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A summer pause

The work of the University and the College continues throughout the year, but summer brings a new rhythm. In contrast to my previous experience in North America, where the end of August is a time of frenetic activity for universities, with students arriving and classes beginning even before the Labor Day holiday, here this whole month is one of relative calm. The Oxford term begins in the first week of October, though September this year promises to be busy, certainly at Somerville: our new buildings on the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter will be opened formally by the Chancellor Lord Patten on 17 September; and between now and then we have to take possession of the buildings from the construction company, and furnish them ready for the first intake of students. It will be a landmark in the College’s life, the fulfillment of years of hard work and planning by our Treasurer Helen Morton, and a great new opportunity –with lots more work– for Carol Reynolds, the Domestic Bursar, as she fits out the rooms for the students and then starts to market them for vacation conference visitors. A reunion of Somervillians fifty years on from matriculation (the year of 1961), open days for prospective students and a long weekend of alumni events will all help to fill September.

It is not as though August is idle, though. Exam results are another feature of the British university scene that does not dominate American universities in anything like the same way. Filtering through at the end of July come the results of finals, prelims, mods and other exams taken at the end of the Trinity Term. Now that all the Oxford finals results are in, Somerville has a great showing of firsts and high 2:1s; 29 first-class degrees out of a cohort of 109, better than all but two previous years out of the fifteen since Somerville finalists first included roughly equal numbers of men and women. Among our high performers are several university prize winners, and our graduate students on taught courses have done well too. There are always going to be cases where an individual’s result seems like an unfair reflection of her or his work over the full course, and then there are appeals to be launched, papers to be re-sat or re-examined. It is an important part of the College’s duty of care to all our students to ensure that special circumstances like ill health have been taken into proper account. These are difficult times for the disappointed few. But I am looking forward to celebrating the successes, on our web site and at the many degree days that are scattered through the year (again in contrast to the single huge celebration of Commencement that marks the culmination of the academic year in American institutions.) Most of all, I look forward to welcoming back in future the many Somervillians who have told me how much the College means to them as they move on to the next stage of their lives.

We brace ourselves next for A-level results. Our new Senior Tutor Steve Rayner, well equipped for the task by years of experience at Durham University, expects a week or more of hard labour as his office sorts through the news from candidates whose offer of a place for next term depends on at least three As in their A-levels.  This is not the place for in-depth reflection on the way British students’ life choices depend so heavily on examinations. Nor do I wish to trespass on a field tilled by so many experts with years of experience. But as I prepare for my second year as Principal of Somerville, I don’t want to leave behind the insights and questions that come with being new in the job. Somewhere in between the risks of bias and unfairness associated with continuous assessment in the North American system and the risk of unfairness that goes with the British dependence on just a few days of make-or-break exams, there has to be an ideal way to satisfy our expectations of rigour and fair assessment.

…and a summer break

Frank and I have just returned from our first ever cruise, a week on the Queen Elizabeth touring the Norwegian fjords. It was a week truly away from work for both of us, and a great way to recharge our batteries: plenty of fresh clean air, resplendent scenery and of course, abundance of good food. (I can see that from now on, August will have to be the month for dieting. No hope of success in that department once the Oxford academic year begins with its extraordinary round of hospitality.) I wish we had had more time to get to know Norway. The little time we spent ashore was coloured with the poignancy of the dreadful slaughter in Oslo and on Outoya Island just a week before. At each stop, the paving stones in front of the local church were blanketed with flowers. In the lovely medieval cathedral in Stavanger, two lines of people waited silently to sign books of condolences, and candles burned on stands around the nave and aisles. The main art gallery in Bergen contained work by some artists neither of us had heard of. (Time and again one is reminded of how strongly nationality influences the international appreciation of artists whose work has barely passed beyond their country’s borders). The coolness –not to say gloom — of Edvard Munch and his contemporaries seemed to reflect the underlying sorrow beyond the walls of the gallery; but then it burst into brightness and gaiety in works painted by Norwegian artists when they visited France and Italy. I can’t decide whether that perception should support or refute a belief in the existence of national characteristics.

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