Director's post: March madness

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March started, as it always does, with St David’s Day. Given my Welsh parentage, I notice St David’s Day while I would struggle to say with confidence when, for example, St George’s Day is. In any case, it is always a reminder that spring is coming and certainly Madingley is looking spectacular with the driveway lined with daffodils and the blossom on the trees.

On the first Sunday this month we held the inaugural Madingley Concert, to which around 70 people came to hear the Iridian Trio play Mozart and Schumann alongside a new composition by Tim Watts, Madingley March, which you can listen to here. Further Madingley Concerts are scheduled for 1 May and 8 May, so do book your free place.

By the evening of the first Madingley Concert I was in Lyon to examine a PhD thesis the following day at the École Centrale. I have been through Lyon en route elsewhere before but hadn’t ever seen the beauty of Lyon’s rivers by night. The city is dominated by the Rhône and Saône that converge forming Presqu'île and by two large hills, one to the west and one to the north of the city centre. The original medieval city was built on the west bank of the Saône river at the foot of the Fourvière hill, which is the location for the highly ornate Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière and the Tour métallique (a TV tower with an uncanny resemblance to the final stage of the Eiffel Tower).

The examination of PhDs in France is quite different from in this country. Here it is a intense, closed affair between the student and usually two examiners (and sometimes, depending on the university, the student’s supervisor is present as an observer). In France it is a public event with colleagues, friends and family in the audience to hear the student present the work and then to answer the questions of the rapporteur and the jury members before the questioning is opened up to all in audience – these questions can be the hardest to answer as they are often less predictable and less grounded in the language and accepted concepts in the field. The party waits to start once the examiners’ verdict is announced – so still intense, but differently so.

Midway through the month, at the start of the Cambridge Science Festival, we had our third Madingley Lecture, Dambusters and the engineering behind the bouncing bomb, given by Dr Hugh Hunt and supported by his PhD student, Hilary Costello, which attracted 140 or so and about which I blogged, in anticipation, at the end of February – watch out for the Channel 4 documentary on the remake of the raid (2 May 2011, to be confirmed). Together with Windfall Films, Hugh, Hilary and the team designed the re-enactment of the raid, and the Madingley Lecture described brilliantly some of the many challenges they encountered. The next Madingley Lecture, on 3 May, will be given by Professor David Spiegelhalter, the University’s Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk.

Later in that week, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, visited us at Madingley Hall. The Vice-Chancellor joined the University in October 2010 and was previously Chief Executive of the UK’s Medical Research Council. Borys was born in Wales so naturally appreciated the daffodil-lined driveway! More importantly, he very much appreciated what we are doing here at the Institute of Continuing Education.

Another dash to Stansted and flight this time to Edinburgh and on to Stirling to the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL) annual conference and council meeting. UALL is the professional association for the higher-education lifelong-learning community, and as such has a leading national role representing the interests of universities engaged in part-time and adult education; a particularly important role given the current maelstrom in HE funding.

Stirling sits on the River Forth at the start of the Highlands, and was once the capital of Scotland. King James VI was crowned King of Scots in 1567 at Stirling’s medieval parish church, The Church of the Holy Rude, and Stirling Castle sits imposingly on the top of the crag overlooking the Forth. The other imposing feature of the hilltops is the Wallace Monument, which commemorates the 13th century Scottish hero Sir William Wallace, but now somewhat incongruously and controversially also marked by a statue inspired by the 1995 Mel Gibson film Braveheart. Stirling is Scotland’s smallest city with a population of about 45,000, but I note in passing that the smallest city in the UK is ‘St David’s and the Cathedral Close’ (with a population of only about 1,800).

This week we have the start of our LLB and Diploma in Law Revision Programme and our Annual Conference for Teachers of A-Level Law. Note that we now have a sister conference for teachers of A-Level Philosophy, 18 June 2011, and for others interested in Wittgenstein scholarship.

As the March madness ends, I will nip over to Stockholm to examine a Master’s thesis on Friday this week to start the April foolhardiness!

To find out more about related ICE courses: