08 October 2008

4 glasses of wine + orientation

After a week in Cambridge I am just beginning to wrap my mind around the innumerable ways in which the whole approach to education here is different from what I am used to in the U.S. It will take several posts to digest and share my thoughts, but I'll start with one of the most interesting features of Cambridge life -- the college system -- including a "not in Kansas anymore" experience from the other night.

This thing called "The University of Cambridge" is basically an administrative shell for an unruly collection of institutions, including 31 self-governing colleges, various academic departments and committees, and a wide assortment of other entities (such as the Gates Cambridge Trust). As our Gatesian elders warned us during the Lake District trip, navigating this often baffling system is one of the primary challenges of our lives here and an excellent education unto itself.

For grad students such as yours truly, the 31 colleges exist primarily as centers of residential and social life. The colleges vary widely in personality, age (ranging from 31 to 724 years) , wealth (£8 million to £700 million), and student body composition (grad vs. undergrad, male vs. female, home vs. international). Reflecting the pious history of the university, six colleges are named after Jesus or God in some form (Christ's, Corpus Christi, Emmanuel, Jesus, Trinity, and Trinity Hall). Other colleges bear the names of monarchs, clergy, famous alumni (Darwin), and political figures (Churchill).

When I was applying to Cambridge, I had to rank my top two college preferences. At the time I didn't know any of them from Adam -- from Adam's College? -- and frankly didn't feel up to sorting through the morass. Luckily, I had a lazy but defensible way out of making a real decision. For historical reasons I won't bore you with, nearly all Williams alumni at Cambridge are at Emmanuel College. Indeed, "Emma" is a veritable Williams-in-exile, typically with about 20 Ephs in residence at any one time. The current crop consists mostly of 07's and 08's, and I actually knew a few of the former the last time we shared a campus. And Emma just happens to be a great college for lots of other reasons-- it has a rich historical pedigree (founded 1584) without being snooty or overly traditional, it's centrally located, reasonably wealthy, has very pretty grounds, and is neither too big nor too small. Of course, it seems that everyone at Cambridge believes their college to be the best college, so maybe it's just the brainwashing setting in.

Now, say you were a college administrator and you had to put the following activities in a suitable order: (A) dance party, (B) introductory remarks by college bigwigs in an auditorium, (C) multiple-course dinner with multiple courses of wine, and (D) cocktails. In America, surely, the order would be BDCA. Apparently that's not how it's done in Britain, though, because on Monday night we had all consumed at least four servings of alcohol before the bigwigs spoke.

The evening began with the cocktails, followed by the first MCR* formal hall** of Michaelmas Term.*** The food was actually quite good, and we were served a glass of wine with almost every course: white wine with the appetizer, red with the main course, port with dessert. The Master**** of the College said grace in Latin before and after the meal. I was seated next to a very sweet Scottish girl who, sadly, I had a very hard time understanding due to her accent and the horrible acoustics. Her failure to touch her wine led to quizzical comments her friends on the other side of the table, and I watched in amazement as she put away three glasses in rapid succession and then continued our conversation without missing a beat.

Once we were, ummm, warmed up, we proceeded to the auditorium for welcoming remarks from Master Wilson, the Senior Tutor*****, the Head Porter******, and the president of the MCR. All of the speeches were actually quite funny and entertaining... but it could have just been the wine. The Head Porter, who bears a striking resemblance to Terry Bradshaw, was particularly funny. Finally, at the end of the evening, we proceeded to the Old Library (where we started with the cocktails) for a 90s-themed bop******* under the eyes of the dead white guys whose portraits hang on the walls.

And yes, you read that right: all of this happened on Monday night. Apparently the idea that most of one's drinking should be done on the weekend is an American invention too.

*Middle Combination Room (MCR): refers to the social organization for the grad students and the grad students themselves as a unit, in addition to the physical room where they congregate.
**Formal hall: a sumptuous multi-course dinner, eaten by candlelight in formal dress and academic robes.
***Michaelmas Term: October to December.
****Master: like a college president. Ours is a member of the House of Lords who has worked for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
*****Senior Tutor: an academic who oversees the welfare of grad students in the college. Ours is a chemist, and it seems like an odd feature of the UK system that he has to spend some of his time assigning us rooms, but that's how it works.
******Porter: no equivalent in the US system, porters are responsible for security, locks, mail delivery, and otherwise keeping the gears turning.
*******Bop: dance party. I didn't need a footnote for that, I just wanted to use seven asterisks.

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