Happy August, all! As we return to our schools and our jobs, I’m thinking back on the wonderful professional development trip I took this summer to Oxford, England. Oxbridge Academic Programs by Worldstrides has been running student programs for thirty-five years, in locations including Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, New York, and Barcelona. An offshoot of that is the weeklong Oxbridge Teacher Seminars, this year taking place in Oxford and Cambridge. This is my third time joining these programs, and the second time in Oxford. Each year the programs offer several different tracks, which in Oxford this year included: Literature and the Fantastic (about the Oxford fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, etc.), The Library and the Academy, Shakespeare in History, and Leadership Challenges in Contemporary Education. As I had previously taken the Literature and the Fantastic course, which I loved, this year I chose Shakespeare. My AISL colleague Jennifer Lutzky, from Campbell Hall in California, chose the library track. She contributed all information related to that, as well as contributing to the details of the program overall.
The programs take place at one of the thirty-nine colleges included in Oxford University; this year at Worcester College. Program days start with breakfast in the college dining hall, seminar meetings in the morning, a tea break at eleven (because, of course), then further seminar meetings or local field trips with your seminar group until lunchtime. Lunches are on your own in Oxford. Afternoons include plenary (all-group) sessions that could be lectures, workshops, walking tours, college tours, or local activities. Dinner is also in the college dining hall, and can be followed by optional excursions to pubs, concerts, plays, etc. And of course, there is lots of time for connecting with your fellow course participants over meals, at meetings, and in your free time—network away!
There is also plenty of time for exploring Oxford and souvenir shopping. Oxford is a highly walkable town, with something new and photo-worthy around every curve, narrow alleyway, and corner. Our introductory walking tour, through the lively river of summer tourists and students, touched on all the main sites, such as the Radcliffe Camera, Ashmolean Museum, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, etc. Despite its historic buildings, Oxford is no museum; it’s a living, active host to hundreds of years of scholarship and shenanigans.
Here is a daily schedule of the 2023 program, for the Shakespeare and Library tracks:
Day One: Arrival at Worcester College
Welcome: Group meeting to go over the program and make introductions
Plenary Session: Walking tour of Oxford
After dinner: Optional pub visit to The Rickety Press
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group, led by Dr. Kim Sturgess, discussed Shakespeare in general, and teaching Shakespeare. One suggestion was treating it like a video game, with many different levels of expertise. We then took a “field trip” to the college lake, overhung by willows, for a reading/discussion of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet. The library group, led by Steven Archer from Trinity College Cambridge, discussed “Libraries and the University”, an overview of how the Oxford and Cambridge systems work and how their different types of libraries integrate into the institution as a whole. Then we visited Merton College, established in 1264, and their library, which was built in the 1370s. It is the oldest continuously-operating university library in the world.
Plenary Session One: Dr. Mark Hammond: “Exoplanet research, Education, and Outreach.”
Plenary Session Two: Prof. Patrick Porter: “Blood and Iron: Ukraine, Taiwan, and the West.”
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group read aloud from and discussed Romeo and Juliet, and ways to approach it with students, mostly by knocking it off its pedestal and connecting students with the universal emotions and experiences at its center. At our second session, we talked about the lyric poem Venus and Adonis, one of the few pieces published in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The library group discussed theories about what makes a library a library, and got an overview on the history of ancient and medieval libraries. Then we had two library visits! The first was with the curator of medieval manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, where we got to see an array of manuscripts, including one scribed in the 1180s and the first bible translated into Middle English in the 1430s. Next we visited the Lincoln College library, which moved into a beautiful church in the 1970s and has exquisite Georgian ceilings.
Plenary Session One: Charlie Gilderdale: “Experiencing Learning.” In this session, we spent forty-five minutes on a math problem, and forty-five minutes discussing our experiences as students.
Plenary Session Two: Punting on the Thames, unfortunately canceled due to rain.
After Dinner: “Optional drinks with the faculty of The Oxford Tradition and The Oxford Prep Experience at Corpus Christi College.” Worcester College Cellar Bar also open.
