Magazine article Times Higher Education

Cruise Control: Feature

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Cruise Control: Feature

Article excerpt

While academics who lecture on ocean liners are frequently mocked by colleagues for the activity's perceived lack of academic rigour, those who take on such work appear to have the last laugh, Matthew Reisz discovers.

The scholar on stage holds the status of entertainer, putting on a show for a paying audience whose scores will determine whether their lecturer's short-term contract is renewed.

Fear not: this is not a vision of some dystopian future but rather an unusual, and fascinating, break from the day job - with azure waters and plenty of sunshine thrown in.

For Kathleen Lynch, associate professor in the department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, lecturing on a cruise ship is "the very best kind of outreach experience possible".

She has already served as "lecturer/host" on three cruises, representing the Archaeological Institute of America and the Smithsonian Institution, and reports that "access to an archaeologist is a perk that the passengers really seem to enjoy".

And, while some holidaymakers come from backgrounds apparently worlds away from academe, they can turn out to be both knowledgeable and attentive. "I did a 'Footsteps of Odysseus' tour last year, and some members of the audience knew their Homer inside and out, even though they were lawyers and business people by trade," Lynch says. "Rarely do I get this level of engagement in my classrooms."

The trouble with such assignments can be the sniffy attitude of fellow academics, although it is just possible that such a response may be motivated by jealousy or self-interest.

Such was the dynamic in Alexander McCall Smith's 2003 novel The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, Lynch recalls, in which Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld "has an opportunity to be a lecturer on a cruise, and his colleagues mock the lack of academic rigour of such activities until he declines, and then they jump at the chance to replace him".

Astronomer Simon Mitton, college fellow in the department of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, is equally enthusiastic about life on the ocean waves - or at least aboard a Cunard liner.

He and his wife Jacqueline Mitton, also a writer on astronomy, are among the team put together by the Royal Astronomical Society as part of the entertainment on about half the RMS Queen Mary 2's seven-day transatlantic crossings. Along with four stand-alone lectures, they are responsible for a live planetarium show and an evening recognising stars and constellations from Deck 13.

"Entertainment" is very much the operative word, explains Mitton. "You are working for the entertainment director. They don't want Open University- style lectures, so you don't present technical knowledge. Graphs are discouraged and equations are a no-no."

Although Mitton is committed to many kinds of outreach, some are a good deal more pleasant and glitzy than others. Speakers at the Hay Festival tend to get only 10 minutes or so to interact with the audience afterwards. A talk at a local astronomical society can involve "a two-hour drive through the rain followed by a quick curry". On the high seas, by contrast, "Cunard look after us very well. You are given passenger status and get your own stateroom. And the Queen Mary 2 has the largest bookshop at sea, so they arrange signing sessions for our latest books. Last time they stocked seven of our titles."

The Mittons' lectures themselves take place "in a proper theatre with professional lighting, where you can move around and everybody's got a good view. So you get a very enthusiastic, motivated audience of 300-500 there in front of you (out of a total passenger list of about 2,500), with more looking at the direct feed in their staterooms."

All of this sounds extremely agreeable, but it was on another cruise that Mitton experienced what he says was "the most exciting thing I've ever done in terms of observational astronomy with the general public". …

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