Samantha Williams Monday, 03 September 2012 13:38

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I have just spent a week with my family at the Edinburgh Festival. The city was absolutely buzzing with creativity, festival-goers and tourists buying kilts and fake bagpipes. There was plenty on offer for us all: my husband went to see stand-up comedy and sampled whisky, my children met Barney from Blue Peter, and there was plenty of fascinating history all around me. The nearest church was no less than Canongate Kirk and buried in the kirkyard were the moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the poet Robert Fergusson (1750-1774).

Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. He was the founder of political economy and hugely influential to shifts in intellectual thought about the nature of the market. Smith’s magnificent tombstone might have been aggrandised in the 1930s. Such ideas are important to my research on the history of poverty and attitudes towards the poor, which underwent radical change over the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nassau Senior (1790–1864), Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford, was architect of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The principles of the New Poor Law were centralisation, uniformity, less-eligibility, and the workhouse test.

The poet Robert Fergusson was frequently impoverished. He published his poems in the Weekly Magazine and a collection Poems in 1773, while his other poems were published posthumously. By late 1773 he was very ill, possibly with syphilis. Seven months’ later he fell downstairs and became delirious; he was committed to Edinburgh’s Darien House Asylum, where he died, aged just 24, on 17 October 1774. He was buried two days’ later in the Canongate churchyard in an unmarked grave. Fergusson was Robert Burns’s favourite Scottish poet, and Burns paid for a headstone for Fergusson’s grave, with the epitaph:

No sculpturd Marble here nor pompous lay
No stoned Urn nor animated Bust
This simple Stone directs Pale cotia’s way
To pour her Sorrows o’er Poets Dust.

The statue pictured here is a much more recent addition (2004) and was sculpted by David Annand.

Edinburgh is also famous for the serial killers William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (1792/1804-?), who committed at least fifteen murders in the city in order to sell the bodies to the surgeon Professor Robert Knox (1791–1862) for dissection. He gave them between £8 and £14 for each corpse. They were discovered and arrested. Hare turned king’s evidence and was released; Burke was hanged on 28 January 1829 at Lawnmarket and faced the same fate as his victims: his corpse was dissected. The surgeon was Knox's rival, Sir Alexander Monro. Burke’s body was viewed by 30,000 people and his skeleton preserved and displayed in the anatomical museum of Edinburgh University. It was reported that Hare took employment at a lime kiln and that, when his identity became known, other workers threw him into the lime, which blinded him, and that he became a beggar with a dog on Oxford Street, London. The medical profession required a steady stream of corpses to dissect for the training of medical students, drawn from convicted murderers, the dead poor, and (sometimes) grave robbing.

If you, too, are interested in social history, and particularly the themes of poverty, disease, and the history of medicine, then you might like to study local history at the Institute. After Christmas (term 2) I am teaching on the Undergraduate Diploma in Local History II, ‘Poverty, disease and medicine in the local community c.1500-1914’. Many of the themes discussed in this blog will be covered in the course: attitudes to poverty and provision for the poor; disease, including syphilis; and the professionalisation of medicine, in terms of medical practitioners and their training, the provision of hospitals and asylums, and the role of the poor law in the provision of medical care. Early poor relief is also explored in terms 1’s course ‘The people and the parish, c.1500-1700’.

The Madingley Weekly Programme also contains related courses, such as ‘Lock ‘em up!’, which considers the prisoner of war camp, the prison, and the workhouse, and ‘Inventing childhood’, which explores the history of welfare legislation and education reform. There are also Weekend courses at Madingley Hall: ‘In and out of the workhouse: Victorian and Edwardian poverty issues’, ‘Surnames in the United Kingdom: origins, meaning and history’, ‘Chapel: in search of a lost culture’, and ‘Churches and chapels of Cambridge’.

If you would like to undertake your own research then you might be interested in the Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Local History.

Dr Samantha Williams, ICE University Senior Lecturer and Academic Director in Local History


Supping with the Devil

Written by Justin Meggitt Wednesday, 04 July 2012 08:24

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Madingley Hall is not somewhere one would expect to meet the Devil. The Hall is just too beautiful and people who work or visit here, by and large, seem far too reasonable and busy to have time for that kind of thing; it would, I imagine, be very distracting. The Buddha that sits peacefully looking out over a pool under the North Terrace, appears a religious figure more suited to the character of the place than the Prince of Darkness, and the calm presence of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, that you pass on your way up the drive, and which has been there, in one form or another, for almost a thousand years, would, one assumes, make it unlikely that he would want to drop in.

However, as part of the research for a book I am currently writing, I came across the details of a trial held in Cambridge in 1659 in which some people were accused of not only meeting the Devil at Madingley Hall but supping with him too (whether spoons were used or not, or how long these might have been, is not on record). Indeed, two of the party arrived at the Hall for their diabolical dinner party one chilly November night on the back of an unfortunate woman from a nearby village whom they had changed into a horse; the victim showed off the injuries she received from the bridle in case there was any doubt about her testimony.

Plenty of people, including a number of scholars of the University, believed the woman's account. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress, went into print supporting her claims, and a pamphlet published in London entitled Strange and Terrible Newes from Cambridge made the incident a story of national interest. It was a serious accusation: if found guilty the accused would have been put to death.