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group read from and discussed The Tempest, and some of its problematic aspects, such as the treatment of Caliban. Dr. Sturgess tried to frame it with an Elizabethan consciousness to help us understand how its original viewers would have responded to it. The library group learned about the early history of printing, and then discussed cataloging and item access. Today’s library visits were to two particularly impressive libraries, Duke Humfrey’s Library in the old Bodleian, and the Radcliffe Camera. Both are places typically restricted to Oxford students and faculty, without any public access, and both were extraordinary to see in person. The library group was especially awed by Duke Humfrey’s library, with all its 15th and 16th century splendor, and amused by the juxtaposition of centuries-old volumes and bookcases with power strips and USB ports.
Plenary Session One: Gabriel Sewell: “Visit to Christ Church’s historic Upper Library with the college librarian.” Discussion about the library system at Oxford. On display: a 14th century copy of The Canterbury Tales, among other wonders, and a beautiful exhibition devoted to Lewis Carroll, who was both a student and mathematics tutor at the college.
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group discussed The Merchant of Venice and its controversial aspects, as well as how it would have been viewed by Elizabethan audiences. The play does feature some wonderfully strong and intelligent women, who found ways to have power in a society that allowed them few choices. The library group discussed library spaces and how they have changed, and talked about ways that libraries can engage and serve their users. We then visited the library at Queen’s College, which has three floors with three distinct atmospheres, built in the 17th, 19th, and 21st centuries.
Optional Bodleian Library Tour: Thirty minute tour covering the history of the library while visiting the oldest section, the 15th century Duke Humfrey’s Library, then a brief visit to the Divinity School with its fantastical fan vaulting.
Plenary Session: Eleanor Townsend: “Re-discovering Women in Art: the making of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries.”
After Dinner: Walk to the nearby Norman-era Oxford Castle for an outdoor performance of Romeo & Juliet.
Discussion Groups: The Shakespeare group discussed last night’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, as well as reading from and discussing Henry V, and watching video clips from the Kenneth Branagh version. In the second morning session, we watched an episode of Michael Wood’s In search of Shakespeare, a documentary exploring Shakespeare’s lifetime. The library group talked about library services and the broad spectrum of what libraries do for patrons. Then we again fit two libraries into our field trip schedule. First we were off to the Oxford Union, the iconic Oxford debating society, to hear about their history and see their library (including a ceiling painted by William Morris). Next we explored the library at Trinity College, which is over 600 years old and houses everything from 10th century manuscripts to a collection of rare erotica to limited editions of Winnie the Pooh.
Plenary Session One: Choice of walking tours, one for architecture, one for literature.
Plenary Session Two: Punting on the Thames, starting from Magdalen Bridge.
After Dinner: Optional concert at the Sheldonian Theatre: “Shakespeare in Music; Oxford Philharmonic.”
Free time: With a free morning, some new friends from the Shakespeare group hopped on a local bus to visit Blenheim Palace, the vast and lavish estate that’s the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. The library group snuck in one last field trip, a visit to St. Edmund Hall (“Teddy Hall”) and their libraries. Another library housed in a church, the College Library building dates from the 12th century and is one of the oldest churches in Oxford. There is a tomb nestled among the desks in the reading room, a crypt underneath the floor, and students regularly lean against the gravestones outside to study on sunny days. The Old Library, in a separate building, was constructed in the 1680s and was the last Oxford library to keep their books chained to the shelves to prevent theft.
Plenary Session: Tour of New College (founded 1379). “A visit to this 14th Century college to explore the magnificent chapel, hall, quads, and gardens.”
Drinks Reception: Presentation of certificates.
Rebecca: I think I could happily spend part of every summer in Oxford, and I highly recommend the Oxbridge program, though it is rather pricey as far as professional development goes (I paid for it myself). Please feel free to contact me for any more information, and you can read an expanded day to day description of my experience here. If you’re really interested, you can also read a way-too-long travelogue of my experience with the Literature and the Fantastic course in 2011 here. That course is still being offered, and while of course it would be different, the travelogue could give you an idea of the type of thing likely to be covered.
Jennifer: For the library group, just to be admitted into so many very old and very beautiful library spaces, and surrounded by the sheer volume of rare and many-centuries-old books and manuscripts, was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Those opportunities, paired with engaging discussions about libraries and library services, made this seminar both worthwhile professionally and delightful personally. I hope to repeat the experience, perhaps the next time it is hosted at Cambridge!
Composite of photos taken around Worcester College. It is enormous, including a small lake, multiple academic and dorm buildings, a library, a chapel, a dining hall, a pub, a Henry Moore sculpture, ancient trees in luxuriant gardens, walking trails, and a vast athletic field.