Of course, accusations of magic are something that have preoccupied societies for millennia and raise fascinating questions of the kind we explore in a range of courses at the Institute. What, for example, do people really believe when they make such accusations? As the author Apuleius of Madura pointed out when defending himself against just such a charge in the Roman empire, those who really believe in the powers of magicians would surely be the last people who would risk taking such people to court. And as we can see in a range of different cultures and epochs, accusations of magic, like accusations of madness or badness, came to be part of the way that societies define themselves and keep those that are different or are perceived to be a threat to the status quo at bay. It is no surprise to find that the individuals accused of dining with the Devil were Quakers, members of an unpopular new sect that had recently arrived in Cambridge and some of whose female adherents had already been whipped through the streets of the city for daring to preach, something that had not gone down well with young, male clergy being trained in the University.

And what happened to the accused? They were fortunate to be acquitted. The judge decided that the whole thing was probably the result of a bad dream, a sensible judgement that resembles one a few decades later when another judge famously dismissed a charge of witchcraft on the grounds that he knew of no law in England against flying.

Interestingly, the Quakers went on to publish their own account of the case as they still felt the need to clear their name. In it they argued, amongst other things, that the accuser must be a liar because she claimed they had joined the Devil in a meal of mutton, rabbit and lamb but no one, not even the Prince of Darkness himself it seems, could possibly have got hold of lamb in November.

Things have clearly changed a great deal over the centuries; lamb can now be seen on the menu at the Hall in November. I still do not think that Madingley is somewhere you are likely to encounter the Devil but perhaps, on reflection, it is not as improbable as it once was.

Dr Justin Meggitt, ICE University Senior Lecturer and Academic Director for the Study of Religion

[Those interested in thinking further about evil might enjoy the forthcoming weekend course, God and Evil, an exploration of the theological and philosophical problems that the existence of evil raises for belief in God.]


The art of survival

Written by Gilly Carr Friday, 08 June 2012 11:20


Last month I was in the Channel Island of Jersey for the opening of my museum exhibition, Occupied Behind Barbed Wire. During the German occupation of the Channel Islands, around 2,200 people were deported to French and German civilian internment camps (a number not including those who were deported to penal prisons and concentration camps for acts of resistance).

Since 2006 I have been working with former deportees, collecting their testimonies and attending their twice-annual reunions. As an archaeologist, my particular interest is in artefacts, or in this case, the hand-made arts and crafts that they brought home with them from the camps, and I have now seen well over 100 private collections of such items in the homes of former deportees.

These objects are fascinating, and include items as diverse as sports trophies, ash trays and hair curlers made out of Red Cross food tins; handbags, shoes and jewellery boxes made from Red Cross parcel string; dolls’ cots made out of empty Red Cross cardboard boxes; and paintings, greetings cards, concert programmes and other artwork drawn on the back of brown parcel wrapping paper. In the past, such items as these have been seen as the meaningless but pretty ephemera from such places, and very much secondary in importance to diaries and documents. Today, however, these items are viewed as crucial witnesses to, and enablers of, survival. While Red Cross parcels may have enabled the deportees I study to have survived physically, the objects they made helped them to survive emotionally and psychologically.

As an archaeologist, I am used to interpreting objects. It has been fascinating to use these skills to help me understand 20th century objects. In the stiff-upper-lip 1940s, people poured their emotions, hopes and fears into the objects they made, making them powerful items, pregnant with meaning.

If you are interested in acquiring these same skills of artefact interpretation, why not sign up for our Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology programme? Or, if you want to learn more about internment camps, prisons and workhouses, and the different ways in which historians and archaeologists approach such institutions – and to hear more about the deportees that I work with – I can recommend Lock ‘em up, one of the new Madingley Weekly Programme courses available in 2013.

Next year, in the Undergraduate Diploma in Archaeology programme, we have a tremendously exciting line-up of courses prepared. I will be teaching a course on Conflict Archaeology, during which we will examine WWI, WWII and other 20th century conflicts from an archaeological perspective (and I will be talking more about working with POW groups). This will be followed by a course on Museums and Heritage, which will pick up some of the same themes.

I have a particular interest in the heritage of WWII, especially of the German occupation of the Channel Islands (as can be seen from my website!). The Germans left behind hundreds of concrete fortifications or bunkers in the islands, and one thing that I have found again and again when talking to those who restore these bunkers today is that many of them have had supernatural experiences inside these places. There is a seemingly widespread acceptance in the Channel Islands that many bunkers are haunted by the ghosts of German soldiers. At first I disregarded such tales, as serious archaeologists are not supposed to deal with ghost stories, but then I had my own frightening experience. The more people in the Channel Islands I told, the more of them told me their stories. Back in Cambridge I began to chat to members of the Anthropology department about it, and they told me of the experiences and beliefs of people in various parts of the world where they carry out their fieldwork. And so the idea was born which will culminate in a fascinating (and chilling!) weekend course to be held at Madingley Hall: Dealing with the dead: ghosts and spirits from around the world. This course will run from 30 November – 2 December 2012 and my anthropological colleagues and I will tell you about spirits and ghosts in the Channel Islands, Mexico, India, Siberia, Mongolia, Indonesia and Amazonia.

If this course only whets your appetite for more, why not sign up for Apparitions: ghosts, angels and demons in modern Britain in Spring 2013 if you want to find out how academics deal with the supernatural!

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